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Derek Katz, Janáček: Beyond the Borders

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Leoš Janáček

Leoš Janáček

Derek Katz, Janáček: Beyond the Borders, University of Rochester Press, 2009

Whether you first became aware of the composer Leoš Janáček while seeing or hearing one of his unusual operas, operas with animal characters, moon people, or 400-year-old women, or, like me, you encountered his well-known Sinfonietta in a traditional orchestra concert, you probably instantly realized that this is a composer with his own distinctive sound and musical sensibility, neither Germanic, like Richard Strauss, Finnish, like Sibelius, nor Russian, like Scriabin, to compare him with three of his immediate contemporaries. Though there are occasional echoes of Smetana and Dvořák, the nineteenth century’s two great Czech nationalists, Janáček’s music most often sounds sharply different from theirs nor does he remotely resemble his contemporaries in nearby lands. This relatively short book — about 136 pages of easily readable prose — is an exploration of that sound.

Janáček wrote in several genres but he is chiefly known for his operas, operas that many stylists of twentieth-century music relegate to late romanticism. Meanwhile, experts on nineteenth-century romantic music tend to ignore him because his sparse and even aphoristic aesthetic is more aligned with the early twentieth-century. In other words, his operas aren’t easily classified and don’t fit usual stylistic definitions of classical music. As almost any experienced listener can tell, Janáček’s musical language is undeniably bound up with modern spoken Czech, and Derek Katz does not shy away from pursuing the symbiotic relationship between the two, though gratefully he does not make any false or unsupportable claims about this often-discussed relationship.

This is a book largely about musical meaning and musical style. But readers need not possess a fluid technical language of music as Katz nicely explains musical concepts as they arise. Furthermore, distinctive features of Janáček’s style are highlighted with musical examples, the “Moravian cadence,” for example, or his lovely Slovak-flavored melodies using the Lydian scale. In terms of biographical background, Katz situates his narrative firmly in salient details consistent with John Tyrrell’s recent two-volume study of the composer. But he complicates — in a positive, forward-thinking way — the widely held view that until World War I the composer was directly involved in the development of a Czech national opera through the use of so-called “speech melodies” and folksong, and that after the war Janáček underwent a change of heart and composed operas largely outside local Czech concerns. Katz’s intention — as he clearly states and I believe accomplishes — is not to overturn the work of previous scholars, but rather “to suggest that the stories we already tell about [Janáček] are often more complicated than they might at first seem.” There are other ways of explaining Janáček’s music, argues Katz, other avenues that have not been explored. One of these emphasizes the composer’s debt to immediate predecessors such as Gounod, Charpentier, and Puccini, especially in the lyricism of his soaring melodies.

While twentieth-century advocates of Janáček felt compelled to justify him as a “modern” composer, we are now probably past that stage of advocacy where we can hear his music and its many resonances, not only of his contemporaries, but clearly of the past. There is plenty of evidence of French and Italian romanticism in his music, a fact that Katz celebrates, rather than tries to minimize.

Katz takes a wide range of Janáček’s music into consideration, including genres such as violin sonatas and song cycles. And yet the table of contents suggests that this is largely going to be a book about the operas. It is through these, after all, that the substance of Janáček’s reputation is based, “beyond the borders,” that is, outside of what is today the Czech Republic. Katz’s book is by no means the first in English to tackle the unusual range of subject matter and emotional intensity of Janáček’s operas. But of all the existing studies, this one offers an excellent short study of the operas in the light of Janáček’s developing musical style and political sensibilities. You won’t find here cast lists, plot synopses, or scene-by-scene analysis, as in Eric Chisholm’s book of some forty years ago. But Beyond the Borders is a highly recommended read for anyone who has already seen or heard these distinctive operas and would like to know more about their musical language and historical context.

In a chapter with the intriguing title “Beyond the Czech Language: Janáček and the Speech Melody Myth, Once Again” Katz enters into a longstanding debate, one that encompasses a specific type of relationship between natural inflections of a language and music that is consciously derived from it. Janáček is the first known composer to whom such consideration is applied. The idea of “speech melody” (in this case, phrases of music whose pitches and rhythms have been derived from the pitch and accent of spoken Czech) has fascinated generations of Janáček experts. The idea surely could not have originated with him, however. In a sense, the technique resembles the “drum language” of the Congo, where players use pitches and rhythms of local percussion instruments to approximate the spoken word. Katz at first liberally reviews Janáček’s own writings about speech melody. Then he summarizes what major scholars have had to say about the importance of these in Janáček’s music. But it is with a more extended analysis of examples from the opera Kát’a Kabanová that he illustrates how Janáček developed speech melody while in the process of composition, rather than having the lilt of the text generate the melody, which would seem a logical assumption based on Janáček’s own words about the “melodic sweetness” of the Czech language generating its own tones.

