Music History Monday: Leos Janacek: Composer, Patriot and Patriot Composer!

by Professor Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.

Today we mark the 163rd anniversary of the birth – on July 3, 1854 – of the Czech (Moravian) composer Leoš Janáček.

Image of Leoš Janáček standing to the right, his wife seated to the left.
Czech composer Leoš Janáček with his wife in 1881

First things first, as Janáček’s name is notoriously mispronounced by non-Czechs. His first name – Leoš – is easy enough: “Lay-osh.” But his surname is a challenge for those of us who have trouble moving our vowels. We will learn to pronounce it in two steps. Step one: place an accent on the middle syllable: “Ya–NA-check”. Step two: accent the first syllable as well – “YA-NA-check” – and say it quickly: “YA-NA-check”. Excellent.

Dude /d(j)uːd/ was born in the village of Hukvaldy in the Moravia-Silesia (north eastern) region of today’s Czech Republic. At the time of his birth, Moravia was part of the Austrian Empire and Janáček’s hometown was known by its German name of “Hochwald”.

This article originally appeared on Professor Greenberg’s Music Blog

Young Janáček had a first-rate singing voice. At 11 he received a scholarship to attend the Queen’s Monastery and School in the city of Brno (pronounced Bur-NO), the largest city in Moravia.

The Queen’s Monastery and School was a first-rate music conservatory. Janáček studied singing, organ, and piano and he did well. After graduating at the age of 15, he attended the Royal Teachers’ Training Institute for three years, after which he was appointed Deputy Choir Master for the city of Brno. He began composing at around the age of 21; his first compositions were simple, folk-influenced choral works for the various amateur choral societies he conducted.

Feeling he still had more to learn, Janáček attended the Prague Organ School – another first-rate conservatory of music – in 1874 and 1875, after which he returned to Brno and his job as choirmaster.

In 1879 – at the age of 25 – Janáček decided that he still didn’t know enough – and this is where things get interesting. He was admitted to the Leipzig Conservatory. Founded by Felix Mendelssohn in 1843, the Leipzig Conservatory was considered one of the finest schools of music in the German-speaking world. Janáček lasted just 4½ months, from October 1879 to February 1880. He hated his classes and dropped most of them within just a few weeks. He claimed his teachers to be old and pedantic. But mostly he hated the German-ness of Leipzig and the conservatory: what he perceived as the same intolerable arrogance of the Germans and Austrians who had ruled his Czech homeland for hundreds of years. So he just walked away. Even a biographer as sympathetic as his fellow Czech Jaroslav Vogel can only write that:

Janáček’s behavior in this matter was rash and inconsistent. Here was a village schoolmaster’s son from remote Hukvaldy condemning, out of hand, one of the world’s most renowned conservatoires.

Then Janáček went and did the same thing all over again. On the strength of a series of entrance exams he was admitted to the Vienna Conservatory – again, one of the best music schools in the world – on April 1, 1830.

This time, Janáček lasted only two months. Twisted into an absolute tizzy when he failed to receive a prize in composition and convinced that there was a conspiracy to embarrass and discredit a “Czech composer” (meaning himself), he left Vienna in early June and returned to Brno.

No doubt about it: Janáček had a chip on his shoulder the size of an old-growth redwood. There is no evidence that he was treated disrespectfully because of his nationality in either Leipzig or Vienna. Rather, it was Janáček’s own growing anti-German/anti-Austrian prejudice that did him in.

Back home in Brno, the now 26 year-old Janáček married a woman named Zdenka Schulzova. Zdenka was of German descent, and during their courtship she and Janáček spoke German. But once they were married, Janáček insisted they speak only Czech, a language Zdenka’s parents felt was:

fit only for servants.

By the time of his marriage, Janáček’s Czech nationalism – and his concurrent hatred of things Germanic – came into full bloom. His new father-in-law referred to: “his national fanaticism bordering almost on insanity.” Janáček refused to attend the German theaters and concert halls that dominated the city’s cultural live, and even refused to ride on the city trams until Czechs were finally in the majority on the Brno town council.

Extreme though they might seem, Janáček’s Czech nationalism and his attitudes towards Germans and Austrians were typical for his time.

Things went sour between the Czechs and Austrians in 1618 when Austria revoked religious freedom in the Czech province of Bohemia. Members of the Bohemian diet revolted (making them a revolting diet) and they expressed their displeasure on May 23, 1618 by throwing two imperial Habsburg Regents and their secretary out of a third story the window of Hradcin Castle in Prague. This so-called “Defenestration of Prague” precipitated the Thirty Years War, which eventually involved most of Europe.

Flushed with national pride, the Bohemians declared the Austrian Habsburg Emperor deposed, and elected in his place Frederick, the so-called “Winter King”, as King of Bohemia. Sadly, winter, spring, summer, or fall, Frederick couldn’t lead at all, and he and his Czech army were crushed by the Austrians at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620.

The victorious Austrians decided to make an example of the Czechs. They introduced what was called “forcible Germanization”: the introduction of German as the sole official language, oppressive taxation, and absentee landownership, which collectively reduced the great majority of Czechs to poverty and misery.

For the next 200 years, the Czech language – and with it, Czech poetry, literature, and high culture – was eradicated from schools, from newspapers, the courts, and government administration. Czech-language books were burned. Over time, the Czech language was reduced to a means of communication between typically illiterate peasants (which is why Janáček’s in-laws believed the Czech language to be only for servants).

The “Czech National Revival” that began in the early nineteenth century was, initially, about the revival of the Czech language. It was a grass-roots revival and the Austrian Habsburgs, weakened significantly by their disastrous encounters with Napoleon’s France, were powerless to stop it. A revival of Czech literature, poetry, and scientific terminology followed. Starting in the 1860s, Czech folklore, folk music and folk traditions, which had survived in the country-side away from the Germanized urban centers, were being explored and embraced by nationalist Czech artists in search of national “authenticity” and inspiration.

One of those artists was Leoš Janáček. As he matured as a composer, the importance of the Czech language itself became, for him, the decisive influence on his music. From his study of folksong, Janáček came to believe that folk melody was a reflection of a nation’s spoken language. To that end, he developed a system of what he called “speech melody”: he would jot down little melodic ideas based on the cadence of the spoken word. As a result, his melodic language became a direct outgrowth of the Czech language. As such, Janáček’s mature music is intrinsically “Czech”: a gift to both his nation and the world (yes, even to the Austrians and Germans).

Dr. Robert Greenberg is Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances
Many of his lectures series, including How to Listen to and Understand Great Music are available to stream at The Great Courses Plus.

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