Leoš Janáček

Leoš Janáček was born on 3 July 1854 in Hukvaldy, Moravia, into the family of the teacher Jiří Janáček. In 1865 he became a fundatist (a pupil whose study was aided from monastery bequests) of the Augustinian Monastery in Old Brno and, accordingly, a choirboy at the Our Lady of the Assumption Basilica, headed by the priest Pavel Křížkovský (1820–1885), a significant figure in Moravian cultural and social life. There Janáček was taught not only the humanities but also gained a theoretical and practical music education. Subsequently, he studied at the Realschule and training school, thereby linking up to the family’s pedagogical tradition. On 25 November 1872 he was appointed assistant teacher at the institute. Around this time, he also became an assistant to Křížkovský in the post of director of the choir in Old Brno. Janáček further extended his education by studying Czech language and literature at the Moravian Provincial Academy and by 18 November 1874 he could already teach Czech, history and geography at primary schools. In the same year, thanks to Křížkovský’s recommendation, he became a pupil of František Zdeněk Skuherský (1830–1892) at the organ school in Prague. He graduated from there on 23 July 1875 with a performance of his own composition Chorale Fantasia for Organ and on 7 November in Prague passed cum laude state exams in choral singing, piano and organ for secondary schools and training colleges. Naturally, the education he had acquired improved Janáček’s position at Brno’s training college. In 1878 he also passed a state exam in violin and the following year was appointed a fully-fledged music teacher, which ensured his fi nancial security until his retirement in 1904. On 3 February 1876 he was elected to the prestigious post of choirmaster of the Brno Beseda Philharmonic Association, with which he performed a number of significant music works (Mozart: Requiem, Beethoven: Missa solemnis, Dvořák: Stabat Mater, etc.). In September 1879 he left for Leipzig to study at the local conservatory. In the winter of 1880 he composed there Thema con variazioni (Zděnka Variations) for piano and designated it his first opus. The title Zdeňka Variations refers to Janáček’s emotional attachment to his pupil Zdeňka Schulzová, with whom he maintained an extensive correspondence while in Leipzig. On 13 July 1881 their relationship culminated in marriage which, notwithstanding various difficulties, the death of their two children and mutual estrangement, lasted until the Master’s death. His stay in Leipzig broadened Janáček’s horizons as regards knowledge of music, aesthetics and music history. In the same year, he also went to Vienna to study at the local conservatory. However, due to differences of opinion with his pedagogues when it came to art, he did not stay long. Nevertheless, he gained new knowledge, both as a result of his studies and his visiting concerts and opera performances. In Vienna Janáček rounded off his formal education. He duly arrived at the conclusion that as a composer and pedagogue he had to set forth on a new path. Another significant milestone was his being appointed director of the organ school in Brno on 7 December 1881. He executed this function until 1919, when he became director of the newly established Brno Conservatory. Yet he only remained in this post until 1920, when he was appointed professor of the Master School of Composition at the Prague Conservatory with operation in Brno. In the 1870s Janáček was already a distinguished personality of Brno cultural life. At first, he mainly devoted to pedagogical, organisational and interpretational activities for which he was accorded considerable recognition. Over the course of time, high esteem was also earned by his composing work, owing to which he in mature age became an outstanding global phenomenon of 20th-century music. Janáček’s compositions date back to the early 1870s, most of them being choruses (Ploughing, The Enforced Bridegroom, War Song, etc.). From the end of the 1880s Janáček intensively concentrated on Moravian folklore – folk songs and dances – and thereby following in the footsteps of his teacher Pavel Křížkovský and the founder of Moravian folklore studies, František Sušil (1804–1868). Collection of and theoretical research into folk music markedly reflected in Janáček’s compositional work. It had the strongest influence on his Lachian Dances and song collections (Hukvaldy Folk Poetry in Songs, Moravian Folk Poetry in Songs, Nursery Rhymes, etc.), yet traces are also evident in his early operas. Besides collecting folk songs, Janáček also recorded