Leoš (Leo Eugen) Janáček (July 3, 1854–August 12, 1928) was a Czech composer, musical theorist, folklorist, publicist, and teacher who, inspired by Moravian and other Slavic folk music to create an original, modern musical style, was one of the most important exponents of musical nationalism of the twentieth century. Janáček, son of schoolmaster Jiří (1815–1866) and Amalie (née Grulichová) Janáčková (1819–1884), was born on July 3, 1854, in Hukvaldy, Moravia, then part of the Austrian Empire. He was a gifted child in a family of limited means, and showed an early musical talent in choral singing. His father wanted him to follow the family tradition, and become a teacher, but deferred to Janáček’s obvious musical abilities. In 1865 young Janáček enrolled as a ward of the foundation of the Abbey of St. Thomas in Brno, where he took part in choral singing under Pavel Křížkovský and occasionally played the organ. Křížkovský found him a problematic and wayward student but recommended his entry to the Prague Organ School. Janáček originally intended to study piano and organ but eventually devoted himself to composition. He wrote his first vocal compositions while choirmaster of the Svatopluk Artisan’s Association (1873–76).
In 1874 Janacek enrolled at the Prague organ school, under František Skuherský and František Blažek. His student days in Prague were impoverished; with no piano in his room, he had to make do with a keyboard drawn on his tabletop. His criticism of Skuherský’s performance of the Gregorian mass was published in the March 1875 edition of the journal Cecilie and led to his expulsion from the school – but Skuherský relented, and on July 24, 1875, Janáček graduated with the best results in his class. On his return to Brno he earned a living as a music teacher, and conducted various amateur choirs. From 1876 he taught music at Brno’s Teachers Institute. Among his pupils there was Zdenka Schulzová, daughter of Emilian Schulz, the Institute director. She was later to become Janáček’s wife. In 1876 he also became a piano student of Amálie Wickenhauserová-Nerudová, with whom he co-organized chamber concertos and performed in concerts over the next two years. In February 1876, he was voted choirmaster of the Beseda brněnská Philharmonic Society. Apart from an interruption from 1879 to 1881, he remained its choirmaster and conductor until 1888.
From October 1879 to February 1880 he studied piano, organ, and composition at the Leipzig Conservatory. While there, he composed Thema con variazioni for piano in B flat, subtitled Zdenka’s Variations. Dissatisfied with his teachers, among them Oscar Paul and Leo Grill, and denied a studentship with Camille Saint-Saëns in Paris, Janáček moved on to the Vienna Conservatory, where from April to June 1880 he studied composition with Franz Krenn. He concealed his opposition to Krenn’s neo-romanticism, but he quit Josef Dachs’s classes and further piano study when he was criticized for his piano style and technique. He submitted a violin sonata (now lost) to a Vienna Conservatory competition, but the judges rejected it as “too academic.” Janáček left the conservatory in June 1880, disappointed despite Franz Krenn’s very complimentary personal report. He returned to Brno, where on July 13, 1881, he married his young pupil Zdenka Schulzová. In 1881, Janáček gave up his leading role with the Beseda brněnská, as a response to criticism, but a rapid decline in Beseda’s performance quality led to his recall in 1882
Also in 1881, Janáček founded and was appointed director of the organ school, and held this post until 1919, when the school became the Brno Conservatory. In the mid-1880s Janáček began composing more systematically. Among other works, he created the Four male-voice choruses (1886), dedicated to Antonín Dvořák, and his first opera, Šárka (1887–88). During this period he became deeply interested in folk music and began to collect and study folk music, songs and dances with František Bartoš between 1884 and 1888, publishing the journal Hudební Listy (Musical Pages). In the early months of 1887 he sharply criticized the comic opera The Bridegrooms, by Czech composer Karel Kovařovic, in a Hudební listy journal review which apparently led to mutual dislike and later professional difficulties when Kovařovic, as director of the National Theatre in Prague, refused to stage Janáček’s opera Jenůfa. From the early 1890s, Janáček led the mainstream of folklorist activity in Moravia and Silesia, using a repertoire of folksongs and dances in orchestral and piano arrangements. Most of his achievements in this field were published in 1899–1901 though his interest in folklore would be lifelong. His compositional work was still influenced by the declamatory, dramatic style of Smetana and Dvořák. The death of his second child, Vladimír, in 1890 was followed by an attempted opera, Beginning of the Romance (1891) and the cantata Amarus (1897).
In the first decade of the twentieth century Janáček composed choral church music including Otčenáš (Our Father, 1901), Constitutes (1903) and Ave Maria (1904). In 1901 the first part of his piano cycle On an Overgrown Path was published, and gradually became one of his most frequently performed works. In 1902 Janáček visited Russia twice. On the first occasion he took his daughter Olga to St.Petersburg, where she stayed to study Russian. Only three months later, he returned to St. Petersburg with his wife because Olga was very ill. They took her back to Brno, but her health was worsening. Janáček expressed his painful feelings for his daughter in a new work, his opera Jenůfa, in which the suffering of his daughter became Jenůfa’s. When Olga died in February 1903, Janáček dedicated Jenůfa to her memory. The opera was performed in Brno in 1904, with reasonable success, but Janáček felt this was no more than a provincial achievement. He aspired to recognition by the more influential Prague opera, but Jenůfa was refused there. Twelve years passed before its first performance in Prague. Dejected and emotionally exhausted, Janáček went to Luhačovice spa to recover. There he met Kamila Urválková, whose love story supplied the theme for his next opera, Osud (Destiny).
