Leos Janacek: A Master Czech Composer

By Pniewski, Thomas J. | The World and I, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Leos Janacek: A Master Czech Composer


Pniewski, Thomas J., The World and I


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 in Germany and Italy, and was determined to strengthen his control over what remained. German was the official language of government, higher education, and serious publishing, and political activism was suppressed. Nevertheless, the emperor was forced to make concessions to avoid bloody confrontations.

In the 1880s, the Czech language was introduced into schools, and the first national theater and museum were built. Franz Josef's own son, the Crown Prince Rudolf, was a liberal intent on modernizing the empire and who wrote activist newspaper articles under a pen name. Hopes for liberalization died, however, when Rudolf killed his young mistress and himself at Mayerling in 1889. Thereafter, only troubles beset Franz Josef as the empire unraveled. His wife was assassinated in 1897, and the remaining heir to the throne, Archduke Ferdinand, was assassinated in 1914, precipitating World War I. Franz Josef died in 1916, having outlived them all to witness the end of an era.

Janacek was an ardent nationalist, devoted to his language and culture, although an opposition to the empire's restrictions expressed itself in an interest in Russian music and literature. He had a familiarity with Western European music from his training as an organist and choir director, and from his regular opera reviews in Hudebni Listy, a music journal he founded. A colleague introduced him to Moravian folk music, and Janacek became fascinated with its melodies and language. Like Bartok--but decades earlier--he set about collecting and studying folk music, and began carrying a notebook in which he notated and analyzed the rhythms and inflections of Moravian peasant speech. …

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