Legacy of Leoš Janáček

In the page header image: Leoš Janáček with professors of the organ course 1905-1906. Marie Kuhlová sits to Leoš Janáček’s left, Max Koblížek is on the right. 1906 Ateliér Rafael. Property of the Moravian Museum.

Leoš Janáček

Leoš Janáček is one of the most remarkable figures to ever appear in the world of music. He was born on 3 July 1854 in Hukvaldy as the ninth child of a rural teacher and came to Brno at the age of eleven to receive a thorough musical education at the Old Brno monastery, and he ended up connecting his entire life with Brno. Since the 1870s, he had been pursuing systematic educational, organisational, pedagogical and artistic activities in this then provincial town, and these were developing in parallel with his own compositional activities. Janáček’s first steps as a composer were influenced by his research into the Moravian folklore, as well as by his later interest in the psychological aspects of human speech. These were the formative elements of his peculiar way of musical expression, which is characteristic feature due to the brevity of its musical ideas and the sharp contrast of their connection.

Janáček felt most in his element when composing opera. As a composer, he created nine operas, the third of which, Jenůfa, was in the making for nine years and – much like the author himself – it had to wait for a very long time to be recognised as the masterpiece it is, but after staging at the Prague National Theatre in 1916 and in Vienna in 1918, it became the foundation of Janáček’s worldwide fame. In the last decade of his life, as he finally received praise for his work, Janáček picked up the pace and started creating his most important works in quick succession; these works fundamentally enriched the repertoire of opera houses (Káťa Kabanová, The Cunning Little Vixen, The Makropulos Affair and From the House of the Dead) and concert stages alike (The Diary of One Who Disappeared, two string quartets, a brass sextet called Youth, Sinfonietta, Glagolitic Mass and many others). The famous composer died on 12 August 1928 in Ostrava, and he is buried in the honorary circle of Brno’s Central Cemetery.

Throughout his life, Leoš Janáček sought to build an art education system in Brno. He is documented to have said “we are thinking of a music academy” as early as 1885; his idea of a music academy meant a connection between the art of music and theatre. However, this idea did not materialise during his lifetime, even though Janáček was moving in that direction by founding an organ school (1881) and a conservatory (1919). Aware of these facts, the newly established Brno Academy put Janáček’s name in its coat of arms from its establishment in 1947.

Expert on Janáček’s work and musicologist Jiří Zahrádka:

When Janáček fell in love, the whole of Brno knew about it

What does Janáček’s legacy mean today – not only in higher education? This legacy of the musical genius and patron of the Brno Academy was the one of the main pretexts for an interview with a leading domestic expert on Janáček’s life and work, Jiří Zahrádka. We talked about everything that is left of the composer’s legacy today and how it affects us – in JAMU, in higher art education in general and even beyond. Leoš Janáček died on 12 August 1928 in Moravská Ostrava of pneumonia at the age of 74. The end of the first decade of the young Czechoslovak Republic was thus marked by the departure of an extraordinary artist who was born into a monarchy, but his lifelong interest in the establishment of an independent state was as strong as his desire to establish a university of music in Brno. The great lover of Russia eventually lived to see the establishment of an independent art school. After the establishment of the Czechoslovak Republic, Janáček, who was already 65 at the time, immediately realised that the new political situation would allow for the establishment of a music conservatory in Brno. The genius’ patronage has been proudly displayed in the coat of arms of the Janáček Academy of Music and Performing Arts since its very establishment in 1947.

Is Janáček still alive in the Czech Republic even ninety years after his death?

He indeed is, and that is for two reasons. On the one hand, we still enjoy the fruits of his achievements to this day – for example, the music education in Brno would have started to develop much later without Janáček’s lifelong hard work, and it would probably be much more modest today. But the main factor is, of course, Janáček’s work. It seems to me that finally, 90 years after the composer’s death, everyone realised that we were dealing with the work of one of the world’s most important composers – not only of the 20th century. This is evidenced, for example, by the Janáček Brno festival, which traditionally enjoys the attentions of many foreign visitors, or by the recent entry of the Leoš Janáček Archive of the Moravian Museum into the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.

In 1881, Janáček founded an organ school in Brno and became its first director. So what about his later efforts to educate young musicians in a specialised school?

At first, Janáček thought of making the organ school an institution run under the auspices of the Austro-Hungarian Empire so that it would not have to be constantly dependent on occasional subsidies and charity. But First Czechoslovak Republic was founded on 28 October 1918, and Janáček immediately began working to transform the organ school into the Brno Conservatory and make the State it founder. However, his vision differed from the visions of the Ministry of Education and some of Janáček’s pupils. Janáček wanted to turn the Brno Conservatory into a university where scientific disciplines such as psychology, phonetics and the like would be taught along with instrument studies, conducting, directing and acting.

However, this was not met with understanding at the Ministry, mainly due to the fact that the Brno Conservatory would gain a higher status than the Prague Conservatory. In the end, Janáček had to come to terms with the fact that his organ school had become a high school type of conservatory, and he even had stomach that he was replaced as the director by someone else. Immediately thereafter, the new school management also cancelled the teaching methods based on Janáček’s harmony. History keeps repeating itself. Janáček was certainly neither the first nor the last to experience such injustice.

