Universal Edition - Leoš Janáček – About the Music


Leoš Janáček

About the Music

Read Max Brod's obituary of Leoš Janáček.

Born in 1854 in North-Eastern Moravia, Leoš Janáček had an extraordinary life, marked by tragedies in his family, inspired in his late work by his love for a married woman and encouraged by success which did not come his way until his sixties.

He lost both his children: his son Vladimír at the age of two and his daughter Olga at twenty-one. His wife Zdenka tried to kill herself.

At 63, Janáček met Kamila Stösslová, a married woman and mother of two children, several decades younger than himself, and fell in love with her. It was an emotional upheaval which found expression in a range of mature works as well as in 650 letters. In one of them Janáček confessed:

„In my compositions warmed by pure sentiment, honesty, the search for truth, you are there, my tender melodies come from you, you are the gypsy woman with child in The Diary of the One Who Disappeared, you are the poor Elinor Makropulos, and you are that likeable boy Alej in From the House of the Dead. If the thread that binds me to you were to break, it would also break the thread of my life” (8 August 1927).

Janáček was fifty when the opera Jenůfa, on which he had worked for ten years, was premiered – in Brünn, in the provinces. He had to accept that the opera would only be produced in the capital, if he allowed the score to be revised by the Director of the National Theatre, Karel Kovařovic. A humiliation for the 61-year-old composer who realised the extraordinary significance of a performance in Prague.

Dr Emil Hertzka, Director of Universal Edition, heard Jenůfa there and was so impressed that he decided there and then to publish the opera. That is how it came to the first contract between the composer and UE, in 1916.

The composer Josef Suk urged the Prague writer Max Brod to go and see the opera. In a short note entitled My First Encounter with Janáček, Brod – whose German versions of Janáček’s libretti were to pave the way for the composer’s international success – describes the music’s effect on him:

“The tickets were all sold out, it was with difficulty that I found a place on the highest gallery where I could hear the music without seeing the stage. Suddenly, there rose to my ears the ancient sounds of a soldier’s song, of a peasant dance. Tears of happiness, tears that I had long missed, came to my eyes… Oh, it was again simple and good to be in this world!”

“I reported on this extraordinary work for the Schaubühne, Siegfried Jacobsohn’s magazine in Berlin, under the title Czech Operatic Bliss. After the appearance of this jubilating article, I received a letter from the composer to thank me. We had not met before but now he wanted to visit me. ...Some time later, an old gentleman I had never seen before was standing in my room. It was on a Sunday, rather early in the morning. I had been fast asleep. Was I still dreaming? That head with the high, beautifully shaped forehead, the flashing-serious look in the large, open eyes, the finely curved lips: that is Goethe’s head as painted by Stieler, but transposed into a softer, Slav version… A name rings in my dream:  Leoš Janáček. He is the composer of Jenůfa.

Max Brod had creative plans of his own, he wanted to write some dramas and was disinclined to translate the libretto into German. However, he had no choice but to say yes:

“There came the Master himself to see me, he did not balk at the long trip from Brünn to Prague. The look in his eyes defeated any resistance I may have had. Even more compelling was his naive request – he did not beat about the bush but made his point energetically. He told me how he had taken the night train from Brünn to Prague and added: “Now I have been walking in front of your house up and down since six o’clock and have been thinking all the time: ‘This Brod has written beautifully about me. If he is willing to do the translation, all will be well. Should he turn me down, all will be lost.’”

Janáček was right. It was thanks to Max Brod’s German version of the libretto – and those of the other operas – that Jenůfa embarked on an unprecedentedly successful international career, as did the operas Janáček composed in the subsequent years. The Viennese premiere of Jenůfa was a triumph and soon enough Universal Edition was inundated with orders for the performing material from Bern, Graz, Dortmund, Heidelberg, Kassel, Lübeck, Hannover, Stuttgart, Munich, Mainz and other cities.

Extraordinarily enough, most of Janáček’s masterpieces (the operas Katja Kabanova, The Excursions of Mr Brouček, The Makropulos Case, The Cunning Little Vixen and From the House of the Dead) as well as his major concert works like the Sinfonietta and the Glagolitic Mass were all composed in his last years, between 1920 and 1928.

Recognition of Janáček’s significance went hand in hand with the realisation that, beyond being a Czech composer equal to his fellow countrymen Smetana and Dvořák, he was also one of the greatest opera composers of the 20th century.