Leoš Janáček

1854 1928

Leoš Janáček



Leoš Janáček was a 20th century Czech composer and considered the greatest Czech composer of the early twentieth century. Janáček, along with Smetena, Dvořák and Bartók, greatly contributed to and defined the Eastern European music tradition.

Janáček was born in Hukvaldy, Moravia in 1854. Both his father and grandfather were teachers and musicians. As the fourth of eight children, he was sent away, to relieve the crowded home, to the Augustinian ‘Queen’s’ Monastery in Old Brno to become a chorister. The choirmaster, Pavel Křížkovský, Moravia’s most famous composer at the time, took an interest in Janáček’s musical training.

Janáček continued his schooling in pursuit of a teaching career, which his father pushed for. After his studies, he took over Křížkovský’s position as choirmaster in 1873 and expanded the repertoire to include music by Palestrina, Lassus, Haydn and contemporary Czech and German composers.

One year later, he was appointed choirmaster of Svatopluk. It was for this choir that he wrote his first choruses, JW IV/1-8, which are simple four-part settings of Moravian folk texts, following the style established by Křížkovský.

In 1874, Janáček went to the Prague Organ School to study with Skuherský, where he finished just two years of schooling in one year. Unfortunately, he was extremely poor and couldn’t even afford his own piano or to take advantage of all the city had to offer in terms of music. Compositions from this year include several student exercises and works for the church and organ (jw II/1–6; VIII/1–4).

Janáček returned to Brno in 1875 where he continued conducting various choirs. He introduced some of Dvořák’s works to the area, such as hisMoravian Duets and Serenade for Strings. It is upon these works that Janáček’s Suite (1877, JW VI/2) andIdylla (1878, JW VI/3) are modelled. During this time he also became acquainted with Dvořák.

For about six months, between 1879 and 1880, Janáček attended the Leipzig Conservatory, where he studied with Oscar Paul and Leo Grill. During this period he was also very poor and was not able to experience the rich musical life of Leipzig, though he did attend concerts at the Gewandhaus, but never the opera. Most of his works from his time in Leipzig are lost.

In 1880, Janáček enrolled at the Vienna Conservatory, where he studied with Franz Krenn. His works from this period, which have not survived, were much more ambitious than his previous works. His studies concluded rather dismally, as he was unable to win any school composition competitions.

After his return from Vienna, Janáček’s output decreased for a time. He only managed to write a few choruses, including theMužské sbory (‘Male-Voice Choruses’) (1888, JW IV/17) for Dvořák, who was greatly surprised by the harmonies.

Janáček’s early opera Šárka (1888, JW I/1), along with his early vocal and instrumental works are typical of the late 19th century romantic style. The opera was not performed until 1925.

After completing Šárka, Janáček buried himself in the study of Moravian folk music and was able to develop his own original style, which departed from traditional metrical phrasing. Instead, the Czech language influenced the music; the melodies were written to follow the natural spoken patterns of the language. His use of harmony, form, and orchestration became very personal during this time. His orchestral dances,Valašské tance (‘Valachian Dances’) (1889-91, jwVI/4), and the Suite for Orchestra (c1891, JW VI/6) display the instrumental variety of this style.

Folkdances also influenced the stage works, Rákoš Rákoczy (1891, jw I/2) and Počátek románu (‘The Beginning of a Romance’) (1891, jw I/3). With his tragic operaJenufa (1904), which was produced in Prague in 1916, Janáček gained both national and international fame.

Driven by the success of the opera, patriotic pride from the formation of the Czechoslovak state and his affection for Kamila Stösslová, a younger married woman, Janáček wrote a flurry of pieces. Within days of meeting her, he wrote his song cycleZápisník zmizelého (‘The Diary of One who Disappeared’) (1917, jw V/12). He also composed his first string quartet (1923, JW VII/8), which was written for the Czech Quartet, the symphonic poemDanube (Dunaj) (1923-8 JW IX/7) and his Concertino for piano and chamber ensemble (1925, JW VII/11).   Danubewas among the works found after his death. The suddenness of its ending brings about speculation regarding its state of completeness. The work is uniquely scored, with three sets of timpani and a “looney soprano” in the third movement.

Janáček’s most famous pieces include his last four operas, which are very nationalistic in style, Kát'a Kabanová (1920-1, jw I/8),Příhody lišky Bystroušky (‘The Cunning Little Vixen’) (1922-3, jw I/9),Věc Makropulos (‘The Makropulos Affair’) (1923–5, jw I/10) and Z mrtvého domu (‘From the House of the Dead’) (1927-8, jw I/11), which was not premiered until 1930. In 1926 he also composed hisMsa glagolskaja (‘Glagolitic Mass’) jw III/9 which aims “to express the profound spiritual bonds underlying the seemingly disparate cultural traditions of the Slavic nations.” For many of his operas, he also acted as his own librettist.

During his final creative period, Janáček composed a variety of chamber and orchestral works including two string quartets and the Sinfonietta (1926, JW VI/18). The Sinfonietta is his largest instrumental work. The five movement masterpiece was premiered in 1926 by Václav Talich and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.

Throughout his life, Janáček devoted himself not only to composition. but also to teaching. He founded the Brno Organ School, which later merged and became the Brno Conservatory. He also taught at the State Conservatory of Prague, directed the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and initiated many musical festivals. Janáček was elected a member of the Prussian Academy of Arts, alongside Schoenberg and Hindemith.

Janáček died in 1928 in Moravská Ostrava.

After his death, Janáček’s music was mostly performed by Czech performers for the first few decades. The 1956 production ofThe Cunning Little Vixen by Felsenstein brought about international interest. Later recordings by Charles Mackerras helped establish Janáček’s operas world-wide. His operas are now among the most frequently performed 20th century operas. His Sinfonietta is also performed regularly throughout the world.

Header image courtesy of Czech Centres Other images courtesy of The Famous People Society and Naxos