Composer, teacher, conductor, pianist, writer and folklorist Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) was one of the 20th century’s most remarkable creators of music. Even though he belongs more to the generation of Antonín Dvořák in terms of his date of birth, his compositions lie among the most progressive works of music created during the last century. At the age of almost seventy, Janáček rightfully stood shoulder to shoulder with composers one or even two generations younger, such as Arnold Schönberg, Alban Berg and Igor Stravinsky. Even though he became one of the most popular composers towards the end of his life, Janáček maintained his connection with Brno. He had a close relationship with this city, not only because he spent the majority of his existence here, but also because he contributed to the significant development of Brno cultural life thanks to his tireless organizational, conducting and pedagogical activities, and thus influenced it for many years beyond his own lifetime. If we add the fact that the majority of the composer´s works had their premiere here in Brno, it is obvious how close the symbiosis was between the composer and his town.
Leoš Janáček came to Brno from his native Hukvaldy in 1865 as an eleven-year-old boy. His father sent him to the foundation of the Augustinian Abbey of St. Thomas in Old Brno. At that time, enlightened abbot Cyril Napp was the head of the abbey and personalities such as the composer Pavel Křížkovský, the founder of genetics Georg Mendel and the philosopher, poet and journalist František Matouš Klácel were active there. Musically gifted boys who were accepted to the foundation were called “blues” according to the light blue uniform they wore. They received an excellent musical education at the abbey so that they could take part in its productions and concerts. Later, Janáček continued his studies at a German secondary school which focused on humanities and sciences, and then at the Brno teaching institute. After passing the school-leaving exam in 1874, he remained at the institute as an assistant teacher. Aside from this, he was also engaged in activities as a choirmaster and conductor at the Svatopluk Artisan’s Association (1873-76) and at the Beseda brněnská Philharmonic Society (1876-88). During his era, Beseda brněnská evolved into a large cantata choir with which Janáček could perform works such as Mozart´s Requiem, Beethoven´s Missa Solemnis and Dvořák´s Stabat Mater. At that time, the young Janáček had already started composing and he began to drift away from the career path of a teacher. He strove to deepen his musical education further. In 1874 he was accepted as a student at the Prague Organ School. In 1879-80 he studied briefly at the Leipzig and Vienna conservatories but found that, as he said himself, “there was nothing else to learn”.
Not long after his return from Leipzig, Janáček got married to Zdena Schulzová, the daughter of the director of the teaching institute. The marriage wasn´t a very happy one, with the first serious crisis arriving not long after the wedding and remaining unsettled even after the birth of their daughter Olga. At that time, Janáček was already very busy with work. He added duties at the Association for a Czech National Theatre in Brno, the Russian Circle and the Club of the Friends of Art to his many activities. He founded and published the first musical periodical in Moravia, Hudební listy (The Music Pages), and contributed to the Lidové noviny newspaper with reviews and columns. From 1888 he was intensively involved in the study of folk songs and dances, which he often collected and recorded directly in the field. He wrote several dedicated theoretical works and published the collection Bouquet of Moravian National Songs in collaboration with František Bartoš. In 1890, Janáček and his wife were faced with tragedy in the form of the death of their two-year-old son Vladimír. At the beginning of the 1890s, Janáček´s work was devoted to Moravian folklore. Many of his adaptations of folk songs and dances, the stylized orchestral Wallachian Dances, the “scene from Moravian Slovakia” Rákos Rákoczy and the one-act opera The Beginning of a Romance were created at that time. Apart from his examination of folk songs, Janáček also started to be interested in psychology and its expressions via the spoken word, which he considered to be some kind of “windows into the souls” of people. The melody of speech, or in other words the melodic elements of speech, constituted (according to Janáček) the expression of the character as well as the immediate frame of mind of a person. He was convinced that human speech could be recorded objectively using notation. Janáček was devoted to the recording and collection of such melodies from 1897 onwards for more or less the rest of his life. However, he didn´t only stick to the melody of human speech: the more than three thousand recordings he made include the barking of a dog, the whine of a mosquito, the creaking of parquetry and the buzzing of a bee.
Janáček began a new approach to composition with the opera Her Stepdaughter, which was based on a drama set in a Moravian village by Gabriela Preissová. In this opera, based as it was on prose, Janáček arrived at a distinctive style of musical expression. He gradually leaves the traditional opera schema behind, with its closed numbers and arias. In their place, characteristic rhythmic forms appear in the orchestra such as rhythmic ostinato and modal tone forms, and the musical diction of the vocal parts of the individual characters are completely new, being based on his experience from the study of human speech. Janáček finished the opera in 1903, after almost ten years of effort. The composer’s work on Jenůfa was accompanied by the worsening health of his daughter Olga and by his fear for her life. When he finished the opera, he received the hardest blow – his daughter died at the age of twenty-one.
