This recording features a wide variety of works by the Czech composer Leoš Janácek, ranging from the mayhem of the Ríkadla nursery rhymes and the description of the shameful antics of Mr Kašpar Rucký to the serene beauty of the Lord's Prayer setting. Several of the pieces are only rarely performed—even today when the composer's reputation is growing fast—and are little known outside the Slavic choral tradition which so influenced their style.
Other recommended albums
Though almost seventy years have elapsed since his death (on 12 August 1928), Leoš Janácek remains a strangely anonymous personality within the recent canon of Czech music, and yet paradoxically his works are now performed more widely than ever before. At once both enigma and polymath, his life was touched by more than its fair share of tragedy, and withstood frequent unplanned diversion from a creative course that, from the first, seemed dogged by critical censure and public disregard in more or less equal measure. Even as we begin a new millenium, the balance of opinion has not wholly shifted in Janácek’s favour. To many, his posthumous reputation seems to hang on a comparatively small number of works. Within the realm of the opera house, Jenufa, Kát’a Kabanová and From the House of the Dead have earned universal currency, and Janácek’s two astonishing string quartets (The Kreutzer Sonata and Intimate Letters) are acknowledged as significant watersheds in the evolution of the genre during the 20th century.
But what else remains that has captured public imagination and simultaneously placated sceptical opinion? Among Janácek’s orchestral compositions, the Sinfonietta of 1926, and the orchestral rhapsody after Gogol’s lurid tale Taras Bulba (1915–1918) spring readily to mind. Janácek’s liturgical masterwork, the Glagolitic Mass (1926, revised 1929) is an undisputed landmark within the Czech choral milieu and is today widely performed and recorded. But aside from a smattering of instrumental and chamber works spanning a variety of forms, relatively little of Janácek’s output is familiar in the concert room or, for that matter, on record. Indeed, the notion of Leoš Janácek, choral composer, might seem to be one of his less plausible incarnations, simply because that area of his creative output is all but unknown outside the Slavic-speaking nations. But Janácek’s forty or so compositions for mixed voices form a substantial category, and history recalls that the genre provided artistic stimulus in almost every phase of his life.
Leoš (Leo Eugen) Janácek was born in the Moravian town of Hukvaldy on 3 July 1854, into a musical family of unremarkable wealth and relatively little substance. His father and grandfather (both, incidentally, shared the Christian name Jirí) were prominent figures in the musical life of the impoverished Moravian communities in which they worked throughout their lives, and the Janácek dynasty was inextricably linked to the Slovakian Kantor tradition, in which choral singing played a decisive role. The composer’s father moved to Hukvaldy in 1848, ten years after his marriage to Amálie Grulichová; Leoš was the fourth of eight children born there. Financial pressures obliged Jirí Janácek to take a full-time appointment as teacher in the village school, but family life remained harsh. There was seldom sufficient food for the children and the family dwelling was so small that Jirí and Amálie resolved, in 1865, to ease the situation by sending the eleven-year-old Leoš, who already demonstrated above average musical ability, to the Augustinian Queen’s Monastery in the old city of Brno. It was here, during his years as a chorister, that Leoš Janácek felt for the first time the influence of the venerable Slavic choral traditions which would, in greater or lesser degree, remain a potent force throughout his entire life.
The Brno choir school, founded in 1648, had long enjoyed a reputation as one of the finest of its kind in eastern Europe. However, the political upheavals of the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 had changed all that; funding of an institution which had formerly offered a broad musical and academic curriculum (along the lines of the French Conservatory system) was now drastically curtailed and, save for the choir itself, the musical life of the Queen’s Monastery was virtually extinguished by fiscal constraint. But the eminent choral composer and musical director, Pavel Krízkovský, then Moravia’s most famous choirmaster, stayed on to salvage what he could. It was under Krízkovský’s expert tutelage that Janácek received his formative training in harmony and counterpoint, and the master always maintained a dutiful in loco parentis interest in his pupil’s development.
