Janáček and the release of Jenůfa

Article by Gavin Plumley

Those who found themselves pregnant out of wedlock or falling foul of the village’s moral code could, at least, find some solace in the anonymity of the Imperial capital.  Such acts were never spoken of, but it is implied by the Kostelnicka’s news that her stepdaughter Jenůfa has been away from the village for a number of months.  The moral strictures of Gabriela Preissová’s play Její pastorkyňa na would have been no surprise to the Moravian composer Leoš Janáček, who was born into such a community, in Hukvaldy, northeast Moravia, in 1854.  Though this tiny village had a thriving local community – replete with local dances, music making and a vibrant musical life at church (where the young composer banged the timpani on high days and holy days) – it couldn’t prepare Janáček for the renown he would achieve in the Czech lands during his life and internationally only after his death, nor the range of lives and characters he would display in his operas.  He is now, alongside Richard Strauss, Puccini, Berg and Britten, one of the few 20th century composers established in the operatic repertoire.  His third opera Jenůfa, based on Preissová’s play, was the work to launch his career.  Like its eponymous central character, Janáček was able, through love and perseverance, to overcome initial humiliations and failure.

Czech opera saw a major revival midway through the 19th century, the catalyst to which was the opening of a Provisional Theatre in Prague in November 1862.  Janáček was eight at the time.  The theatre was devoted to vernacular opera and drama; Smetana’s and later Dvořák’s early careers would flourish there.  Eventually the building was engulfed by the National Theatre, which still stands today.  Slowly but surely, the Czech operatic canon was written, performed and established in these theatres on the banks of the Vltava.  To have an opera performed in Prague would remain the ultimate goal for any aspiring Czech composer.  In furthest Moravia, however, the young Janáček was a long way from his first exposure to the art form.  As a boy Janáček became a chorister at the Augustinian ‘Queen’s’ Monastery in Brno.  From his education there (including later running the choir at the monastery) he went on to study at the Prague, Leipzig, and Vienna conservatories.  In 1881 he founded a college of organists in Brno, which he directed until 1920 and he established a strong foundation for musical education, with violin and singing classes, an orchestra and, later, piano classes.  In 1884 the Provisional Czech Theatre opened in Brno and Janáček started Hudební listy, a journal through which he reviewed the stage works performed there.  Various trips to Prague and a modest repertoire of performances in his hometown allowed the composer access to many scores, including works by Fibich, Gluck, Gounod, Meyerbeer, Smetana, Verdi and Wagner.

Inspired or at least spurred by what he saw and heard, Janáček began to write his own first attempts.  Choosing the grand historical mode of Smetana’s musical dramas, Janáček composed his first opera, Šárka.  The opera was a prospectus for the young composer, yet without the dramatic (or indeed musical) flair of his compatriots.  Notwithstanding the many musical glories of the score, Šárka is dramatically inept, although its recent performances and dissemination are important for a full understanding of the traditions from which Janáček came.  After the disillusionment of failing to stage his first opera (he was refused the rights to the libretto), Janáček threw himself into a comprehensive study of the folk music of Moravia, where he set both of his next completed operas.  The Beginning of a Romance and JenůfaJenůfaare taken from pre-existing works by the controversial contemporary playwright Gabriela Preissová.  Where the former is filled with folkdances and songs – a direct product of the composer’s work in the field – Jenůfa was a full-length, full-blown operatic achievement.

The composition of Jenůfa was protracted and the effects of Janáček’s maturing style can be seen in the stylistic differences between the first act and the last two; the first act a mêlée of Bartered-Bride-type choruses and ‘number opera’ scenes and arias, the second two acts a pacey through-thought dramaturgical argument.  The impact of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades (which Janáček reviewed for Hudební listy), his increasing awareness of the power of the imitation of speech into his operatic style, and personal circumstances, namely the death of his beloved daughter Olga (to whom he dedicated the opera), all feed into Jenůfa.  But Janáček was also responding to a new fashion.  In 1890 Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana burst onto the operatic scene.  Replete with ear-biting and duelling, Mascagni’s gritty slice-of-life realism was hailed as the start of a new era in opera, verismo (literally ‘realism’).  The great success of Cavalleria rusticana spawned many offshoots.  In France, however, ‘down-at-heel’ operas had been all the rage since Bizet’s Carmen was premiered at the Opéra-Comique in 1875 (and had since become a staple of the Czech repertoire).  Elsewhere in Europe the verismo influence was keenly felt, nowhere more so than in Janáček’s own country.  Cavalleria rusticana was given in Prague within a year of its Rome premiere and was a great success: performed twenty-eight times through 1891 and a further fifteen times in 1892.  Pagliacci followed in 1893 and enjoyed a solid if not quite equal level of success as Cavalleria rusticana in Prague.  Their popularity had repercussions in contemporary Czech music and it wasn’t long before native composers started to produce works that were in their own way new verismo operas.  First of all an opera called Stoja by Richard Rozkošný appeared in Prague in 1894 followed by Karel Bendl’s Mother Míla in 1895, both tapping into versions of the Cav and Pag milieu.  The dates of their premieres are hardly coincidences.  Janáček also got to know all of these works; Cavalleria rusticana was first performed in Brno on 3 March 1892, when he reviewed the piece.

