The Janáček Brno 2022 festival features a dramaturgical focus on the themes which had a totally fundamental formative influence on Janáček’s personality and work – his attitude to Slavic and primarily Russian culture. His feelings gradually developed over time from Slavic patriotism into a love of Russian language and literature. The concept of Pan-Slavism, i.e. unity between Slavic nations, was a powerful force throughout the 19th century, and Janáček, like many of the intellectuals of his time, was heavily influenced by it. The environment in which he grew up also had a certain influence on his proudly declared Slavic patriotism. At the Augustinian monastery in Old Brno, where he lived from the age of eleven, he experienced the activities of a strong cult devoted to Cyril and Methodius and connected with the National Revival. At the age of fourteen he was already deeply into the whole Slavic “thing”, expressing great enthusiasm for his participation in a celebration of Cyril and Methodius at Velehrad, and begging his uncle Jan Janáček for real Slavic clothes sewn from “Russian cloth”. His closer feelings towards Russian culture and language can be seen from the start of the 1870s, when the young Leoš started using the Russian version of his name, Lev.
In the first year of his engagement as the choirmaster at the Beseda brněnská philharmonic choir in 1876, Janáček presented a melodrama for recitation and orchestra based on Lermontov’s poem Death. He wished to study under the Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein, admired the works of Tchaikovsky and was friends with the notably Slav-oriented Antonín Dvořák. He also declared his Russophilia through the names he chose for his children: Olga and Vladimír. Janáček’s interest in Russia was strengthened still further by the departure of his brother František to Saint Petersburg. Janáček corresponded with his brother in Russian, and visited him three times at his home there. In 1898 the composer co-founded the Russian Circle in Brno, where he was a very active member – he oversaw teaching, arranged for visits by guest lecturers, and co-organised the 1899 celebrations for the 100th anniversary of Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin’s birth. Janáček’s spouse Zdenka, his daughter Olga and even his housekeeper Marie Stejskalová all attended the club.
Over time, the book collection at the Russian Circle grew to contain a respectable quantity of Russian literature, which Janáček gradually read through. He felt a closeness to it, and it strengthened him in his realistic approach to his operatic works. It was no accident that most of Janáček’s works inspired by Russian literature were produced right during the fifteen years when the club was active. These were the Piano trio inspired by L. N. Tolstoy´s “Kreutzer Sonata” (1908), which was later adapted into his first string quartet (1923), the Fairy Tale for Cello and Piano based on Zhukovsky´s The Tale of Tsar Berendey (1910–1913), and the Slavic rhapsody Taras Bulba, which was based on Gogol’s novel of the same name (1915–1918). The musical and dramatic works of his peak period, such as his opera Katya Kabanova (1920), which was based on Ostrovsky’s drama The Storm, and the opera From the House of the Dead, written according to Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostojevsky’s Notes from a Dead House, are more likely to have arisen due to the strong impact upon the composer of the content of the works themselves, rather than as an expression of Janáček’s Russophilia, which had somewhat cooled since the end of the First World War.
The composer also expressed a certain liking for Polish culture, and even considered taking up the position of director at the Warsaw Conservatory in 1905. He greatly respected the composer Feliks Nowowiejski, became friends with him, and wished to perform his spiritual cantata Quo Vadis in Brno, but unfortunately this plan didn’t come to fruition.
With its focus on Slavic culture, the Janáček Brno 2022 festival recalls this important aspect of Janáček’s thought and his understanding of cultural values.