Visit us > Leoš Janáček Memorial > Leoš Janáček

Leoš Janáček

Leoš Janáček is today one of the best-known figures in Czech music the world over. His works are thought-provoking as well as being an object of admiration. The listener is compelled by his thematic contrasts and by the whole of his creative development, in which he soon overstepped the bounds of traditional thought and established ideas on the art of music. He had found his "musical expression in composition", today admired by the whole world, and in it he achieved an inimitable originality. His music resounds with life and all its beauties and marvels; evil, grief, joy, compassion, strife and reconciliation; it echoes with humane love. The music is his, it is his nation's, it belongs to the people, to the world. It grew out of the fertile soil of his Lachian home. He was born on 3rd July, 1854, in Hukvaldy by Příbor, a small village below the ruins of a castle of the same name. He was the ninth of the thirteen children of Jiří and Amálie Janáček. Since his father - like his grandfather - was a schoolmaster, he was born in, and spent, literally, the first years of his life in the local school. The Hukvaldy school, situated in the former icehouse of the feudal landlord, was cold and damp, and the schoolteacher's family was crammed into a single room. In these insalubrious surroundings four of the Janáček children died, and in 1866 the composer's father also became a victim of the harsh living conditions with his premature death. In 1865, at the age of eleven, Janáček came to Brno to study. His father sent him to a foundation of the monastery of Old Brno which took poor but musically gifted boys and trained them in music, so that they could take part not only in the monastery's productions but also in concerts. The monastery provided the foundation scholars, known in Brno as "blue boys" because of their uniforms, with bed and board. Books, fees and all other expenses had to be met by the pupils themselves. Their timetable was strict, but thanks to this Janáček became accustomed to working discipline from an early age; the effects stayed with him for the rest of his life, for he was diligent and assiduous. At the foundation the fact that Janáček acquired a practical knowledge of musicianship was mainly due to the efforts of his teacher, the prominent choral composer Pavel Křížkovský, who nourished Janáček's talent. The roots of Janáček's Slavonic orientation can also be found in the earliest period of his life , when his "own world was being formed", which he fought his way through with much toil and trouble, and where he soon met with social injustice, but in which he grew into a conscious and aware person. He was aware of the isolation of Czech cultural life in Brno, and in his Slavism he found recourse from the world around, and set out on the path to his later Russophilism. After matriculating at the pedagogical institute, he tried to get the best possible musical education; he successfully completed two years' work in one at the Skuherský organ school in Prague, and with ambitious zest studied at the Leipzig and Vienna conservatories. Though he still loved his native Hukvaldy, his entire activity was centred on Brno. Here he gave himself over to pedagogical work. He became a music teacher at the pedagogical institute, and founded an organ school. He acquired experience as a choirmaster of the Svatopluk Guild, and further extended it in the Philharmonic Society of the Brno Guilds Association, where he built up the great tradition of that musical body. He was a cofounder of the Russian Circle and the Friends of Art Club in Brno; he was also Conservator of the museum. He edited the magazine Hudební Listy (Musical Folia), was musical editor of Moravské listy (Moravian Folia), contributed to Lidové Noviny (People's News), and published theoretical studies and articles. He wrote down, collected and harmonized folk songs and dances. He took a psychological interest in studying and recording common speech - his Melodies of Speech, which he studied not only for their musical content, but with an eye for all which might affect the speaker: environment, age, experience of life, grief, joy, a hard life. "Each spoken word has a piece of life attached to it" he And he composed. "Teaching thirty; thirty-five, or even forty hours a week, conducting the singers, presenting concerts, leading the Queen's Cloister choir; at the same time composing Jenufa, getting married, losing, children - one had to forget about oneself." But in private Janáček never lost interest in mankind, was unable to be indifferent to the human plight, to pain and injustice. When in October 1905 the worker František Pavlík was killed during a demonstration for the establishment of a Czech university in Brno, Janáček, moved by this event, wrote the piano sonata "From the Street - 1/X/1905", in which he expressed his solidarity with those who were fighting for their rights. "The white marble of the steps of the Brno Guildhall - here the bloodied worker František Pavlík falls - he came only to protest about university teaching, and was struck down by brutal murderers ..." From the Silesian Songs of Petr Bezruč he chose three poems - Maryčka Magdónova, Schoolmaster