Paul Mitchinson is a part-time writer and a full-time father of two. He writes when he can. » more about me

Searching for Janacek

Andante.com, January 2003

“Janá?ek rules.” The judgement was pronounced in early 2003 by New York Times chief music critic Anthony Tommasini—but opera audiences needn’t take his word for it; they have had plenty of recent opportunities to judge for themselves. In the past year alone, high-profile productions of Leoš Janá?ek’s operas have been staged in San Francisco and New York. The Finnish soprano Karita Mattila has been making a fine living singing almost exclusively in Czech. And in the UK, Janá?ek has become inescapable. Garsington Opera staged a Janá?ek double bill last summer, combining two of the composer’s shorter works, Šarka and Osud. Two other companies are currently performing The Cunning Little Vixen.

But head down to your local bookstore, and the picture is very different. You’ll still have a hard time finding anything to read about a composer whose broad operatic vision included everything from singing foxes to baby-killers. More than two decades have passed since Jaroslav Vogel’s classic (revised) biography was released in English, and much new information has come to light since. With the sesquicentennial of Janá?ek’s birth almost upon us (Janá?ek was born in 1854) there are signs that publishers are finally beginning to take notice. If we’re lucky, Mirka Zemanová’s brief survey of Janá?ek’s life is only the first ripple of a wave of Janá?ekiana about to flood the market in 2004.

Zemanová, a Czech musicologist living in London, shows why Janá?ek’s excellence has taken so long to be recognized. For much of his career Janá?ek shared the fate of most composers working outside the main urban centers of Europe. They were cast as “provincials,” composers who provided some local musical color, but who could never be considered in the same league as the towering masters of German music. Janá?ek suffered more than most from this prejudice. Born in the tiny hamlet of Hukvaldy in the Central European province of Moravia, he was provincial even by provincial standards. Inevitably, he rebelled against this enforced peripheral status, channeling his ambition through the Czech nationalist movement, whose ranks already included Antonin Dvorák, thirteen years his senior.

But where Dvorák took inspiration from his native Bohemia, Janá?ek was raised in neighboring Moravia. It’s a distinction that non-European readers are likely to gloss over, and Zemanová is right to insist on it. For ears accustomed to the melodic and rhythmic regularities of Bohemian (and Western European) melodies, eastern Moravian music sounds strange – it is more complex, more rhythmically irregular, with modal harmonies that sound vaguely “eastern.” But Zemanová is weak in explaining how Moravian folk music specifically influenced and was transformed by Janá?ek. (At one point, Zemanová writes an intriguing paragraph summary of a “typical” Moravian folk ensemble – then consigns it to an endnote.)

Janá?ek’s nationalism also had its dark side. While the composer was fond of broad appeals to Czech nationalism – “Let us be ourselves in music, too,” he once announced – he coupled this with anti-German bigotry. Given the Hapsburg empire’s tireless efforts to stamp out Czech literary culture, Janá?ek’s antipathy towards German culture was understandable. But it found expression in some rather troubling ways. He forbade his fifteen-year-old fiancée Zdenka Schulz from speaking or writing German, though her parents rarely spoke anything else at home. He refused to ride the German-owned trams in his home town of Brno. And he was a lifelong admirer of Russia, whose literature and poetry inspired many of his greatest works. “Now I am jubilant,” he wrote during an 1896 visit to Russia. “I shake off slavery. Russia, here I come!” It seems not to have occurred to Janá?ek that Russia was never a friend to nationalist movements – least of all Slavic ones. Just ask the Poles and Ukrainians.

But while his politics might have been appallingly naïve, his music was startlingly accomplished.  Trained in the vocal arts, Janá?ek paid careful attention to the sounds and inflections of the human voice. Janá?ek’s notion of “speech melody” embodied his belief that the “melodic rise and fall and the rhythmic fluctuations of everyday speech reveal our emotions and states of mind.” In his thirties, he began carrying a notebook, carefully notating overheard conversations and inanimate sounds. Nothing was beneath his notice – he recorded the cries of mental patients, the shrieks of birds and forest animals, and even the final words of his dying twenty-year-old daughter Olga. “Sounds, the intonation of human speech, indeed of every living being, have always had for me the deepest truth,” he told a Prague journalist in 1928.

