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Essential Janácek

Janacek: A Composer's LifeSeptember marks the release of the first new biography in twenty years of the great Czech composer Leos Janácek (Janácek: A Composers Life; Mirka Zemanova, Northeastern University Press,). It came to my attention just as I was about to complete reviews of several important recordings of Janácek's music for this issue of Rhapsody. A prepublication copy was obtained from the publisher and I spent ten days totally immersed in the intriguing manuscript. It is a superb study of the life of one of the most totally unconventional and unorthodox composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

I was tempted to turn to the later pages of the book for background on the Sinfonietta, Glagolitic Mass and other works written in the "Indian Summer" of his life, after his 60th year, which were to have been the focus of my original review. After reading the opening pages it became clear that this approach simply would not do. The book is so well written that I knew I must make time for the whole manuscript. When I reached page 106 I encountered this sentence: "According to the great Czech pianist (and Janácek's last pupil) Rudolf Firkusny, 'Janácek's touch at the keyboard was exquisitely refined, and he sometimes complained that his piano music was played much too roughly'."

Firkusny. The name resonated back to 1976 when he came to Cincinnati to play with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. I still had a tape of my interview with him. Just as I recalled, I had taken the opportunity to plumb his memories of Janácek. I found the interview in my personal archive, and there, four years after his death, his words rang out once again. The story he tells is as compelling as Janácek himself. Little prodding was necessary as his thoughts spun out in sentences fragmented by a flavoring of a charming Czech accent. I realized that what Firkusny was telling me was almost the skeleton upon which one could impose the far deeper story that is told by Mirka Zemanova in her new book.

Quoting now the dust jacket, "She sheds light on the creative surge in his final years, attributing his remarkable late flowering to the success in Prague [of his opera Jenufa, performed here for the first time during the 2000 Cincinnati Opera season and broadcast by WGUC in 2001], his fierce patriotic pride in the newly independent Czechoslovakia at the end of World War I, and, perhaps most of all, his passionate attachment to Kamila Stosslova. From the time they met, when Janácek was 63 and she was 25, to his death eleven years later, Kamila held the composer under her spell and inspired many of his late works. Zemanova also thoroughly chronicles Janácek' s ardent courtship of and tempestuous marriage to Zdenka Schulz (whom he married before her 16th birthday), his extramarital love affairs and infatuations, and the tragic deaths of his two children."

A remarkable quality of Zemanova' s biography is its two-fold nature. For the non-musician it is a satisfying read, requiring no technical knowledge of music to be enjoyed. This book is a must.

Here are some of the words of the late Rudolf Firkusny on Leos Janácek:

"He was just a very special person in a way because he was completely unconventional. He went against every established rule and every established philosophy and that was the reason somehow that he, after studying of course in Leipzig and also in Prague, decided that this was not what he wants and he went out and started to write exactly how he felt. Of course a very important influence in his case was the Moravian folklore, very important, even (going) to places where nobody before him went.. .he was noting down all the songs and he was listening to the people...not wanting to have songs, but even to their speeches...I mean how they speak which of course influenced very much his way of writing for the human voice... I mean his idea was to write for the singers exactly as if he would write for the spoken word. He was going away from the big arias because everything should be more or less natural.
And of course therefore for a long time he was considered almost an amateur or somebody who wasn't taken seriously and especially I mean for the people of Prague who were rather conservative and were still very, very much involved in the real romantic post Wagnerian, I would say even Wagnerian type of writing and so of course he had to wait until he reached the sixtieth year of his life that his work started to be performed a little bit. I mean before that it was performed only in this little provincial town of Brno where he lived and were probably not the best performances because they were not that kind of musicians.
And only when he was 60 or 70 after the successful premiere in Vienna [of Jenufa] he became a composer that people started to take notice [of]. And somehow this kind of sudden recognition and also the realization that he really found something which was his own came enormous impetus and so this man in his last twelve years wrote more than he actually wrote before he was sixty. I mean all his great operas Katya Kabanova and The Cunning Little Vixen and The Makropolus Affair and From the House of the Dead... Sinfonietta and...you name it...it was written only in the last years. And partly of course I think he was a man who was, in spite of the criticism that he was not one hundred percent professional in his writing...that he was a man who knew exactly what he was doing...and he was studying very, very seriously.
He went through all kinds of experiments... he was also an excellent writer... he wrote many articles, very interesting articles. And he of course was a leading man in his city of Brno, which at this time was a predominately German speaking town and there was a very small Czech minority, and he became a kind of cultural leader...he had a school which he was of course heading...then he organized concerts... he organized lectures, he was doing a lot of things...writing. I think all this long preparation was somehow, was partly responsible for his later wonderful style which somehow jumped out, like from nowhere. It was not only just pure accident, I think it was really a tremendous process of preparation to arrive to this kind of result, which still can be discussed... but I think definitely is Janácek's own ...and always will be Janácek's own."

