Leoš Janáček (born July 3, 1854, Hukvaldy, Moravia, Austrian Empire – died August 12, 1928, Ostrava, Czech Republic), a famous Czech composer, theorist and a collector of Slavic folk music. Janáček was one of the most important and original operatic composers of the first half of the 20th century, his original style of composing earned him a prominent place as a unique musician. He composed a series of important works, principally a series of operas as well as orchestral, vocal, and chamber works that gradually established his international reputation. 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.
Leoš Janáček was born in 1854 in the village of Hukvaldy, Moravia, where his father was an impoverished schoolmaster and also a church organist. He was one among the fourteen children of the family and was indeed a gifted child, who had great interest towards music since very early age. Janáček’s parents wanted their son to pursue a career in teaching and not in music. In 1865 Leoš was sent as a choirboy to the St. Augustine Abbey, Brno, where he received a rudimentary musical education and learned to play the organ. This proved to be a platform for him, where he took over choral singing under Pavel Krizkovsky.
In 1872, Janáček became a junior master at Brno Teachers’ Training College and in 1874 – 1876 he was at the Prague Organ School. Janáček had criticized the performance of Skuhersky, which got published in the journal Cecilie in the March 1875 edition. This led to Janáček’s expulsion, Skuhersky however intervened, and Janáček was allowed to continue his studies. The result was that in the year 1875, Janacek topped the class and graduated with best grades. His interest in composition grew, and study at the conservatories in Leipzig and Vienna followed. By the time he was 25, he had acquired a solid technique, although he had not written any compositions of consequence.
In 1881, Janáček moved back to Brno, founded the Brno Organ School in 1881 and taught there until its nationalization in 1920. In 1881, Janáček married Zdenka Schulzová. Their married life was unhappy, although they remained married all their life. The first serious crisis came shortly after the wedding, which was not smoothed over until a year later with the birth of their daughter, Olga, and soon afterwards Janáček separated from his wife. At this time, he was incredibly overloaded with work. Janáček held the position of headmaster and teacher at the Organ School, which he established in 1881. Janáček returned to his wife in 1884.
Between 1884 and 1888 he published the journal Hudební Listy (Musical Pages). Janáček decided to write operas after reviewing opera productions in Brno for this journal. In 1887, Janáček composed his first opera Šárka, to a libretto by Julius Zeyer, and sent it to Antonín Dvořák for his comments, due to Janáček’s anti Smetana position, he was disliked in Prague and the rights for the libretto were refused by its author, Zeyer. In 1888, the second version of Šárka was written after Dvořák’s recommendations. The same year his son Vladimir was born. Deeply involved with Moravian folk music, he collected folk songs with František Bartoš (the philologist who later constructed the collections of folk songs with Janáček). Janáček’s interest in folk culture can be seen through Kytice z národních písní moravských (A Bouquet of Moravian Folksongs), which was published in 1890, and it was also apparent in the compositions he wrote at the time, such as Lašské tance (Lachian Dances), Národní tance na Moravě (Folk Dances in Moravia), Královnicky (The Little Queens) and the ballet Rákoš Rákoczy.
In 1890, there was a tragedy within the Janáček family, their second child Vladimir died at the age of two. Janáček and his wife became even more estranged. The death of his son followed by an attempted opera, Počátek Románu (Beginning of a Romance; 1891) and the cantata Amarus (1897). He composed his second opera Počátek Románu, to a libretto by Jaroslav Tichý after a short story by Gabriela Preissová, which Janáček himself conducted in 1894 at Brno National Theatre.
In the first decade of the 20th century Janáček composed choral church music including Otčenáš (Our Father; 1901), Constitutes (1903) and Ave Maria (1904). In 1902, Janáček visited Russia twice. On the first occasion he took his daughter Olga to St. Petersburg, where she stayed to study Russian. Three months later, Janáček returned to St. Petersburg with his wife because Olga was seriously ill. They took her back to Brno, but her health was worsening. In February 1903, Janáček completed his opera Jenůfa, based on the play Její pastorkyňa (Her Stepdaughter) by Gabriela Preissová, which was first performed at the National Theatre, Brno on 21 January 1904. Nevertheless, it was one of the saddest times in Janáček’s life, his beloved daughter Olga died aged twenty-one. Opera Jenůfa was dedicated to her memory, his deep grief can be felt in it.
