Czech Composer Leos Janacek - A True Original
The singular Czech composer Leos Janacek (Lay-osh Ya-na-chek) was born in 1854 in a small village not far from the Polish border , the son of the local school teacher. From these humble beginnings he rose to prominence in his native Czechoslovakia and beyond with his strange and fascinating music based on the inflections of Czech speech and folk music.
He was not a Bohemian, or Czech from the western part of the country, but a native of the eastern half of what is now the Czech republic, or Moravia, which has preserved its own dialects and traditions, and is less influenced by western Europe. Czechoslovakia broke up into two nations, the Czech and Slovak republics in the 1990s; the Slovaks consider themselves a distinct people from the Czechs, and their language,though very similar to Czech, is still considered a separate language.
Janacek studied music as a young man in Brno, the second largest Czech city after Prague, and in Leipzig and Vienna. Despite the academic training he received, he was intensely interested in Czech folk music, which he studied methodically , as his younger Hungarian contemporary Bartok studied Hungarian folk music. His first efforts at composition were not very impressive, and had he died young, he would probably be totally forgotten today.
He did not reach maturity as a composer until his 40s, when his opera Jenufa (YEN- oo-fa) based on a tragic tale in a moravian village was first performed in Brno. This is now his best-known opera, and is now perfomed everywhere. After finding his own unique voice as a composer, he produced a steady stream masterpieces, operas, orchestral works, chamber music, choral works etc until his death in 1928 at the height of his powers as a composer. In fact, in the last years of his life, he produced an astonishing number of highly original masterpieces.
Janacek was fascinated by the relation of speech to music, and how the inflections of spoken Czech could be applied to vocal and even instrumental music. He was contrantly writing down the melodic patterns of what people would say, and even animals ! He was sopmething of an eccentric in this respect. You can hear this in his arresting and powerful operas, most of which are based on the strangest plots. Janacek was attracted to the strange stories.
In Jenufa, a village girl gives birth to an illegitimate baby, and her distraught stepmother, terrified of the shame of illegitimacy on the family, murders the child, even though there is a happy ending. "The Cunning Little Vixen" is an opera set in the Czech forest and villages, and most of the characters are animals of the forest. The protagonist is literally a fox ! There are also, chickens, a badger, an owl, frogs and other creatures, plus humans. It's a meditation of the permanence of nature amid the death of individual animals such as the vixen, and is both charming and profoundly moving.
"The Makropoulos Case" is one of the most bizarre stories ever made into an opera, and is based ona Czech play about a famous opera singer who was the daughter of a Greek mad scientist who invented an elixir of life which has kept her young looking for about f400 years ! Sjhe becomes involved in a legal case over an inheritance, but weary of life,dies after destroying the formula for the elixir. WEird, but facinating drama and compelling music.
His final opera,"From the House of the Dead", based on a Dostoyevsky story about life in a Siberian canmp, will be performed by the Metropolitan Opera next season. This is a grim but inspiring story about the bleak and brutal lives of the prisoners, and has no real plot as such, but merely shows you their everyday life.
Other operas by Janacek are the poignant "Katya Kabanova", based on a Russian play about a frustrated Russian woman, married to an ineffectual merchant husband who is often away on business and the tortured relationship between Kataya and her tyrannical mother-in law. Katya is drawn into an adulterous relationship with another man, but is toremted by guilt and commits suicide by jumping into the Volga.
Orchestral works by Janacek include the brilliant"Sinfonietta", a sort of orchestral suite filled with brilliant colors and military style fanfares with an expanded brass section., and the symphonic poem"Taras Bulba", based on the Nikolai Gogol story of the fierce battles between the Ukrainian cossacks and the Poles.
Janacek's most important choral work is the amazing "Slavonic Mass", a settoing of the Mass not in the traditional Latin, but in the ancient Church Slavonic used by orthodox Russians, Serbs and Bulagarians as their liturgical language. This is a primitive earthy and exultant work, almost more pagan than conventionally religious. Janacek himself was an agnostic, but wanted to evoke the primitive world of the medieval Slavs who had recently been converted to Christianity. It's like nothing you've ever heard.
Janacek's music is earthy, elemental, vibrant and haunting. Don't miss a chance to hear his music. There are many fine recordings of his music. If you want authentically Czech performances, check out those on the Czech republic's own record label, Supraphon, and visit their website, or arkivmusic.com