Czechs in History – Leoš Janáček

A bust of Janáček displayed at  the former organ school in Brno
A bust of Janáček displayed at the former organ school in Brno

Music for the People, from the People

Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) is widely considered to be one of the most important and influential Czech composers of the early 20th century. His compositions, which were considered progressive by the standards of the day, focused on real human struggles and emotions rather than romanticized images. He used tones, melodies and voice inflections from the people of the Wallachian region, where he was born, as the primary inspiration for his musical style.

Janáček’s life was difficult and full of paradoxes and passions; the man himself was as complex as his music and just as difficult to define concisely. Beyond his musical talents for playing the organ, piano and composing; he was a passionate folklorist, Russophile, teacher, supporter of human causes and something of a workaholic.

The Beskydy mountains near Hukvaldy, where Janáček was born and took much of his musical influence from.
The Beskydy mountains near Hukvaldy, where Janáček was born and took much of his musical influence from.

A Struggle from the Start

Born the ninth of thirteen children to the local schoolmaster of the village of Hukvaldy in North Moravia, Leoš Janáček knew poverty and deprivation from his first breath. Four of his siblings died in childhood and his father passed away in 1866, when Janáček was around 12 years old.

While his father did want Leoš to become a teacher and follow in the family vocational tradition, his son’s clear talent for music was not lost on him and he ultimately decided in 1865 to place his son under the care of the Abbey of St. Thomas in Brno where he could study music properly. The abbey imposed a very strict schedule upon its students and, while it did not make life easy for him, it did instill a strong work ethic in the young Leoš which stayed with him for the entirely of his life.

The Janáčeks' home in Brno. Preserved and serving as a memorial to the man and his life today.
The Janáčeks’ home in Brno. Preserved and serving today as a memorial to the man and his life.

After he concluded his studies in the abbey, Janáček relocated to Prague to study for a two year period at an organ school. Poverty followed him to Prague, he had no piano in his dormitory room to practice with and no money with which to purchase one; as such, he made do with a piano keyboard drawn on a table top. In 1875, Leoš graduated at the top of his class and returned to Brno to take up a career in music teaching.

Leoš met his future wife, Zdenka, while working as a music instructor. She was not only one of his students, but also the daughter of his employer. They met in 1876 and were married in 1881.

During this period, Janáček spend a brief time studying at the conservatories in Leipzig and Vienna. However, he was not happy in either place due in part to their adherence to traditional, Romantic styles of composition and how they conflicted with his own emerging Slavic influenced style.

Janáček's piano, on which he composed much of his work, is preserved in his home in Brno.
Janáček’s piano, on which he composed much of his work, is preserved in his home in Brno.

Triumph and Turmoil

As a professional composer, Janáček remained largely unknown outside of his native Moravia during his younger years. His unorthodox style and open criticism of Romantic influenced composition sensibilities of the day did make it very challenging for him to find influential conductors and theatre directors who were willing to stage performances of his work.

Of particular significance in this regard is his opera “Janůfa”, which he completed in 1904. It was a passionate work which in part reflected his experience of seeing his daughter, Olga, die in 1903 after a lengthy illness. Leoš finished the opera and dedicated it to his daughter’s memory; it opened to respectable success when it premiered in Brno.

Success at home did not translate into success further afield. Janáček presented the opera to the National Theatre in Prague but was refused. It did not help his cause that the director of the National Theatre of the time, Karel Kovařovic, and Janáček had mutual dislike of each other both personally and professionally. It would not be until 1916, after Kovařic extensively rewrote the musical score to the piece, that “Janůfa” was accepted by the National Theatre for performance. Janáček unhappily accepted this compromise.

The opera was a resounding success in Prague and not only gave Leoš the wider audience he desired, but also a much needed boost to his personal morale which had suffered greatly at the lengthy refusal of “Janůfa” by Kovařovic.

The Janáček Theatre; the Brno branch of the National Theatre.
The Janáček Theatre; the Brno branch of the National Theatre.

Though he was in his sixties by this time, he was enjoying is new found popularity and composed quite prolifically in this period as a result.

Success did not, however, come without a price. In 1916, Leoš had a brief affair which effectively destroyed his marriage when Zdenka learned of it. Leoš and Zdenka avoided public scandal through an informal divorce arrangement and continued living separate lives under the same roof until his death.

Not all of the composer’s passions came out in music. With his marriage to Zdenka over; he began a very passionate two year correspondence in 1917 to Kamila Stosslova, a married woman nearly 40 years his junior. The passion was quite one sided and obsessive on Janáček’s part as Stosslova never truly reciprocated it in her letters to him. In spite of her clear ambivalence to his passions, Stosslova was a significant inspiration to Janáček’s later works.

Leoš Janáček died in hospital in the northern city of Ostrava after taking ill during a visit to his birth region in 1928. He is buried in Brno’s central cemetery.

The distinctive statues which mark the entry to the Janáček Academy of Performing and Musical Arts in the centre of Brno.
The distinctive statues which mark the entry to the Janáček Academy of Performing and Musical Arts in the centre of Brno.

The Janáček Legacy

An extensive and broad ranging catalog of compositions covering operatic, orchestral, vocal, choral, chamber and instrumental genres is only one part of the legacy Janáček left behind.

Artistically, he pushed stylistic boundaries and could be considered among the Avant-Garde of his day. By infusing folk music and voice inflections into his compositions, he brought music and the common people much closer together.

Culturally, he was instrumental in bringing Slavic influences to classical music. He was immensely proud of his Slavic roots and alongside his contemporaries, Antonín Dvořák and Bedřich Smetana, created a unique sound which is closely tied to the desire for independent statehood and self determination prevalent in Austro-Hungarian ruled Czechoslovakia prior to the end of the First World War.

Learning More

If you wish to learn more about Leoš Janáček and happen to be in Brno, a visit to his former residence should certainly be on your itinerary. Here you will see examples of his composition sheets, his preserved work area and an audio visual presentation about him.

The facility belongs to the Moravian Regional Museum and can be reached through this link:

http://www.mzm.cz/en/leos-janacek-memorial/

His birth home in Hukvaldy also serves as a museum dedicated to him.

Two annual international music festivals bearing his name take place in the Czech Republic:

In Hukvaldy:  http://www.janackovyhukvaldy.cz/en/festival/

In Brno:  http://janacek-brno.cz/en/

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