When I first began thinking about this article one of Janácek's works I felt most compelled to write about is his Slavonic or Glagolitic Mass. What makes it so special is that in a way it is a Mass for unbelievers, written by a man who we would call today an agnostic. It is said that Janácek would not step into a church to get out of a rainstorm, although the Mass is dedicated to Archbishop Precan of Olomouc.

In my interview of 1976 with Rudolf Firkusny he says in part:

"...he used the old text, he used the old Slavonic... what we call the Cyrillica which was actually, apparently, the first language in which religion was brought to our country by Saints Cyril and Methodius ...and of course at this time you know the religion was I suppose a little different than we see now, and I think it is so much more from the point of view of the universe, it was not just religion, it was something...it was in nature, it was in whatever you want."

A bit later in the interview Firkusny states:

"and so I think nevertheless he was a believing man, in spite of everything...when he finished this piece somebody wrote in the newspaper that it's interesting that Janácek in his old age is becoming religious, and he was furious, because he hated it when anyone mentioned his old age...he never liked to hear that although he was, so he answered back, "I'm not old and I'm not religious!"

I urge you to read Zemanova's Janácek: A Composers Life and listen to the complete Firkusny interview.

Now, briefly, some recommended recordings to start your own exploration of Janácek's music.

SinfoniettaFirst to buy is Janácek's Sinfonietta, specifically the Czech Supraphon Records performance of 1961, with the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Karel Ancerl (SU1929-2 011). There are many choices to make, most of superior recording technique, but this particular performance (the CD also contains Janácek's Taras Bulba) rings more authentically than any of the others. Janácek used the Czech language (often specifically Moravian dialect) as is spoken for the "melos" of much of his music. Zemanova's book abounds with references to Janácek's notebooks filled with speech tonality/ rhythm studies. Just being able to read and play the notes as written is not enough. It is imperative to understand the language and it peculiar inflections to be able to perform this piece with authority.

Glagolitic MassThe same applies to the Glagolitic Mass. I recommend first Supraphon 111930-2 911, which was awarded the Grand Prix Du Disque in 1964 and the prize of The Art Festival, Tokyo in 1965. It features the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus with extraordinary soloists, again conducted by Karel Ancerl. It is worth spending nearly $50 for a piano score of the Glagolitic Mass, published by Universal-Edition Vienna (Number 9544a). It comes in two versions, Latin/English and Slavonic/German. It is wonderful to follow while listening to the recording, and you can see on the page how Janácek works his magic. You don't have to be a musician to follow it and it is a delightful way to spend 22 minutes. A full conductor's score is available in a pocket-sized edition for about the same amount. For a modern digital recording, Sir Charles Mackerras wins hands down for his performance with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus and more fine soloists (Supraphon 10 3575-2) from a 1984 session. Mackerras' scholarship is admirable. His edition of Janácek's opera Jenufa (London/Decca 414 483-2) with the Vienna Philharmonic and State Opera Chorus and an all-Czech cast is a great introduction to Janácek's first truly great success.

JenufaFinally, you would benefit greatly in investing in Deutsche Gramophon/Polydor 449 764, a 2-CD set of Janácek's music for piano solo and various ensembles featuring the late Rudolf Firkusny, Janácek's last pupil. The recording was made in 1997, the year before Firkusny's death and features the Concertino, Zdenka Variations, In the Mists, Defiance and the Capriccio for piano, left hand. There is a rich and wonderful world to be explored, listening to Janácek's music and reading of his life.

Rudolf Firkunsy Interview

Famed Czech pianist Rudolf Firkunsy, last pupil of Leos Janácek, interviewed here by WGUC's Gary Barton in 1976. Firkunsy was in Cincinnati for a guest performance with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. (RealPlayer required.)

By Gary Barton.

Many of the recordings mentioned above may be purchased at ArkivMusic.com, where a portion of your purchase can benefit WGUC.

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