It seemed probable that Janácek would have little choice but to follow both his father and grandfather into some aspect of teaching. For Leoš, who spent a further three years at the German College of Brno, this meant a period of advanced educational training at the country’s foremost institution, the Czech Teacher’s Institute, Brno, for which purpose he was awarded a full state stipend. Though he excelled in music, he also matriculated in geography and history in July 1872, before embarking on a mandatory two-year probation at the school run by the Institute. When, later that year, Pavel Krízkovský was transferred to the Cathedral Directorship of Music at Olomouc, he requested that Janácek should take over his former responsibilities at the Queen’s Monastery; so began a further formative period in the development of Janácek’s choral style.
During the two years which followed, Janácek systematically revitalized choral music-making at the Monastery, directing liturgical works by Byrd, Palestrina, Lassus, Haydn and others during its services. His success did not go unnoticed. In 1873 he was approached by the committee of Brno’s famous artisan’s choral society Svatopluk, founded in 1868 as a kind of Slavonic ‘glee club’, whose stock-in-trade included popular folk-songs and drinking songs which had their German equivalent in the tradition of choral singing known as Liedertafel. Fired with new enthusiasm and confidence, Svatopluk moved from Brno’s inns and taverns into its prestigious new concert room, the Beseda Hall; Janácek’s earliest choral works in secular form were written for the Svatopluk performances held there. It was wholly characteristic of the man that, throughout this period of unpaid teaching, in which he dispatched his duties faithfully and efficiently, Janácek’s tireless alter ego lived and breathed only for music. He yearned to study at the famous organ school in Prague, and sought leave to do so in the autumn of 1874, only to find that his grant ran out prematurely. By dint of sheer hard work, however, he completed two years of a three-year course in just ten months, to the astonishment of his teacher, Professor Skuherský. It was a period of biting poverty; with barely enough food to sustain him, Janácek eked out starvation wages from various sources, though was unable to take advantage of the prodigiously varied musical experiences which the Golden City had to offer. He returned to Brno in 1875, to his choir-master’s duties, and his earliest published composition, the offertory Exaudi Deus, was issued in 1877. In October, having resigned the conductorship of the Svatopluk choir, he attained the highly respected position of Musical Director of the Beseda Hall Choral Union, one of the city’s leading musical organizations. Within a matter of months, Janácek widened the formerly exclusive middle-class male membership of the choir to an unprecedented strength of over 250 mixed voices, bolstered by the Monastery Choir and other local groups.
Janácek directed the Brno premičre of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis in 1879, though still considered his musical education to be far from complete. Periods of study in Leipzig (where again he was too poor even to gain admission to the cheapest seats at the Gewandhaus) under Oskar Paul and Leo Grill, and subsequently at the Vienna Conservatory with Franz Krenn did little to assuage his own self-doubt. Moreover, in October 1879, he had become engaged to one of his piano pupils, Zdenka Schulzová (1865–1938), and his constant letters to her recounting the desolate isolation and hunger he endured, especially in Leipzig, still make harrowing reading. Indeed, it was this extremity, loneliness and impoverishment which hastened the move to Vienna, and the couple were married, following his return to Brno, on 13 July 1881; Zdenka had just passed her sixteenth birthday.
Now with formal recognition from the Board of Education, and credentials as ‘Full teacher in Music’, Janácek’s life revolved around the daily round of duties, didactic and administrative, which were the mixed lot of the town music teacher. Yet his own personal endeavour and creative vision did not wane; his dream of founding an organ school began to assume substance when, in December 1881, he was appointed director of Society for the Promotion of Church Music in Moravia, an influential group of business and ecclesiastical figures. Janácek’s conductorial duties also continued at the Beseda Hall where he championed new works by Tchaikovsky, Brahms (the German Requiem), Liszt and Smetana. With the foundation of the Provisional Czech Theatre of Brno in 1884 Janácek entered the field of musical polemics as first editor of the journal Hudební Listy. Yet despite his ceaseless efforts to salvage Moravian musical life from the doldrums of conservatism, his association with the Beseda became increasingly strained, and he stepped down from his conducting post in 1890.
