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Janáček, Leoš (1854-1928)

Leoš Janáček

born: 3 July 1854
died: 12 August 1928
country: Czechoslovakia

Janáček’s father, Jiří, was cantor, Kapellmeister and teacher, serving a number of impoverished communities in northern Moravia. Young Leoš, the fifth of nine children, left the family home at Hukvaldy in 1865 to become a chorister at the Augustinian Monastery in Brno. His elementary schooling was supplemented by lessons at the city’s German college, and in 1869 he received a state scholarship to support studies at the Czech Teachers’ Training Institute. After graduating in 1872, Janáček taught music at the Institute’s school and also directed the monastery choir. He moved to Prague in 1874 and studied organ at the Bohemian capital’s celebrated Organ School, returning to Brno the following year and resuming his teaching and conducting activities. Composition studies in Leipzig and Vienna (1879-80) added to Janáček’s blossoming skills as a composer, although he struggled to make further progress. In 1881, he married the 16-year-old Zdenka Schulzová; a few months later he helped found the Brno Organ School, which later became the Brno Conservatory.

Janáček’s marriage soon failed, and the couple were estranged. In 1887, he began work on his first opera, Šarka, although its librettist subsequently refused permission for the unknown young composer to have the work performed. Moravian folk music and popular culture increasingly fascinated Janáček in the 1880s, influencing a gradual rejection of the high-Romantic musical language of Šarka for a style that reflected his passion for Slavic languages and the musicality of his native tongue. He worked from 1894 to 1903 on his opera Jenůfa, which was premiered successfully in Brno in January 1904. For the next 20 years, he concentrated on composing works for the stage, his stature as an opera composer finally acknowledged in 1916 following the Prague premiere of Jenůfa. Janáček’s second marriage also proved an unhappy match, its tensions highlighted in 1917 after he fell in love, obsessively so, with Kamila Stösslová, wife of an antiques dealer and 37 years the composer’s junior.

International recognition was underpinned by the Berlin and New York premieres of Jenůfa (1924) and the overwhelming dramatic impact of his operas Káťa Kabanová, The cunning little vixen and The Makropulos affair. The Glagolitic Mass (1927), his last opera From the house of the dead (1927/8), and the second string quartet (1928) crowned Janáček’s creative Indian summer, brought to a conclusion when the composer caught a chill that quickly developed into fatal pneumonia.

from notes by Andrew Stewart © 2020

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