Looking through the first three of Janáček’s nine operas it is clear to see the models on which the composer based his efforts.  Šárka, his first (and not heard until much later), was the apotheosis to Smetana’s historical opera Libuše, both in its story and in its musical style.  The Beginning of a Romance was a village folk comedy composed from preexisting folk music and echoing the jolly nature of Smetana’s comic style, as in The Bartered Bride.  Although Janáček Janáčekcarried on with a village location in Jenůfa, albeit in a tragic frame of mind, it was a huge musical and dramatic advance on his previous efforts.  Moreover, Jenůfa became the composer’s own attempts at a verismo style drama, though surpassed their melodramatic posing.  With Jenůfa, Janáček changed the idyllic face of the Czech village opera forever and, as with his later operas, Janáček took both operatic and literary convention and revolutionised them.  Most enterprising was his study of everyday language that started his interest of ‘speech melody’, as he explained in this (deliberately anonymous) note for the Brno premiere:

‘The work which is played on our stage today has unusual significance not only for theatre music in general but specifically for Moravian music.  For the former in its use of a prose text and the principles on which it was composed, for the latter because it is the first work in this field which consciously attempts to be Moravian.  […] The principle on which Jenůfa was written is the following: Janáček recognised that the truest expression of the soul lies in melodic motifs of speech.  Thus instead of the usual arias he used these [speech] melodies.  In so doing he achieved a truthful expression in places where this is surely one of the most important things.  Driven by the attempt at truthful expression, not just in mood but also in situation, he has employed a realistic expression of the locality, especially in the choruses.’

Despite these stylistic and musical innovations, Jenůfa was not the opera to take our Moravian composer out into the longed-for glories of the National Theatre in Prague, or not immediately, at least.

When Janáček completed Jenůfa in 1903 he wrote to the National Theatre in Prague asking them to consider performing the opera.  Composer Karel Kovařovic was the music director at the time and both he and the administrative director told Janáček that the work was unsuitable.  There may have been a little spite in Kovařovic‘s reasoning, as Janáček had previously written a scathing review of one of his operas when it was performed in Janáček’s adopted hometown of Brno.  Whatever the rationale, Janáček had to make do with Jenůfa being presented for the first time in Brno.  The premiere on 21 January 1904 at the small Czech Provisional Theatre, which had previously been a dance hall, was a local triumph.  Yet the opera was an elaborate work for such a theatre to undertake and soon performances began to drop in quality marred by an undersized and undernourished orchestra.  Janáček told his friends that he didn’t ‘want to hear [his] own work in such a broken-down state’.  Despite these shortcomings, however, the composer became the darling of Brno’s Czech citizens.  Desperate to find ways in which Jenůfa would be accepted by Prague, he thought again and thoroughly revised the opera.  In 1908 a vocal score of those revisions was published in Brno.  Yet Kovařovic  was adamant, and it would take another 8 years of Janáček and his supporters’ badgering before the opera was finally accepted and performed in the Czech capital.  From there, however, it spread far and wide (with notable productions taking place in Vienna and Berlin) and the composer’s career was established throughout Europe, making the path clear for his later operas Kat’á Kabanová, The Cunning Little Vixen, The Makropulos Case and From the House of the Dead, all of which avoided the wait Janáček had endured (not altogether lightly) with Jenůfa.

Britain, however, had to wait much longer for Janáček’s operas.  Despite staunch support from the musical philanthropist Rosa Newmarch in the last decade of his life – including a trip to London during the General Strike in 1926, when some of the composer’s chamber works were performed at Wigmore Hall – it was only after the Second World War that Janáček’s music became part of our national repertoire.  Heard in a broadcast in 1951, Jenůfa was first performed live at Covent Garden in 1956 – the first staged performances of one of the composer’s operas had been in 1954 with Kat’á Kabanová at Sadler’s Wells.  But despite strong proselytising through the work of Rafael Kubelík and others in the 50s and 60s, it wasn’t until Charles Mackerras’s career started to rise that these works became more regular features in our opera houses.  Likewise, the pioneering work of conductor/director team Richard Armstrong and David Pountney in the 70s and 80s for Welsh National Opera, Scottish Opera and later Opera North and the ENO, meant that the opera-going British Public were exposed to the majority of the composer’s stage works.  Backed up and elucidated by the brilliance of British-based scholar John Tyrrell’s editions of the composer’s letters and scores (including the final binning of the lush Kova˘ rovic ‘Prague’ version of Jenůfa) and his encyclopaedic 2006 biography of the composer’s life, the British are, after the Czechs themselves, the most well-informed Janáček nation.  It is, perhaps, no surprise that with such an enviable theatrical tradition, Britain would, of all countries, embrace the Moravian composer’s vivid dramatic style.  It is also understandable that it was through the opera companies in Cardiff, Glasgow and Leeds (themselves the Brno equivalents of Britain) that audiences came to know and love these operas.  Now, however, they are not only performed in those cities, but throughout the UK, with English Touring Opera, Glyndebourne, Garsington and now Holland Park taking the works into their repertoire; other countries around the world have followed.

There is, perhaps, a parallel to be drawn between Janáček’s eventual success and the characters of the opera.  Jenůfa risks being bound to her home by the ‘sin’ she has committed with her cousin Števa.  Through Laca’s final devotion and compassion she is, as W. H. Auden described, ‘released by love from isolating wrong’.  That same release is afforded to theKostelnička , who goes off to court at the close of the piece knowing that her stepdaughter has forgiven her.  While Janáček may have felt unable to succeed outside Brno, trapped by his own petulance (writing a scathing review of Kovařovic ‘s  opera) and a certain naivety to the ways of the operatic world, through perseverance and a honing of his art he managed to break out and onto the international scene.  With the care of people such as Mackerras, Tyrrell, Pountney and Richard Armstrong, his legacy is readily enjoyed in Britain, the vitality of his life-like drama speaking to us directly over the footlights.

Gavin has written and broadcast widely about 20th century opera, both here and abroad; he also created www.leosjanacek.com.