|"Leos Janacek relief" by Michal Maňas - Own work.
Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
By Stuart Leeks
Courtesy of Opera North
Janáček was born in 1854 and early in life seemed destined to be a schoolmaster-musician as his father and grandfather had been. Indeed, up until 1904, when he retired early to devote himself fully to composition, that’s what he was. But even during this period he was something more: a vigorous, energizing presence in the musical and cultural life of Brno, the Moravian capital where he taught. He organized and conducted concerts, he founded an organ school, and he was an enthusiastic supporter of the small Provisional Theatre in Brno when it opened in 1884 to stage plays and operas in Czech. His reviews of performances there were published in a musical journal he founded, and it was around this time that he began to think of composing opera himself. He was well read and developed a taste for Russian literature that manifested itself much later in his life in two operas based on Russian texts: Ostrovsky’s play The Storm (Kátya Kabanová) and Dostoevsky’s prison journal, From the House of the Dead. He even formed a Russian club in Brno after visiting that country in 1896.
Janáček began to compose his first opera in 1887, but for years struggled to find his dramatic voice. His difficulties in his early operas can be only partly attributed to his diverse and sometimes unlikely choice of subjects, since the subjects of his mature operas are just as diverse and unlikely. Part of his problem was Smetana. A Czech composer who didn’t follow the operatic pattern set by his venerable countryman was deemed worthy of little consideration, so it is unsurprising that Janáček’s first opera, Šárka, has much in common with Smetana’s “serious” style and little evidence of his own highly distinctive voice.
His next attempt, The Beginning of a Romance (1891), was poles apart from the grandiosity of Šárka, composed as it was under the influence of Smetana in “village comedy” mode and, more importantly, the Moravian folk songs Janáček had collected on field trips to his native region in the late 1880s. It points the way to his first great opera, Jenůfa, but suffers from a lack of real dramatic interest. Neither the semi-autobiographical Osud (composed 1903-07) nor the satirical opera The Excursions of Mr. Brouček (which was begun in 1908 but which wasn’t to find its final form for another ten years) was successful. Even Jenůfa had taken Janáček a decade to knock into its final shape. It premiered in Brno in 1904 but was turned down by the Chief Conductor of the National Theatre in Prague, thus denying Janáček a foothold on the international stage.
So what changed? What, after more than twenty years of struggle with this seemingly intractable artform, enabled Janáček to pour forth in the remaining eight years of his life four of the most original, diverse, and theatrically effective operas to find a place in the repertoire?
There were two major factors. One was the confidence bred of success. In 1916 a remarkably tenacious campaign by some of Janáček’s supporters succeeded in securing Jenůfa a Prague premiere, where it was readily embraced by an enthusiastic public. Now the influential Viennese music publisher Universal Edition took an interest and secured the foreign language rights to Janáček’s operas, and thus they began to be performed at houses throughout Europe.
The other factor was personal. Janáček’s marriage to Zdenka Schulzová, his former piano pupil, was not happy. The early deaths of both their children (their son at age two, their daughter at twenty), couldn’t have helped. In 1917 he met Kamila Stösslová, thirty-eight years his junior and married with two young children, at a Moravian spa town. He fell deeply in love with her, or at least with an idea of her, for their ensuing largely one-sided relationship was conducted mainly through correspondence. She became his muse, and the female leads in his next three operas all owe something to her. The Janáček scholar John Tyrrell has written: “All three reflected the changing aspects of his love for Kamila Stösslová, from wishful thinking in Kátya (the married woman who has an affair in her husband’s absence) or The Cunning Little Vixen (portrayed as a contented, resourceful, and ultimately self-sacrificing wife and mother) to resignation in the The Makropulos Affair, in which the central character is a glamorous 300-year-old woman who captivates all about her but who is herself ‘as cold as ice’.” Janáček’s passion for Kamila remained undimmed until his death in 1928 although she seemed content to keep him at a safe distance.
The four operas of Janáček’s final years, beginning with Kátya Kabanová in 1921, demonstrate the particular nature of his operatic achievement. His musical language is appealingly modern and not alienating. It is basically tonal (although dissonance has its place), rhythmically robust, and capable of a glowing lyricism – especially notable in Kátya. However this lyricism is usually to be found in the orchestra rather than with the singers, for the vocal line is the preserve of what Janáček termed “speech melody,” his project to render in music the “melodic curves and contours of human speech.” Desmond Shawe-Taylor, reviewing the British premiere of Kátya at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in 1951, wrote of, “a kind of intimate eloquence which is the opposite of
rhetoric: Janáček is like those rare people whose unselfconscious
honesty of mind makes us ashamed of exaggeration or pretence. The most
striking thing about Kátya is not the unusual technique, but the undiluted strength and purity of its human feeling.”
Janáček’s unconventional choice of dramatic material is the product of an inquisitive mind, and his somewhat terse, gruff personality seems to find expression in a dramaturgy that is distinguished by its concision. He followed his instincts, constructing his own libretti from the source material for all of the final four operas, and his instincts were sure. It is not perhaps surprising that each of these four, composed by a man in his sixties and seventies, confronts the fact of mortality. What is remarkable is the courage, the compassion, the absence of sentimentality, and the profound wisdom with which they do so.