Monday, September 3, 2007

Leos Janacek (1854-1928)

Sierra Club


After unusually hard work I have finished my latest opera. I don’t know whether they will call it The Thunderstorm or Katĕrina. Against The Thunderstorm is the argument that another opera of that name already exists; against Katĕrina that I write nothing but ‘female’ operas. Jenůfa – Katĕrina. The best thing, instead of a title would be to have three asterisks. - from a letter to Kamila Stösslová


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Leos Janacek was born at Hukvaldy on 3 July 1854 and died at Moravska Ostrava on 12 August 1928. He was a chorister at the Augustinian 'Queen's' Monastery in Old Brno, where the choirmaster Pavel Krizkovsky took a keen interest in his musical education. After completing his basic schooling he trained as a teacher and, except for a period at the Prague Organ School, he spent 1872-9 largely as a schoolteacher and choral conductor in Brno. In 1879 he enrolled at the Leipzig Conservatory, where he developed his interest in composition. After a month in Vienna he retumed to Brno in May 1880; there he became engaged to one of his pupils, Zdenka Schulzova, whom he married in July 1881. In Brno, Janacek took up his former activities, and he also founded and directed an organ school and edited a new musical journal. After composing his first opera, Sarka, he immersed himself in collecting and studying Moravian folk music, which bore fruit in a series of orchestral suites and dances and in a one-act opera, The Beginning of a Romance. This was favourably received in 1894, but Janacek withdrew it after six performances and set to work on Jenufa. During the long period of composition of Jenufa (1894-1903), Janacek rethought his approach to opera and to composition in general.

Jenufa was soon followed by other operatic ventures, but his reputation in Brno was as a composer of instrumental and choral music and as director of the Organ School. Outside Moravia he was almost unknown until the Prague premiere of Jenufa in 1916. Between 1919 and 1925 Janacek composed three of his finest operas, all on subjects with special resonances for him: Katya Kabanova with its neglected wife who takes a lover, The Cunning Little Vixen with its sympathetic portrayal of animals (and particularly the female fox), and The Makropoulos Affair with the 'ageless' woman who fascinates all men. Each was given first in Brno and soon after in Prague. His 70th birthday was marked by a doctorate from the Masaryk University in Brno. Early in 1926 he wrote the Sinfonietta for orchestra, characteristic in its blocks of sound and its forceful repetitions, and later that year his most important choral work, the Glagolitic Mass. While performance of his music carried his fame abroad, he started work on his last opera, From the House of the Dead, which he did not live to see performed: it received its premiere in April 1930. Janacek's reputation outside Czechoslovakia and German-speaking countries was first made as an instrumental composer. He has since come to be regarded not only as a Czech composer worthy to be ranked with Smetana and Dvorak, but also as one of the most original opera composers of the 20th century. [Adapted from Karadar]

Sheet music: Leos Janacek

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