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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Work: On the overgrown path

 

About This Work
On the Overgrown Path is a very private musical statement that emerged at the same time Janácek was writing two highly public works, the operas Osud (Fate) and Jenufa. He was recovering from the death of his daughter, Olga, and the 15 pieces Read more in this piano suite serve as a sort of emotional diary. The music, typically of Janácek's mature works, bears the strong influence of Moravian folk songs and dances, although Janácek employs folk elements in so personal a manner that the pieces cannot be said to be in "folk style." Melodies occur in short, sometimes gasping breaths, often with simple, repetitive left-hand accompaniment, as in songs. However, the music's erratic, improvisational nature sometimes allows the accompaniment material to break away and take control of a few measures. The rhythms and phrase lengths are irregular, as in Moravian folk music, and the frequent use of tremolo derives from the sound of the cimbalom. The pieces are brief (two to four minutes long), intimate, often brooding or melancholy, and occasionally disturbing. Janácek had ten pieces published as Book I in 1911, and appended titles to make them more commercially appealing; as evocative as they are, the titles were inspired by the music, rather than vice versa. Five more pieces constitute Book II; only the first two are complete, and all of these lack titles. Book I begins with the nostalgic "Our Evenings," which is followed by the mercurial and brighter "A Blown-Away Leaf." "Come With Us" is a tender polka; "The Madonna of Frydek" alludes to pilgrims visiting a shrine in that village, but is dominated by a simple tune that becomes more assertive upon each repetition. "They Chattered Like Swallows" depicts talkative girls with a quick, repeated figure that constantly veers into the minor mode. "Words Fail," with its frequent interruptions and changes of mood, has been interpreted both as a parody of a stutterer and an imitation of sobbing; the downcast mood suggests the latter. The tender "Good Night!" combines elements of lullaby and love song. "Unutterable Anguish" is how Janácek described the long period of his daughter's illness; the short, repeated figures initially imply distraction and nervousness, sometimes rising to small climaxes. Janácek described "In Tears" as "crying with a smile," and the childlike tune takes some unexpectedly fretful harmonic turns. "The Barn Owl Has Not Flown Away" alludes to the superstition that when someone is about to die, a barn owl lurks at the house; fluttering arpeggios alternate and eventually overlap with a resigned chordal melody. Book II consists of an unsettled, questioning Andante, a bereft Allegretto, a quietly obsessive Più mosso, a dramatic and agitated Allegro propelled by constant tremolos, and a jagged and folkish Vivo.

-- James Reel
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