Janáček’s idea of a university of music materialised only after his death, in 1947, when the Brno Academy was established, bearing his name to this day. There are many things bearing Janáček’s name in the Czech Republic, until recently even a brewery, which, however, had nothing to do with the composer. As an expert, how do you see this patronage at the Brno Arts Academy after seventy years?

Well, that is rather clear; JAMU and Janáček are inseparable. It is good to have at least one institution in Brno bearing the master’s name. Ostrava has many more, although Janáček has only been there on three occasions – and he died there on the third one. The master would certainly be enthusiastic about a university of music bearing his name, and JAMU certainly benefits from the famous name, as it opens many doors and opportunities. That is the way it is supposed to be!

Do we know what Janáček was like as a teacher?

Pupils’ reminiscences are contradictory. Some could not praise him enough, others hated him with a passion. In any case, he was a very demanding teacher who required a total commitment from his students. His unique way of teaching was very difficult to master. But it must have been very inspiring as well. But I would probably prefer not to be his student – you should not meet your heroes.

How about Janáček and his education? Did he long for education, respect it or, on the contrary, did he prefer going to the common uneducated people to collect, for example, the tunes of folk language?

Above all, it must be said that he collected the tunes and melodies of speech in all walks of life – beggars appear in his notes, as well as President Masaryk. He valued education very much. That is why he preferred the scientific approach and respected the world of higher education. Sometimes, it might even seem as if he had an uncritical admiration of educated people and scientific work. Perhaps that is why he valued so much the honorary doctorate awarded to him by the Masaryk University in 1925 – it was the first honorary doctorate awarded by that institution. From that moment on, he signed any document as Dr. Ph. Leoš Janáček.

What do you see as the pedagogical, artistic and general legacy of Leoš Janáček?

I must say that all the aspects are interconnected when it comes to Janáček. He was an exceptional creator not only because of his musical language, but also in search of topics that would become the basis for his musical expression. And these topics are deeply human and timeless in their nature. In most works, he speaks out against social prejudices, hypocrisy, celebrates the freedom of the individual, and expresses understanding and forgiveness for the poorest. This is evidenced by the motto on the title page of his last opera From the House of the Dead: “In every being, a divine spark.”

Nowadays, Janáček is admired by about everyone as a composer, but at the same time it is known that, for example, in relation to women, the Master was not exactly a beacon of morality. Seven years ago, Uhde’s play “Leoš or Your Most Faithful” in the Husa na provázku Theatre hinted at this. Some time ago, Miloš Štědroň wanted to stage a play called “Janáček – the Wild Man”. What do you have to say about his wild nature?

Well, that is more of a silly, but unfortunately widespread stereotype. Janáček was a man with high moral principles, but he was simply not a hypocrite. He did not visit brothels and did not have a secret mistress like many of the then venerable masters. When Janáček fell in love, the whole of Brno knew about it. He and his wife did not get along very well for a long time, so he wanted to divorce her. But she was against it. Janáček was probably a great platonic lover, he idealised the objects of his emotions considerably, but he needed that feeling of deep love – it allowed him to compose. Anything else is gossip; admittedly enjoyable, but are at odds with the sources.

There is a beautiful and original interpretation of Janáček’s personality by Milan Kundera in his essay My Janáček, which contributed to the better understanding of some myths about the famous composer. Reminds us, how did the famous writer help the famous composer?

Milan Kundera is an excellent writer and essayist, who is also highly educated in music and somehow connected with Janáček through his father, Ludvík Kundera. This Czech pianist, musicologist, teacher and first rector of the Janáček Academy of Music and Performing Arts Brno was appointed professor of piano after the founding of this art school. Ludvík Kundera was the Dean of the Faculty of Music for two years and then the institution’s Rector for another thirteen (from 1 October 1948).

His son Milan has earned unquestionable credit for promoting Janáček around the world. From his articles on Janáček, I truly liked the parts dealing with the dramaturgy of Janáček’s operas and his reflections on the melodies of speech. Kundera offers a new perspective on this topic. On the contrary, I would be cautious about his condemnation of Karel Kovařovic and his interventions in Jenůfa; this is a bit more complicated. However, Kundera is such an interesting person and creator that he is able to turn a non-musician’s attention towards Janáček – and I find his views interesting as well.

Today, Janáček is the most played Czech opera composer in the world and, according to statistics from the Operabase portal, he was one of the twenty most played opera composers in the world for the last five seasons (2013/14 to 2017/18). How do you explain this popularity and the unprecedented expansion of his work around the globe?

The operas are simply good. They speak a language that people understand, they talk about things that bother them or at least interest them. Janáček’s opera does not look like a stylised genre – it is direct, true and therefore strong in its emotion. In addition, the international understanding is facilitated by subtitling devices, which became a standard equipment of opera theatres. Understanding the lyrics of Janáček’s operas is quite important. But as is often the case in art and especially music, there is also something indescribable affecting the listeners, some kind of shamanism.

Mgr. Luboš Mareček, Ph.D.