He then transformed these raw materials into music of uncommon power, as today’s audiences have come to appreciate. But recognition of his achievement came only in the twilight of Janá?ek’s long life. It would be tempting to pass this off as another example of a great artist misunderstood in his own time, but the truth, as Zemanová makes clear, is a little messier. Janá?ek, it turns out, was his own worst enemy. He waited until he had completed writing Šarka before asking permission to use (and alter) the original text of Julius Zeyer’s “music drama.” (Zeyer, who had hoped Dvorák would be interested in his work, turned down Janá?ek’s request.) Other operas were rejected for performance by musicians that Janá?ek had savaged in his critical reviews. As a result, he was white-haired and in his sixties before his name finally burst on the international scene with performances of Jen?fa in Prague in 1916, and later (translated into German) in Vienna and Berlin. Janá?ek swallowed his anti-German antipathy in order to earn the recognition of German audiences.

Zemanová clearly sympathizes with her subject. Many readers of her book will likely be less generous. Janá?ek’s behavior towards his wife was particularly odious. He once confided to a friend that he was hoping to tell the story of an oppressed women in his opera Kat’á Kabanová. “He did not have to look far,” the friend later observed. Janá?ek’s extraordinary and unrelenting cruelty to his own wife is peppered throughout the book’s narrative. The composer refused to allow Zdenka’s widowed father to live with the couple. As Janá?ek wrote in one letter, “I would explode [if he were to move in], incensed, I would be angry, unbearable. . . . This is not about her father: it’s about me, my whole being, my entire activities, my work, all my scant happiness.” Even in his final years Janá?ek deliberately tormented his long-suffering wife with his many extra-marital passions. “Have you told your husband that you love me?” he asked Kamila Stösslová, his late-life muse. “Zd[enka] knows that I love you, and that I will love you till the end of my life.”

But although Zemanová carefully chronicles Janá?ek’s seemingly limitless capacity for creating domestic hell, she rarely passes judgement on him. He was “capable of emotional cruelty” she quietly acknowledges in her introduction. But Zdenka, she offers by way of explanation, was “not always appreciative of Janá?ek’s music.” Later in the book, she suggests that sympathy for Zdenka might be misplaced. Why? Because Zdenka made catty comments about her husband’s love interest of the moment. The author seems to share the judgement of one of Janá?ek’s friends, who suggested that his “contribution to the arts is so great that it outweighs any flaws in his character.” But the premise is misguided: great art never “outweighs” bad behavior, even if it remains great art.

Zemanová’s musical analysis, meanwhile, ranges from the sketchy to the nonexistent. It’s true that she explicitly eschews “in-depth criticism” in the book’s introduction, but this doesn’t excuse its inadequacies. She quotes extensively, but rarely effectively, from secondary critical works. Her discussion of Šarka, for instance, consists of four pages of short quotations strung together from Vladimir Helfert’s 1939 study. Few of the quotes are enlightening. We learn that Helfert wrote that Janá?ek’s expression “grows organically from Dvorák,” and that it is difficult to know “where Dvorák ends and Janá?ek begins.” But without direct evidence, these observations remain lifeless.

Readers who are willing to wait another year might be well advised to save their money for John Tyrrell’s biography of Janá?ek, which is expected out next year. Tyrrell, the Cardiff University musicologist and executive editor of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, is responsible more than any living English-language scholar for broadening our knowledge of Czech opera in general, and Janá?ek’s music in particular. (Tyrrell is dismissed in a petty aside in Zemanová’s book, though she clearly relies heavily on his scholarship.) Until then, Zemanová has provided a good introduction to the life of twentieth-century opera’s most celebrated composer.