Katz argues that speech melodies were not as strong a preoccupation of Janáček’s — such that the composer’s few references might indicate — or that it was as much of a driving force in his early musical language as some have tried to prove. Katz does examine in some detail one major exception where Janáček incorporated a speech he had recorded between a child and an adult into his early opera Osud (Fate). While the possibilities of speech melody continue to fascinate many people, and version of the technique persists in the music of modern-day composers such at Steve Reich and Laurie Anderson, it remained for Janáček, as Katz asserts, more a theory rather than a fully worked-out procedure. It reflects part of the composer’s search for a way (in the words of Milan Kundera) to “define emotions musically.”

Chapter three, “Beyond the Czech Lands” offers some sharp insight into the relationships between political and musical nationalism during Janáček’s lifetime, which, from 1854 to 1928, pretty much traversed the crucial years of disentanglement of Czech identity from its Germanic networks and its realignment to a Slavic orientation. There is not much opera in this chapter. In fact, the pieces of music used to demonstrate Janáček’s developing national characteristics are the violin sonata and symphonic poem Taras Bulba. Given the purely instrumental works in focus here, the chapter serves as an effective introduction to Janáček’s mature musical language.

Taras Bulba may be performed less often than nationalistic symphonic character studies by comparable composers, Liszt’s Mazeppa or Bartók’s Kossuth, for example. But with the exception of Janáček’s more famous Sinfonietta it is clearly the most important Czech orchestral work after those of Dvořák. Katz points out that while a story in which different groups of Slavs murder each other would hardly seem to be a representative subject to represent pan-Slavic unity, he argues that Janáček considered what he called his “Slavonic Rhapsody” to be something of a “musical testament” and was proud of the fact that the subject demonstrated the indomitable and unconquerable spirit of the Russian people. (40)

Janáček is considered the most important composer since Smetana and Dvořák to achieve a recognizable Czech sound, a sound that is naturally reinforced in the locale and regional subject matter of several of his operas (in Jenůfa, for example). In chapter four, “Beyond National Opera,” Katz transgresses the obvious and explains how Janáček’s later operas with limited overtly national or political subject matter — The Cunning Little Vixen and The Excursions of Mr. Brouček — were still very much concerned with Czech sensibilities, albeit changing ones. When Brouček — transported from the modern era back to the fifteenth century — hears the Hussite army approaching, for example, they are led by a bagpiper. “Janáček is still working within the nationalist framework established by Smetana,” Katz remarks, “but he had transposed one of its symbols.”  Katz continues: “Two types of Czech national identity, the pastoral and the legendary, are conflated as bagpipes lead the Hussites, as if [the patriot] Jan Žižka were marching hand in hand with Mařenka, Smetana’s bartered bride.” (63) Janáček’s fascination with the Hussite era was clearly motivated by nationalistic and patriotic nostalgia. In Katz’s interpretation, Brouček represents the small-minded modern Czech bureaucrat; the Bohemians of the fifteenth century are “real” Czechs.

Katz tackles a major aspect of each of Janáček’s operas, each from a different perspective. Mr. Brouček, as already noted, reflects Janáček’s preoccupation with a precise moment in Czech cultural emergence. Kát’a Kabanová is Janáček’s Madama Butterfly. The Cunning Little Vixen is a “village opera” in the tradition of The Bartered Bride, only the central community consists of animals and the peasant farmers are the threatening outsiders. The Makropoulos Case — set in modern-day Prague — comes remarkably close to a Zeitoper, that moralistic category of au courant topical works like Kurt Weill’s The Czar Allows Himself to Be Photographed or Křenek’s Jonny spielt auf. From the House of the Dead — with its play-within-a-play enacted by the prisoners — anticipates Mauricio Kagel’s “anti-opera” of the 1960s. And so on.

Janáček Beyond the Borders is not exactly a page-turner, as perhaps an author writing about a composer’s stormy personal life might be tempted to construct (given the composer’s May-December relationship with Kamila Stösslová especially complicating the last decade of his life). You must have seen or heard these operas to care about Derek Katz’s lively engagement with them. The distance of time has been kind to Janáček and the reputation of his operas is growing fast. While perhaps they may never rival Puccini or Strauss for popularity, they will always be very high in the estimation of true opera aficionados and will remain a delightful surprise for opera lovers who have not yet encountered them. And in the meantime, the University of Rochester Press has added yet another interesting title to its ongoing rich and varied series on music.

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1 Response

  1. Sehr schöne Seite, gefällt mir gut. Ein Lob an den Grafiker und den Autor.