After the Prague National Theatre refused to perform Jenůfa, its successful premiere took place at the Brno National Theatre on 21st January 1904. Up until then, Janáček had been perceived by society as a director and teacher, and only marginally as a composer, as the results of his creative activities basically could only be seen by the public in Brno. He very much desired to be popular as an artist in Prague, and to be in contact with the Prague music scene. However, he had to wait for twelve more years for both of these things to happen. After the Brno premiere of Jenůfa, Janáček became a pensioner in order to be able to fully devote himself to his organ school and to composition. This period also marked the beginning of his regular visits to a “Slavonic” spa in Luhačovice. During one of his spa stays, Janáček became acquainted with Kamila Urválková, whose life story became the inspiration for Janáček´s fourth opera, Destiny. However, this new work, which was supposed to be produced by the new City Theatre at Královské Vinohrady, was never performed during the composer´s lifetime.
Beyond the borders of Brno, Janáček was represented mainly by choirs at that time; the excellent Moravian Teacher’s Choir with choirmaster Ferdinand Vach, and Pilsen’s Smetana. For those ensembles he composed his Bezruč choirs Kantor Halfar, Maryčka Magdónova and Seventy Thousand. In the period between the Brno and Prague premieres of Jenůfa, further parts of the lyrical piano cycle On an Overgrown Path were created, along with the cycle In the Mists, the orchestral balled The Fiddler´s Child, the cantata The Eternal Gospel and the first version of the symphonic rhapsody Taras Bulba, as well as some other works. It was a period when the composer started to believe that Jenůfa would never be performed in Prague, and began losing faith in himself.
After years of refusal by the Prague National Theatre, Jenůfa was finally accepted and performed to exceptional acclaim in 1916. Encouraged by his success in Prague, the sixty-two year old Janáček started composing feverishly. He completed his work on the opera The Excursions of Mr. Brouček, which he had started earlier, and began working on the chamber composition The Diary of One Who Disappeared. Max Brod and the prestigious publishers Universal Edition supported his finally-launched career as a recognized composer through their interest. Janáček achieved real international fame after the performance of Jenůfa at the Vienna Court Opera in 1918, which opened the door for him to take his place among the foremost European composers. Janáček welcomed the creation of the Czechoslovak Republic in 1918 as a recognized composer, full of life and plans for the future.
The last ten years of Janáček´s life were the most prolific period as far as composition is concerned. The extraordinary dynamics of his creations and the vital energy of his “great old age” were inspired by, among other things, his friendship with his girlfriend and muse Kamila Stösslová. Many of his compositions were directly inspired by her, such as The Diary of One Who Disappeared, the opera Káťa Kabanová and the string quartet Intimate Letters. During this period he oversaw the transformation of Brno Organ School into Brno Conservatory, he was appointed a Professor of Prague Conservatory’s Master School of Composition and elected the chairman of the Club of Moravian Composers. In 1925 he was awarded the first honorary doctorate to be presented by Masaryk University. In 1927 he was appointed a member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, and in the same year King Albert of Belgium made him a Knight of the Order of Leopold (after being impressed by the huge success of Jenůfa in Antwerp). All of the former obstacles and barriers which had prevented Janáček from undertaking intensive composition work finally fell, and the success of his pieces both at home and abroad stimulated the creation of more and more compositions. In the 1920s his chamber compositions Youth, Concertino and Capriccio, two string quartets, the orchestral Ballad of Blaník, his Sinfonietta and his Glagolitic Mass all appeared. Within short intervals he composed his most important musical and dramatic works: Káťa Kabanová, The Cunning Little Vixen, The Makropulos Affair and From the House of the Dead. The older Janáček was, the younger and more expressive his music became. Sadly, the composer’s fast-paced life at the peak of his creative powers was cut short by his sudden death. At the end of July 1928, Janáček left for his native Hukvaldy, where Kamila and her son came to see him. He took a copy of the opera score of From the House of the Dead to make corrections and additions. He didn´t manage to complete the work, however. He was taken to a sanatorium in Ostrava with a serious cold, and succumbed there to severe pneumonia on 12th August. He is buried at Brno’s Central Cemetery.