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Leoš Janáček (3 July 1854 – 12 August 1928) was a Czech composer, musical theorist, folklorist, publicist and teacher. He was inspired by Moravian and other Slavic folk music to create an original, modern musical style.
Until 1895 he devoted himself mainly to folkloristic research and his early musical output was influenced by contemporaries such as Antonín Dvořák. His later, mature works incorporate his earlier studies of national folk music in a modern, highly original synthesis, first evident in the opera Jenůfa, which was premiered in 1904 in Brno. The success of Jenůfa (often called the “Moravian national opera”) at Prague in 1916 gave Janáček access to the world’s great opera stages. Janáček’s later works are his most celebrated. They include operas such as Káťa Kabanová and The Cunning Little Vixen, the Sinfonietta (dedicated the young lady he fell in love with, platonically as an old man), the Glagolitic Mass, the rhapsody Taras Bulba, two string quartets, and other chamber works.
Along with Antonín Dvořák and Bedřich Smetana, he is considered one of the most important Czech composers.
In 1874 Janáček became friends with Antonín Dvořák, and began composing in a relatively traditional romantic style. After his opera Šárka (1887–1888), his style absorbed elements of Moravian and Slovak folk music.
His musical assimilation of the rhythm, pitch contour and inflections of normal Czech speech helped create the very distinctive vocal melodies of his opera Jenůfa (1904), whose 1916 success in Prague was to be the turning point in his career. In Jenůfa, Janáček developed and applied the concept of “speech tunes” to build a unique musical and dramatic style quite independent of “Wagnerian” dramatic method. He studied the circumstances in which “speech tunes” changed, the psychology and temperament of speakers and the coherence within speech, all of which helped render the dramatically truthful roles of his mature operas, and became one of the most significant markers of his style. Janáček took these stylistic principles much farther in his vocal writing than Modest Mussorgsky, and thus anticipates the later work of Béla Bartók. The stylistic basis for his later works originates in the period of 1904–1918, but Janáček composed the majority of his output – and his best known works – in the last decade of his life.
Much of Janáček’s work displays great originality and individuality. It employs a vastly expanded view of tonality, uses unorthodox chord spacings and structures, and often, modality: “there is no music without key. Atonality abolishes definite key, and thus tonal modulation….Folksong knows of no atonality.” Janáček features accompaniment figures and patterns, with (according to Jim Samson) “the on-going movement of his music…similarly achieved by unorthodox means; often a discourse of short, ‘unfinished’ phrases comprising constant repetitions of short motifs which gather momentum in a cumulative manner.” Janáček named these motifs “sčasovka” in his theoretical works. “Sčasovka” has no strict English equivalent, but John Tyrrell, a leading specialist on Janáček’s music, describes it as “a little flash of time, almost a kind of musical capsule, which Janáček often used in slow music as tiny swift motifs with remarkably characteristic rhythms that are supposed to pepper the musical flow.” Janáček’s use of these repeated motifs demonstrates a remote similarity to minimalist composers (Sir Charles Mackerras called Janáček “the first minimalist composer”)
Janáček belongs to a wave of twentieth-century composers who sought greater realism and greater connection with everyday life, combined with a more all-encompassing use of musical resources. His operas in particular demonstrate the use of “speech”-derived melodic lines, folk and traditional material, and complex modal musical argument. Janáček’s works are still regularly performed around the world, and are generally considered popular with audiences. He would also inspire later composers in his homeland, as well as music theorists, among them Jaroslav Volek, to place modal development alongside harmony of importance in music.
The operas of his mature period, Jenůfa (1904), Káťa Kabanová (1921), The Cunning Little Vixen (1924), The Makropulos Affair (1926) and From the House of the Dead (after a novel by Dostoyevsky and premièred posthumously in 1930) are considered his finest works. The Australian conductor Sir Charles Mackerras became very closely associated with Janáček’s operas.
Janáček’s chamber music, while not especially voluminous, includes works which are widely considered twentieth-century classics, particularly his two string quartets: Quartet No. 1, “The Kreutzer Sonata” inspired by the Tolstoy novel, and the Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters”. Milan Kundera called these compositions the peak of Janáček’s output.
The world première of Janáček’s lyrical Concertino for piano, two violins, viola, clarinet, French horn and bassoon took place in Brno on 16 February 1926. It was also performed at the Frankfurt Festival of Modern Music in 1927 by Ilona Štěpánová-Kurzová.
A comparable chamber work for an even more unusual set of instruments, the Capriccio for piano left hand, flute, two trumpets, three trombones and tenor tuba, was written for pianist Otakar Hollmann, who lost the use of his right hand during World War I. After its première in Prague on 2 March 1928, the Capriccio gained considerable acclaim in the musical world.
Other well known pieces by Janáček include the Sinfonietta, the Glagolitic Mass (the text written in Old Church Slavonic), and the rhapsody Taras Bulba. These pieces and the above mentioned five late operas were all written in the last decade of Janáček’s life.
Janáček established a school of composition in Brno. Among his notable pupils were Jan Kunc, Václav Kaprál, Vilém Petrželka, Jaroslav Kvapil, Osvald Chlubna, Břetislav Bakala, and Pavel Haas. Most of his students neither imitated nor developed Janáček’s style, which left him no direct stylistic descendants. According to Milan Kundera, Janáček developed a personal, modern style in relative isolation from contemporary modernist movements but was in close contact with developments in modern European music. His path towards the innovative “modernism” of his later years was long and solitary, and he achieved true individuation as a composer around his 50th year.
Sir Charles Mackerras, the Australian conductor who helped promote Janáček’s works on the world’s opera stages, described his style as “… completely new and original, different from anything else … and impossible to pin down to any one style”. According to Mackerras, Janáček’s use of whole-tone scale differs from that of Debussy, his folk music inspiration is absolutely dissimilar from Dvořák’s and Smetana’s, and his characteristically complex rhythms differ from the techniques of the young Stravinsky.
The French conductor and composer Pierre Boulez, who interpreted Janáček’s operas and orchestral works, called his music surprisingly modern and fresh: “Its repetitive pulse varies through changes in rhythm, tone and direction.” He described his opera From the House of the Dead as “primitive, in the best sense, but also extremely strong, like the paintings of Léger, where the rudimentary character allows a very vigorous kind of expression”.
Janáček’s life has featured in several films. In 1974 Eva Marie Kaňková made a short documentary Fotograf a muzika (The Photographer and the Music) about the Czech photographer Josef Sudek and his relationship to Janáček’s work. In 1983 the Brothers Quay produced a stop motion animated film, Leoš Janáček: Intimate Excursions, about Janáček’s life and work, and in 1986 the Czech director Jaromil Jireš made Lev s bílou hřívou (Lion with the White Mane), which showed the amorous inspiration behind Janáček’s works. In Search of Janáček is a Czech documentary directed in 2004 by Petr Kaňka, made to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Janáček’s birth. An animated cartoon version of The Cunning Little Vixen was made in 2003 by the BBC, with music performed by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and conducted by Kent Nagano. A rearrangement of the opening of the Sinfonietta was used by the progressive rock band Emerson, Lake & Palmer for its song Knife-Edge on their début album.
The Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra was established in 1954. Today the 116-piece ensemble is associated with mostly contemporary music but also regularly performs works from the classical repertoire. The orchestra is resident at the House of Culture Vítkovice (Dům kultury Vítkovice) in Ostrava, Czech Republic. The orchestra tours extensively and has performed in Europe, the U.S., Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Its current music director is Theodore Kuchar