Halfar and Seventy Thousand, and set them to music as a protest against social and national oppression. "Your words came as if summoned, and I provided them with a tone storm of wrath, desperation and pain" he later wrote to Bezruč. But for many years Janáček remained a composer whose creative activity could be followed only by the Brno public. At first he lacked the necessary contact with the musical life of Prague, and the performance of his works in Brno, whatever the enthusiasm and love with which they were prepared, usually fell short of the standard necessary for him to put the results of his work fully to the test. The opera "Jenufa" was nearly nine years (1894-1903) in the making, inspired by Gabriela Preissová's play of the same name. At that time he sought "his own musical expression in composition", studied the melodies of speech, worked long hours on the opera, and finished it under extremely tragic circumstances, when his young daughter Olga was dying. The later fate of the opera was also dramatic. Because the Prague National Theatre refused to produce it, Janáček had to be satisfied with a Brno production (Jan. 2lst, 1904), produced on a shoestring by the conductor C. M. Hrazdira. The head of the opera section of the Prague National Theatre refused the work for twelve years; when, finally, and thanks to the considerable efforts of Janáček's friends, he decided to produce the opera, he did so splendidly, and thus at least partly compensated Janáček for his undeserved disappointment during the most painful years of his life. For up to the time of the Prague premier of Jenufa (1916), Janáček was able to rely on the artistic support only of Ferdinand Vach and his Moravian Teachers' Song Group, which masterfully rendered Janáček's choral works in concerts both at home and abroad, and of a few of his most faithful friends, who helped to propagate his works. At sixty-two, Janáček, encouraged by his Prague success, for the first time really began to compose. He wrote one work after another, at tremendous speed, but always personal and original. After the success against the odds which Jenufa brought, he finished the opera "The Excursions of Mr. Brouček", in which he poked fun at the triviality of the bourgeois character. In the opera "Katja Kabanová", based on a play by Ostrovsky, he gave expression to Katja's lyrical world, to the ardour and tragedy of her love, to her frankness, and to the contrasting hypocrisy of society, which drove her to suicide. The opera "The Cunning Little Vixen", after Rudolf Těsnohlídek, is attractive in the unusualness of its theme and the humane philosophy of life. The inspiration for "The Makropulos Case" came from Karel Čapek's sparkling conversational play, in which the composer uncovered a deeply human basis. Janáček's creative development was crowned by his final opera "From the House of the Dead", a work which combines a deeply tragic theme with a highly adventurous composition: the opera has no main characters, but Janáček transformed Dostoevsky's desperately oppressive world into a disquieting collective drama that is perhaps without parallel. Notable among the chamber compositions are the two piano cycles "On the Overgrown Path" and "In the Mists", the cantata for chamber orchestra "The Diary of One Who Vanished", the two string quartets, the First "Inspired by Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata" and the Second "Intimate letters", the Concertino, the Capriccio, and the sextet for wind instruments "Youth". Of the symphonic works the most outstanding are the "Lachian Dances" and the rhapsody "Taras Bulba", the most beautiful legacy of Janáček's Russophilism. In "The Fiddler's Child" the contributes to a social theme, while in the "Ballad of Blaník" he expresses his joy at the emergence of the republic. "The Glagolitic Mass", written to a Old Slavonic text, shows up best his Slavism, his temperament, and his faith in human life. "A blare of victorious trumpets" opens and concludes his "Sinfonietta", a composition which, unlike the others, was not based on any work of literature, but which took its inspiration from Janáček's ties with and love for the town of Brno, where he spent his youth, where he rose in artistic stature up to his final victory, a whole sixty-three years of his life. The last years of Janáček's life were imbued with a fever of creative activity, a vitality, and a sense of happiness; he received public acclaim, was nominated the first honorary doctor of Brno University, Professor at the Prague Conservatoire; his organ school was also made into a conservatoire, his works came to be known abroad. He was granted the satisfaction of seeing his work appreciated. He died unexpectedly, in the midst of his work of correcting the proofs of his last opera, "From the House of the Dead", on l2th August, 1928, in the sanatorium at Ostrava, where he had been taken in a fever from his native Hukvaldy. Even today the world may find originality of thought, a sense of the dramatic, and new values in Janáček's work. And the stimulus which the interpretational challenge of his works gives ensures that his creative legacy will live on, and that his name will not be without honour. 


Author: Svatava Přibáňová