In 1905 Janáček attended a demonstration in support of a Czech university in Brno, where the violent death of František Pavlík, a young joiner, at the hands of the police inspired his 1. X. 1905 piano sonata. The incident led him to promote further the anti-German and anti-Austrian ethos of the Russian Circle, which he had co-founded in 1897, and which would be officially banned by the Austrian police in 1915. In 1906 he approached the Czech poet Petr Bezruč, with whom he later collaborated, composing several choral works based on Bezruč’s poetry. These included Kantor Halfar (1906), Maryčka Magdónova (1908), and Sedmdesát tisíc (1909). Janáček’s life was complicated by personal and professional difficulties. He destroyed some of his works, and others remained unfinished. Nevertheless, he continued composing, and would create several remarkable choral, chamber, orchestral and operatic works, the most notable being the 1914 Cantata Věčné evangelium (The Eternal Gospel), Pohádka (Fairy tale) for cello and piano (1910), the 1912 piano cycle V mlhách (In the Mist) and his first symphonic poem Šumařovo dítě (A Fiddler’s Child). His fifth opera, Výlet pana Broučka do měsíce, composed from 1908 to 1917, has been characterized as the most “purely Czech in subject and treatment” of all of Janáček’s operas.
In 1916 Janacek started a long professional and personal relationship with theatre critic, dramatist and translator Max Brod. From 1917 to 1919, he composed The Diary of One Who Disappeared. As he completed its final revision, he began his next work, the opera Káťa Kabanová. Sfter the foundation, in 1918, of the Czechoslovak state, Janácek became a national celebrity. In 1920 Janáček retired from his post as director of the Brno Conservatory, but continued to teach until 1925. In 1921 he attended a lecture by the Indian philosopher-poet Rabindranath Tagore, and used a Tagore poem as the basis for the chorus The Wandering Madman (1922). At the same time he encountered the microtonal works of Alois Hába. In the early 1920s Janáček completed his opera The Cunning Little Vixen, which had been inspired by a serialized novella in the newspaper Lidové noviny. In Janáček’s 70th year (1924) his biography was published by Max Brod, and he was interviewed by Olin Downes for The New York Times. In 1925 he retired from teaching, but continued composing and was awarded the first honorary doctorate to be given by Masaryk University in Brno.
In the spring of 1926 Janacek created his Sinfonietta, a monumental orchestral work, which rapidly gained wide critical acclaim. In the same year he went to England at the invitation of Rosa Newmarch. A number of his works were performed in London, including his first string quartet, the wind sextet Youth, and his violin sonata. The Makropoulos Affair (1926), based on a work by Karel Capek, is a story about a woman with the gift of eternal youth. Shortly after, and still in 1926, he started to compose a setting to an Old Church Slavonic text. The result was the large-scale orchestral Glagolitic Mass which was partly inspired by the suggestion by a clerical friend, and partly by Janáček’s wish to celebrate the anniversary of Czechoslovak independence. In 1927 – the year of the Sinfonietta’s first performances in New York, Berlin and Brno – he began to compose his final operatic work, From the House of the Dead, the third Act of which was found on his desk after his death. In January 1928 he began his second string quartet, the Intimate Letters, his “manifesto on love.” Meanwhile, the Sinfonietta was performed in London, Vienna and Dresden. The best known of Janáček’s music for orchestra is the Sinfonietta, derived from an original festival piece of 1926. To this may be added the rhapsody based on the work of Gogol Taras Bulba and the Lachian Dances, based on folk-dances.
Back in 1874 Janáček had become friends with Antonín Dvořák, and begun composing in a relatively traditional romantic style. After his opera Šárka (1887–1888), his style absorbed elements of Moravian and Slovak folk music. At first unknown outside of Moravia, where he was recognized primarily as a teacher, conductor, and champion of folk music, Janácek first gained national and international fame with the Prague production of Jenufa in 1916. The stylistic basis for his later works originates in the period of 1904–1918, but Janáček composed the majority of his output – and his best known works – in the last decade of his life. In his later years, Janáček became an international celebrity. He became a member of the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin in 1927, along with Arnold Schoenberg and Paul Hindemith. His operas and other works were finally performed at the world stages. In addition to his work as a composer, Janácek actively contributed to his country’s musical life as a teacher, critic, and organizer. In August 1928 he took an excursion to Štramberk, but caught a chill, which developed into pneumonia. He died on August 12, 1928 in Ostrava, at the sanatorium of Dr. L. Klein. He was given a large public funeral that included music from the last scene of his Cunning Little Vixen, and was buried in the Field of Honor at the Central Cemetery, Brno.
The following works by Leos Janacek are included in my collection :
Capriccio for piano, left hand and instruments (1926).
Lachian Dances (1925; from ballet Rakos Rakoczy, 1891).
Mladi for winds (1924).
Sinfonietta (1926; orig. Military Sinfonietta).
Suite for String Orchestra (1877).
Taras Bulba, Rhapsody for Orchestra (1921).
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources