Thomas J. Pniewski is director of cutural affairs at the Kosciuszko Foundation in New York City.
One of the most surprising figures of twentieth-century music is the Czech composer Leos Janacek. At the 1916 premiere of his opera Jenufa in Prague, he was known--if at all--as a friendly teacher, organist, and choir director in Brno. The Prague audience was pleased by the unconventional music and awaited the bow of the young composer--and was astonished when a 62-year-old with a bush of gray hair appeared on the stage.
It was the beginning of a brilliant but brief career, stamped by a nearly mystical nationalism and inner discipline. Janacek produced a series of large-scaled musical masterpieces in a career essentially compressed into a dozen years. Born 150 years ago, Janacek worked long and hard, in obscurity for decades, before winning his rightful place alongside Dvorak and Smetana as a master creator of Czech music.
Janacek's home background would seem to have prepared him more for a career as a town musician than a major composer. The ninth of thirteen children, he was born on July 3, 1854, in the village of Hukvaldy to poor schoolteacher parents. His father taught him voice and piano, and, at ten years of age, he was sent to a monastery in Brno, the region's second-largest city, 150 miles from Prague. There he sang in the choir while acquiring his basic education. In his teens, when his voice changed and he left the monastery, he went to study for two years at the Prague Organ School. It was about this time that he met Dvorak, the preeminent figure in Czech music, who encouraged the young composer of some short organ and choir pieces. He spent a year of rigorous composition classes in Leipzig and a few months at the Vienna Conservatory before returning to Brno, where he would make his home for the rest of his life.
In 1881, he married one of his pupils, Zdenka Schulzova, only 15 years old at the time. Their marriage was not to be a happy one, and both their children died young. (This would doubtless be a factor in Janacek's late-life affair with Kamila Stasslova).
Janacek's Czechoslovakia, and the region of Moravia, was a part of the Austro- Hungarian empire, whose capital was the Vienna of Emperor Franz Josef (1830-1916). Franz Josef was crowned in 1848, the very year when revolutions rocked much of Europe; he saw the empire lose its holdings …