Domestic life too was becoming insufferable. Janácek lived apart from his wife for a period of some two years following the birth of their daughter Olga in 1882. Matrimonial disharmony between a fervently ambitious creative artist constantly repressed by force of circumstance and a dull, immature wife who offered little emotional support was in itself hard enough to bear. But when Janácek’s son Vladimír died from scarlet fever aged two (in 1890), his misery reached a critical nadir, though not for the first time. He had, in fact, abandoned all hope of becoming a composer in response to the bitter repression, hostility, and abject disappointment of his Leipzig and Vienna experiences, and had written nothing between 1881 and 1884. Curiously, when he did take up his pen once more it was to set down two of his earliest choral scores, Kacena divoká (‘The wild duck’) and the four male-voice choruses Muzské sbory. The same scenario would repeat itself on numerous occasions throughout Janácek’s career. Whether as reaction to rejection of some new work, or perhaps, as in the case of the valedictory Elegie na smrt dcery Olgy (‘Elegy on the death of my daughter Olga’), the choral genre seemed to provide Janácek with the spiritual conduit to counterbalance tragedy and failure, and furnished a laboratory in which he experimented with vocal techniques later employed in his operas. The Elegy, a setting for mixed voices of a text by Marie N. Vevericová is an introspective response to the death, in 1903, of Janácek’s only surviving child, at twenty-one years of age, an event which further extended the long and troubled gestation of the opera Jenufa.
With the exception of the 1901 setting of ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, Otcenáš, for mixed voices, tenor solo, organ and harp, most of the remaining works on this recording date from the remarkable late-flowering of creative energy that led a composer in his sixties to produce many of his greatest works at the time when, in the natural order of things, experience suggests the opposite to be the norm. Ríkadla (‘Nursery Rhymes’)—a series of eighteen choral songs with instrumental introduction—is a case in point. Janácek had originally composed eight of the set in 1925, and extended the number to eighteen a year later, adding the introduction at the same time. The instrumentation, which includes that faintly ridiculous but eminently likeable poor relation of the orchestra’s reed instruments, the ocarina, was deliberately intended to complement the risible atmosphere of these engaging ditties.
But it’s all tremendous fun! From the nuptials of the beetroot and the measured hedgerow stealth of the mole, to wind-blown and ripped trousers, and the tragi-comic picture of the cow in the knacker’s yard serenaded by Franta’s grinding string-bass, the world is that of a child distilled through peculiarly Czech folklore and sentiment.
Yet this is not a world spared pain nor the frightening grotesqueries of the imagination—children parade a pet dog whose tail cannot have become entrapped without their assistance, and a dutiful wife ends up in her own soup! And exactly why is Granny crawling amid the concealing foliage of an elder bush? Could there be a mild hint of xenophobia as a ‘German’ beetle fails to own up after breaking some cooking utensils?—‘the cunning German tells such lies!’
The Ríkadla settings owe their origins to the early neglect of Janácek’s first opera Šárka, which remained unperformed until the mid 1920s. Deeply hurt by the rejection of a work based upon one of the most familiar and terrifying subjects of Czech mythology (the libretto was by Julius Zeyer), the composer decided in 1888 to undertake a systematic study of Moravian folk music. The fruits of his discoveries emerged in his choral idiom and, to an extent, are also reflected in the textual content of the Ríkadla series, though as we have seen these were not written until many years after Janácek’s initial exploration of traditional Moravian music. His experiences, in the course of amassing folk music, were broadly parallelled by episodes in the careers of Bartók, Kodály and, on British soil, of Vaughan Williams.
František Procházka’s quintessentially roguish anti-hero Kašpar Rucký is emblematic of a personality who, it appears, recognizes no cultural, ethnic, nor national divides. Though his circumstances are unique, Mr Rucký is an anti-establishment figure, an opportunist, even a philanderer, whose multi-faceted persona is mirrored by the figures of Till Eulenspiegel, the Good Soldier Schweik, and by the fanciful self-aggrandizement of Háry János, not to mention Janácek’s own Mr Broucek who, we are told, undertakes an excursion to the moon, with a little help from the poet and author—Procházka again—who compiled the libretto of the opera. Specific details, of time, place and personage matter little; Kašpar Rucký was favoured at the Imperial table, and knew the mystery of the philosopher’s stone. As a voyeur, he was incorrigible, standing at keyholes and lifting the curtains even on the Emperor’s private chamber—like Strauss’s Till, Mr Rucký reaps his just reward when hanged for his misdemeanours! But like Strauss’s mischievous but eternally lovable villain, his soul, it seems, is immortal. Janácek’s setting of Kašpar Rucký, for female voices with soprano solo, was written in 1916 and published in 1925.
