Personalities | Leoš Janáček | Modern Era | Opera

1854–1928, Czech

Undoubtedly the greatest of all Czech opera composers, and perhaps one of the true geniuses of the opera world, Janáček utilized music and theatre to maximum effect.

Born in Moravia, his national style was evident in all his scores, and he was particularly adept at listening and adapting. Having spent plenty of time in provincial obscurity, he was not a devotee of any musical ‘camp’. Instead, he absorbed the folk tunes of the region where he was born, and incorporated their angular rhythms and textual hues within his own work.

Czech Vernacular Operas

Janáček was the first composer to use the Czech language consistently in opera, with its characteristically dramatic weight and colour, recounting earthy stories about flesh-and-blood people. He was so interested in the sounds around him that he carried a notebook to record the nuance and inflections of everyday speech. As he stated, his goal was ‘to compose a melodic curve which will, as if by magic, reveal immediately a human being in one definite phase of his existence’.

Inspirational Affairs

The ninth of 13 children, Janáček studied in Brno, Leipzig and Vienna, before returning to the Moravian capital and, in 1881, founding the Brno Organ School. This would later become the Czech State Conservatoire of Music. Fascinated by historical and political events, as well as stories about people within his immediate rural surroundings, Janáček devoted his life to teaching and composition. That same year of 1881, he married a 15-year-old piano student, Zdenka Schulzová, and together they had two children, Vladimir and Olga. However, both offspring died at a young age, and, as the already troubled relationship deteriorated further, Janáček had several affairs and eventually divorced Zdenka in 1917. Thereafter, his creativity appeared to be energized by – and harnessed to – his relationships and sexual attractions. The most important of these involved Kamila Stösslová, 36 years his junior. She was relentlessly pursued by Janáček, but the relationship was never consummated. Nevertheless, she remained his muse throughout the final 10 years of his compositional career, which accounted for the operas Kátya Kabanová (1921), The Cunning Little Vixen (1923) and The Makropulos Affair (1925). He died while still finishing From the House of the Dead (1928). Since Janáček’s death, the scholarship of Sir Charles Mackerras and John Tyrrell has produced definitive editions from numerous versions of the composer’s original scores.

First Significant Opera

The impetus for Janáček to write his first significant opera, Jenůfa (1903), came from an earlier, lesser work, his one-act The Beginning of a Romance (1891). Jenůfa’s bleak, depressing story of village life was based on Gabriela Preissová’s drama, Her Foster Daughter, and the subject matter was widely regarded as too gruesome for an opera. However, after Janáček’s family, friends and close associates managed to get it premiered in Prague, the opera was produced by other companies around the world, and two more operas followed: Osud (‘Fate’, 1907) and The Excursions of Mr Broucek (1917). Neither captured public...

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