so-called speech tunelets, which interested him as a musically graspable manifestation of the human psyche with its own dynamics, timbre, height, rhythm, tempo. His interest became a source of inspiration and clarifi cation of creative principles, not a building block. In 1887 Janáček composed the first version of his first opera, Šárka, to the libretto of Julius Zeyer (1841-1901). Although he still worked on it in 1888, he would have to wait until 1925 to see it performed. Another attempt at creating an opera was The Beginning of a Romance (1891), a musically indistinctive work with a naive theme based on the short story by Gabriela Preissová (1862-1946). Later on, however, she would provide him with the material for another, this time groundbreaking, opera, perhaps Janáček’s most popular, Jenůfa. Janáček was composing the work from 1894 to 1903, revising it up until 1908. However, in 1916 it underwent a number of further modifications at the hand of the conductor and head of the Opera of Prague’s National Theatre Karel Kovařovic which are commonly used up to the present day alongside the original, reconstructed Janáček version. The triumphant staging of Jenůfa on 26 May 1916 at the National Theatre confirmed Janáček’s mastery. A year later, the score and piano score with the German translation by Max Brod (1884-1968) was published by Vienna’s Universal Edition, which became Janáček’s court publishing house. The gates to the world opened up to Janáček with the premiere of Jenůfa at Vienna’s Court Opera on 16 February 1918. It was soon performed in Berlin, New York, etc. His next opera, The Fate, confirmed Janáček’s new musical style, despite the fact that its unsuccessful libretto has ever since its origination made it of marginal interest. The Fate was only given its first staging thirty years after the composer’s death, at Brno’s State Theatre. Following Jenůfa and The Fate, Janáček sought a theme for a new opera, apparently without having a specific idea in mind. He considered, for example, Stroupežnický’s Mrs Mintmaster and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Finally, in 1908, he remembered Svatopluk Čech’s book The True Excursion of Mr Brouček to the Moon, which had been serialised in the music journal Hudební listy years before. Owing to delays with the origination of the libretto, which was written by several authors, the opera was only completed in 1917. At the time, Janáček also composed The Excursion of Mr Brouček to the 15th Century and combined the two parts into The Excursions of Mr Brouček. From this work onwards, Janáček selected the themes of his operas with certainty. All the subsequent operas are connected by the theme of the individual and society, the relationship to a higher order, human values and emphasis on human individuality and its emotionalism. In the 1920s, towards the end of his life, Janáček created his paramount works: Katya Kabanova, The Cunning Little Vixen, The Makropulos Case and From the House of the Dead. All these operas emanate Janáček’s remarkable dramatic sense, as well as his empathy with the characters and their fates, which he succeeded in putting into his scores. Although these are the works of a septuagenarian, gushing out of them is the energy of youth, amorous feeling and admiration for life. (Janáček was a man with strong emotions and the need to feel love. After he and his wife became estranged, he had several lady-friends, with his emotional and artistic life being most affected by Kamila Stösslová, whom he met in 1917 and remained friends with until his death.) After years of seeking, Janáček arrived at an original musical language which addresses spectators and listeners worldwide. Besides operas, Leoš Janáček wrote numerous chamber compositions (String quartet „Inspired by Tolstoy‘s The Kreutzer Sonata“, Concertino, the wind sextet Youth, String Quartet „Intimate Letters“, etc.), piano works (On An Overgrown Path, In the Mists, etc.), vocal compositions (The Eternal Gospel, The Diary of One Who Disappeared, Amarus, Glagolitic Mass, etc.) and symphonic pieces (Sinfonietta, Taras Bulba, Danube etc.). The life of the Moravian genius came to an end on 12 August 1928 in the Ostrava sanatorium to which he had been transferred from his native Hukvaldy after a cold developed into pneumonia. Janáček’s funeral procession set out on 15 August 1928 from Brno’s Theatre On The Ramparts (today’s Mahen Theatre), where most of his operas had been premiered. He is buried in the circle of honorary graves at the Central Cemetery in Brno.

Beno Blachut, Jr


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