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2.8.04

Leoš Janáček

Here is an interesting article (Back to the old country, July 26) by John Tusa in The Guardian, in which the author goes back to the country where he was born, Czechoslovakia, on the trail of composer Leoš Janáček, whose 150th birthday we celebrate this year. Janáček—whom Tusa describes as "the musical puzzle, the composer who came from nowhere, who left no school, yet who strides the international opera scene to this day"—may be the greatest opera composer of the 20th century in the minds of many people, myself included. On his first night in Brno, Janáček's professional base, Tusa witnessed a performance I would love to have heard:

On the first evening, the Janacek Opera of the Brno National Theatre were performing Katya Kabanova. Part of a fortnight's anniversary festival including all of Janacek's stage works, it was a turbulent evening. Janacek sung in Czech by Czechs has a special impact; this is not surprising, given Janacek's obsession with the way the spoken language sounds and the way in which it influences composed music. But it was the theatrical brutality of the piece that took me aback. The speed with which Janacek disposes of the action, culminating in Katya's suicide, is breathtaking, yet achieved without skimping. The emotional impact is huge, because the economy and concentration of the music are so intense. That is the paradox. That is his genius.
Next, Tusa goes deeper into the countryside to find Janáček's house and tries to understand how folk music had such an influence on the composer:
Two evenings later, we were in Janacek's home village of Hukvaldy, surrounded by the wooded hills he loved so much, the 500-year-old lime trees, the old castle on the hilltop about which he lyricised, clean air and bright sunshine that seemed to give him creative energy. We were in the pub Janacek used, Pod Hradem, below the castle. Then, as now, musicians played folk music, violin and dulcimer, perhaps even the one the composer listened to. They sang while they played. In Janacek's time, the musicians were local farmers and peasants, the music preserved and transmitted through the oral tradition. That evening the two performers were computer programmers by day but had learned folk music at the hands of local musicians.
It's a long article, full of information, and definitely worth reading.

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