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Leos Janácek

Biography

Born: 1854   Died: 1928   Country: Czechoslovakia   Period: 20th Century
Leos Janácek (1854-1928) is regarded as the greatest Czech composer of the early twentieth century. In his early works, which included the opera Sárka (1888), and numerous vocal and instrumental works, Janácek followed a traditional, Romantic idiom, typical of late nineteenth century music. Having completed Sárka, however, Janácek immersed himself in the folk music of his native Moravia, gradually developing an original compositional style. Read more Eschewing regular metrical phrasing, Janácek developed a declamatory method of setting the voice that follows the natural rhythmic patterns of the Czech language. Characteristically, Janácek allowed these patterns to inform the music itself. In addition, Janácek's harmonies, forms and orchestration are highly idiosyncratic. His music favors repetitive patterns, often set in stark contrast to longer, more lyrical, lines, or large blocks of sound. Dramatic effects are attained with minimal thematic or contrapuntal elaboration. The result is music of great rhythmic drive, sharp contrasts, and an intricate, montage-like texture. Exemplifying Janácek's radical stylistic transformation is his tragic opera Jenufa (1904), based on a story of jealousy, murder, and innocence.

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 success of Jenufa in Prague tremendously energized the composer, who, in his sixties, experienced an astonishing creative surge, composing several masterpieces. Janácek's euphoric state of mind could be attributed to two factors. First of all, after the foundation, in 1918, of the Czechoslovak state, Janácek became a national celebrity. The second, and perhaps more important, factor, was Janácek's affection for Kamila Stösslová, a considerably younger married woman. While his ardor was not reciprocated, Janácek's passion for Kamila undoubtedly simulated his creativity. Janácek's modern fame rests on his four last operas, Kát'a Kabanová (1921), The Cunning Little Vixen (1924), The Makropulos Affair (1926) and the posthumously premiered From the House of the Dead (1930). What makes these works outstanding is Janácek's profound dramatic sense, which allows his operas, in spite of their brevity, to effectively communicate a complex plot. The dramatic effect is heightened by the composer's ability to adapt his music to the tonal and rhythmic characteristics of the Czech language. The last four operas in particular are perfectly paced for the right dramatic impact. In addition, Janácek drew on the inner resources of music and speech to convey complex feelings and emotional states to his listeners. Janácek's extraordinary power in translating profound psychological insights into music truly comes to the fore in The Makropoulos Affair, based on a work by Karel Capek, a story about a woman with the gift of eternal youth. In 1926, Janácek, whose early interest in Moravian folk music developed into an effort to grasp Slavic musical traditions in their totality, composed his Glagolitic Mass, a work aiming to express the profound spiritual bonds underlying the seemingly disparate cultural traditions of the Slavic nations (the term "glagolitic" refers to one of the early alphabets of Old Slavic). During his final creative period, Janácek also composed a small number of exceptional chamber works, including the two string quartets and the Sinfonietta. In addition to his work as a composer, Janácek actively contributed to his country's musical life as a teacher, critic, and organizer. Founder of the Brno Organ School (later to become the Brno Conservatory), director of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, teacher at the State Conservatory of Prague, and initiator of many musical festivals, Janácek greatly enriched Eastern European music education and culture. Read less
Janácek: Kát'a Kabanová, Etc / Mackerras, Söderström, Et Al
Release Date: 06/13/2006   Label: Decca  
Catalog: 000641602   Number of Discs: 2
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Janácek: Die Ausflüge Des Herrn Broucek / Keilberth, Et Al
Release Date: 03/06/1995   Label: Orfeo D'or  
Catalog: 354942   Number of Discs: 2
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Janácek: The Cunning Little Vixen / Mackerras, Popp, Et Al
Release Date: 10/25/1990   Label: Decca  
Catalog: 417129   Number of Discs: 2
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Janácek: Jenufa / Davis, Alexander, Silja
Release Date: 06/11/2002   Label: Kultur Video  
Catalog: 35   Number of Discs: 1
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Janácek: Kát'a Kabanová / Davis,  Gustafson, Palmer
Release Date: 03/26/2002   Label: Kultur Video  
Catalog: 36   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Quartet for Strings no 2 "Intimate letters"

About This Work
"I consider the last decade of his life: his country independent, his music at last applauded, himself loved by a young woman," Milan Kundera wrote of Janácek, "his works become more and more bold, free, merry. A Picasso-like Read more old age." The woman was Kamila Stösslová, wife of an antiques dealer encountered during the first World War, 38 years his junior. And while she may have loved him in a general way of being flattered, tolerant, amused, uncomprehending, his passion seems to have been largely unrequited (recent research has shown that Janácek's "love" was, in this case, returned. - Ed.) Thus, a measure of teasing irritant stimulated Janácek's final years, provoking his last and greatest works. One catches glimpses of Kamila in the adulterous heroine of Kát'a Kabanová, the wily wisdom of the The Cunning Little Vixen, and the charismatic but distant allure of the deathless Emilia Marty, heroine of The Makropulos Case, while the virile directness of the Sinfonietta and the barbaric splendors of the Glagolitic Mass are immediate responses to a fascination becoming increasingly obsessive. Though he may have drawn upon an early, now lost, piano trio, the completion of the String Quartet No. 1 -- inspired by The Kreutzer Sonata, Tolstoy's tale of adultery and jealous murder given wing by music -- in just a little over a week (October 30-November 7, 1923) is testimony to an erotic frenzy. By the time of its composition, Janácek was writing to Kamila nearly every day, and in his last year kept a journal devoted to her. Nevertheless, he seems to have attempted to free himself from the tyranny she held over his imagination with the male-dominated From the House of the Dead -- which Kundera rated, with Berg's Wozzeck, as "the truest, the greatest opera of our dark century" -- though it is indicative that he interrupted that work's composition between January 29 and February 19, 1928, to give voice to the String Quartet No. 2, originally titled "Love Letters" but, for discretion's sake was re-christened "Intimate Letters." Its four movements are a drama of volatile, fluctuating emotion, from the opening rush of excited expectation through brusque turns of impetuosity, questioning, and caressing tenderness. The second movement is a passionate meditation veering from doubt to joy, while the third expands the mood of questioning to confront it with a passionate declaration. The final movement is a rondo in which the returns of a frenzied dance enclose shifts from ecstasy to despair, ending with triumphant assertion. Janácek died the following August 12.

-- Adrian Corleonis
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