Leos |anacek's long and rich creative life is a story of slowly
and patiently acquired mastery, an achievement crowned above all
by a sequence of operas whose warm and vivid originality is
unparalleled among the music of his peers.
The son of a village schoolmaster in Moravia (later
Czechoslovakia) Janacek received his formative musical experience
as a chorister in the Augustinian monastery in Brno. The sound of the human voice, either solo or in a
choir, was always to remain an inspiration to him. He trained and
qualified as a general teacher and between 1874 and 1880 led an
active musical life in Brno, centred on teaching and choral
conducting, alternating with short, and not wholly satisfactory,
periods of study in Prague, Leipzig, and Vienna.
Janacek was recognized as a full teacher of music in 1880, and
the following year he married his piano pupil, the 15-year-old
Zdenka Schulzova. Over time, this proved a stressful liaison, the
tensions between the fiery, patriotic Czech and the stubborn, very
young Germanic girl never really resolved.
Although the 1880s were for Janacek a period of intense musical
activity as conductor, teacher, and musical administrator, his
personality as a composer was slow to take shape. His earlier
works show a clear debt to the nineteenth-century world of Dvorak
and Smetana; he also became greatly interested in Moravian folk music, and spent time editing and performing it.
After one or two initial attempts at operatic composition, be
spent the years between 1894 and 1901 writing his first great
opera, Jenufa, and with it he began to establish a type of
opera that integrated elements of folk song with colourfully
dramatic effects, in which the music followed inflections of
speech to produce a direct and realistic impact far removed from
the high-flown sentiments of much nineteenth-century opera.
The success of the Brno premiere of Jenufa, when Janacek
was aged 50, enabled him to devote more of his time to composition
over the following ten years; the operas Osud and
Mr Brouaek's excursion to the Moon were
written during this time.
However, it was the enormous success of the premiere of
Jenufa, in the town of Pisek m 191 6, that opened the
floodgates of the 62-year-old composer's last, extraordinary
period of creativity.
A catalyst for this amazing outpouring was the composer's
passionate, though unreciprocated and uneonsummated, love for
Kaniila Stosslova, the wife of an antiques dealer and 38 years
younger than Janacek. The emotional heights and depths of this
affair of the imagination were graphically portrayed in such works as the song cycle
The diary of one who disappeared and the Second string
quartet ("Intimate letters"). At the same time, operas such as Katya
Kabanova and The cunning
little vixen were immediately successful, and the 1920s
performances of these works in Berlin, London, and New York began
to establish Janacek's international reputation.
In his seventies the composer wrote two of his most
communicative and popular scores, Sinfonietta m 1926 —
inspired in part by the sound of a brass band playing in a Prague
park — and the Glagolitic mass in 1927. His last opera,
From the house of the dead, was practically complete at his
death in 1928. It closed an astonishing late harvest of works,
reminiscent in their vitality and originality of the last creative
outpourings of Haydn and Verdi.