Sunday 21 January 2018

Classical talk: Leos Janacek - the man behind the music

On the fringes: Janacek lived in the city of Brno
On the fringes: Janacek lived in the city of Brno

George Hamilton

The empires that straddled Europe across the centuries had a remarkable, if unintended, effect on the music that was to emerge on their outer fringes. Nowhere was this more in evidence than in central Europe, where imperial ambitions put a dampener on local hopes and dreams.

Think of the music of Smetana and Dvorak as an expression of Bohemia's aspirations. Moravia was another ancient kingdom under the rule of the Hapsburgs in an empire with its emphasis on all things German. It was here Leos Janacek was born in 1854.

His baptismal name was actually Leo, but in a gesture that was typical of a child of the Czech National Revival as described by Radio Prague, he shunned his German moniker and opted for the local version instead.

Another recurring anecdote tells of how he'd walk the hilly streets of his home city of Brno rather than take public transport, because the company that owned the trams was German.

Though younger, Janacek was a contemporary of both Smetana and Dvorak. Like them, he found a plentiful supply of source material in local folk tunes. But the similarities ended there.

You don't turn on Janacek for lively dances or lilting melodies. That's not to say that you won't find passages that are charming, but they sit alongside music that can be harshly abrasive as well. The two older composers sat comfortably in the contemporary mainstream, but Janacek went exploring the outer reaches.

Part of the reason was the fact that his base in Brno - now the Czech Republic's second city, but then deemed to be in the ha'penny place compared to Prague - labelled him an unfashionable provincial, so he never got the recognition that came the way of those who lived and practised among the elite.

Discouraged, he went his own way. He found inspiration in a world of sound that wasn't based solely on musical theory. Harmony was what fascinated him. The staccato rhythms of the Moravian dialect had as much a part to play in his creativity as the songs that were sung.

Then there was the political dimension. He wrote a piano sonata in tribute to a protester killed in Brno during a demonstration demanding a Czech university in the city.

He had a fierce loyalty to his own language, as opposed to the German spoken in official circles. He wouldn't let his wife speak German, though it was her native tongue. Zdenka Schulzová had been a piano pupil of his who he had married when she was just 16. He was in his late 20s.

It was an inappropriate match, their life together punctuated by tragedy. Both their children died. Janacek had an affair with the leading lady in one of his operas. Then in later years, he became besotted with a much younger, and happily married, woman.

Kamila Stösslová, who never let the affair become more than platonic, was seen as the inspiration for a final decade of intense creativity, chronicled in more than 700 letters.

She was the heroine in three of his nine operas, which stem from this period, as does an emotionally charged string quartet. Janacek called it Intimate Letters, and Brian Friel took it as the basis for his play Performances.

Friel casts doubt on just how important the composer's muse was to the music's creation, an artistic enigma that can only heighten the enjoyment of the piece in question, Leos Janacek's String Quartet No 2.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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