Kašpar Rucký is but one of a significant group of choral works written following the dissolution in 1914 of the famous Moravian Teachers’ Male Chorus, founded in 1906 by Ferdinand Vach, who continued as its conductor until most of its members were conscripted into military service with the outbreak of the Great War. Vach was encouraged to maintain the choral tradition which under his leadership had become a major focus of Moravian musical culture, and resolved to re-form the chorus using exclusively female voices and with the same high degree of artistic idealism and the same pursuit of excellence as before. In addition to the Kašpar Rucký set, Janácek also provided Vlcí stopa (‘The wolf’s trail’) and Hradcanské Písnicky (‘Songs of Hradcany’) to boost Vach’s repertory of new works in 1916. The former, after a poem by Jaroslav Vrchlický, is a superb example of Janácek’s ability to penetrate the essence of literary texts, and to impart through his own creative response some extra dimension of realism and, in this instance, palpable anxiety. The Captain, whose quest for the marauding wolf of the forests takes him through the wind-seared, chill woods all night long, suddenly remembers his beautiful and unfaithful young wife alone at home. Returning after the fruitless quest, he sees the shadowy glimmer of an opening window and the pale hands which opened it; he takes his gun and a fatal shot rings out through the frosty air. ‘This kiss may never end!’—only then does he realize that the wolf’s trail ends at his own marital bed. Hradcanské Písnicky, the ‘Songs of Hradcany’, was again the result of Janácek’s collaboration with František Procházka; the three songs were provided with harp accompaniment, and a highly effective flute part in ‘The weeping fountain’ at the time of their publication in 1922. It seems probable, however, that the chorus-master Vach had expected a cappella settings of these three poems. Children are at play in the hovels of the ‘Golden Street’; but it is a bitter and sad place, yet, says the poet, the state rooms and salons of the palace nearby are poorer still, with the suggestion that its occupants are blissfully unaware of the begging which takes place before its gates. After the hauntingly nostalgic central panel, ‘The weeping fountain’, this triptych ends with ‘Belvedere’, the timeless memorial to the bloodshed and torment of the nation’s past (‘… all around was Czech glory ravished, crushed by mad fury and ruthless hate’), now strangely at one with its tranquil surroundings—fragrant gardens filled with the sounds of music rather than the alarums of battle.
Similar feelings enforce the tragic message of Sedmdesát tisíc (‘The 70,000’), the finest of Janácek’s pre-war compositions for Ferdinand Vach and the Moravian Teachers’ Male Chorus. This 1909 adaptation of the poem by Petr Bezruc recalls another time of despair in the face of a ruthless enemy; ‘Seventy thousand are there of us before Tešín … only seventy thousand of us remaining, are we allowed to live? … A crowd, we look on vacantly just as one calf watches the slaughter of another …’ The lines, from Bezruc’s Silesian Songs, undoubtedly assumed deeply personal patriotic import for the composer. To educated patriots these poems were a rallying call to arms against the German and Polish oppressors, and the social and nationalistic impact of these writings would be difficult to minimize. Indeed, the trilogy of Bezruc settings composed in between 1906 and 1909 (the other two, not included in the present recording, are Kantor Halfar and Marycka Magdónova) mark the culmination of Janácek’s attainments in a genre which he had first exploited in his choruses for the Svatopluk vocal ensemble. Even though his remarkable Indian summer of creativity lay still more than a decade in the future, it is doubtful that any choral composition of his final years attained comparable idiomatic and vocal effect. Whatever the case, Janácek’s choral works form a significant genus within his entire compositional śuvre, and in both qualitative and quantitative regard, these works are quite as distinctive and compelling in character as anything else which flowed from him during a long and productive career.
Michael Jameson © 1997