In 1904, Janáček planned to write another Preissová opera, based on The Farm Mistress, but instead continued with work on Osud (Destiny, also known as Fate). He began the work in 1903 and completed it in 1907. Emotionally dejected, after his daughter’s death, in the summer of 1903 he went to Luhačovice spa where he met Kamila Urvaikova, who had been the subject of an opera by Ludvík Čelanský, Kamila, where she felt that Čelanský had falsely depicted her personality. Janáček submitted the opera to the Brno Theatre in 1906, and to the Vinohrady Theatre in Prague in 1907, but both theatres rejected the score. The problematic libretto was also somewhat to blame. Osud was not performed during his lifetime.
Janáček began writing two one-act satirical operas Výlet pana Broučka do Mĕsíce (Mr. Brouček’s Excursion to the Moon) and Výlet pana Broučka do XV stol (Mr. Brouček’s Excursion to the 15th Century), both performed in Prague in 1920.
Being a successful composer at 62, Janáček got a chance to be in the music scene of Prague. He began a relationship with the soprano Gabriela Horváthová, who directed him through the Prague society. Janáček’s affair with Horváthová led to strained relations with his wife Zdenka and she even attempted suicide. Zdenka wanted to avoid the public humiliation resulting from a formal divorce. Hence, both of them settled for an informal divorce and until Janacek’s death both of them led separate lives but in the same house.
Between 1915 and 1918, Janáček composed Taras Bulba rhapsody, based on the novel by Nikolai Gogol. The first version of the work was finished on 2 July 1915, but Janáček later revised it and made substantial changes. The second, almost complete, version was finished on 29 March 1918. It was premiered at the National Theatre in Brno on 9 October 1921, conducted by František Neumann.
Almost every summer after 1903, Janáček went alone to the Moravian spa town of Luhačovice, to take in the countryside and enjoy the healing spa waters. In 1917, he met there an interesting Kamila Stösslová, a young married woman 38 years his junior, who was a source of inspiration for a book and many musical works, whom he passionately and obsessively loved and corresponded with until his death. From 1917 to 1919, deeply inspired by Stösslová, he composed Zápisník zmizelého (The Diary of One Who Disappeared). As he completed its final revision, he began his next work, the opera Káťa Kabanová, to a libretto by Vincenc Červinka, based on The Storm, a play by Alexander Ostrovsky. In 1920 he wrote the symphonic poem Balada Blanická (The Ballad of Blaník) and he finished the opera Káťa Kabanová, a year later and started work on his next opera Příhody lišky Bystroušky (The Cunning Little Vixen). Without doubt the last decade of Janáček’s life was the most creative and productive period in his life. In 1923 he finished the first string quartet After Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata and wrote an opera based on Karel Čapek’s Věc Makropulos (The Makropulos Affair). His operas are marked by a skilled use of music to heighten dramatic impact.
In 1920, Janácek retired from his teaching position at the Brno Conservatory. However, he continued to teach privately until 1925. In 1926, he travelled to England, greeted by a warm welcome and many London performances of his works, which led to more international exposure for the composer.
During his final creative period, Janácek also composed a small number of exceptional chamber works, including two string quartets and Sinfonietta and Glagolská mše (Glagolitic Mass; 1926), also called the Slavonic or Festival Mass, it was premiered and got him huge appreciation. This boosted him to work on his last opera, Z mrtvého domu (From the House of the Dead), the libretto was translated and adapted by the composer from the 1862 novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky. It was Janácek’s last opera, premiered on 12 April 1930 at the National Theatre Brno, but he passed away before he could see the live performance of this work. At the end of July 1928 Janáček left for Hukvaldy, followed by Kamila with her son Otto, but he caught a severe cold, which developed into pneumonia. He died on Sunday 12 August at 10 a.m. in Ostrava, at the sanatorium of Dr Klein. Janácek was given a large public funeral that included music from the last scene of his Cunning Little Vixen and was buried at Brno’s Central Cemetery.
Leoš Janáček was one of the most remarkable composers of the twentieth century, he greatly enriched Eastern European music education and culture. In addition to his work as a composer, he actively contributed to his country’s musical life as a teacher, critic, and organizer.
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