Encore: Janacek's great opera "Jenufa" - still fresh a hundred years on

Leos Janacek

It's a hundred years since the premiere of one of the great Czech operas, "Jenufa", by Leos Janacek. The centenary was marked in style last month with an international Janacek Festival in Brno, the capital of Moravia, the eastern part of the Czech Republic, where Janacek lived and worked nearly all his life, and where the opera was first performed in January 1904. "Jenufa" was the work that first drew serious attention to Janacek as a composer.

"Jenufa was a milestone in Janacek's work, because, before Jenufa, he had arranged folk dances and collected folksongs, and was very active around the folklore exhibition in Prague, and Janacek was known as a very good folklorist, and collector of folksongs and folk music, but not so much as a composer."

The secretary of the Janacek Foundation Alena Nemcova. At the time when "Jenufa" was premiered, Janacek was already fifty, directing the organ-school that he had founded in Brno twenty years earlier, but Jenufa marked the beginning of one of the most extraordinary second flowerings in the history of music, and the launch of Janacek's international reputation.

"As a work of art I think it's one of the greats, but there's a historical side to it as well, because it is the piece with which Janacek conquered the world, at least at first, a piece which received a very wide acceptance in Germany early on, partly because the Germans have so many provincial opera houses where they can put on such things. Also it's the one that's seemed most accessible, though it's possible that it has been misunderstood. I wonder how many people who see Jenufa can remember whether or not she dies at the end! I think audiences will assume very often that she does, when of course she doesn't, and she's not necessarily the central character in that way either."

Geoffrey Chew
As the musicologist Geoffrey Chew hints, "Jenufa" is an unusual work at several levels. Musically it's a fascinating bridge between the romanticism of Smetana and a very modern idiom, laced with Janacek's love of the folk tradition. In its plot, the opera is based on a play by Janacek's contemporary Gabriela Preissova, who was a strong proponent of social realism; here she deals with a subject that was very modern for the time, the status of women in the conservative society of rural Moravia. The plot goes something like this:

Jenufa is expecting Steva's child and understandably wants their marriage to go ahead as soon as possible. Steva is spared from being conscripted and comes home hopelessly drunk, much to the disapproval of Jenufa's foster-mother, Kostelnicka. Steva's stepbrother, Laca is also in love with Jenufa. He tries to convince her that Steva only wants her for her looks. In a fit of jealous passion, he disfigures her face with a knife.

Act Two takes place after the baby is born. Kostelnicka begs Steva to marry Jenufa, but for Steva, Jenufa's scarred face has rendered her ugly, and besides, he is now engaged to the mayor's daughter. Laca is still in love with Jenufa, but when Kostelnicka tells him that Jenufa has given birth to Steva's child, he is shocked. Seeing this, Kostelnicka lies that the child died immediately after the birth. She drowns the baby in the river, and convinces Jenufa that it died of natural causes. Jenufa agrees to marry Laca.

In Act Three the preparations are being made for the wedding, but suddenly the news breaks that a dead child has been found in the river. Kostelnicka admits her crime in front of the assembled guests. Before she is led off to court Jenufa forgives her, realizing that she killed the child out of love for her. Laca stands by Jenufa, and she realizes that she has found her true love.

For the libretto in this disturbing story of infanticide and domestic violence, Janacek adapted Preissova's play only slightly. He wanted to keep the language natural, and deliberately chose natural speech patterns rather than verse. Geoffrey Chew again.

"Janacek went around with a notebook, noting down the melodic contours of everyday speech as he heard it on the streets, and he did that when he went abroad as well. So when he went to London in the '20s he was noting down the speech patterns of English, when he went to Russia, he was noting down the speech patterns of Russian and so on. I think it's part of a rather naïve aesthetic which he had and which you find in other works as well, where the assumption is that if you can draw from life and from experiences of life, and particularly from the expressions that people have in real life, somehow it's going to be true. There's going to be a truth to it, there's going to be an authenticity about it, which means it's going to have that kind of effect."

The young Czech composer Miroslav Srnka is a great admirer of the opera. He sees its strength in its psychological insights, and in the combined power of the music and dialogue in drawing out the characters, which have none of the two-dimensional feel so common in opera, especially in the intimate intensity of Act II.

Miroslav Srnka
"I think the best quality of the opera is the development of the main characters in a way which does not need any big action like in all other operas. You have just four ordinary people, and it doesn't matter if it's one century ago, somewhere in Moravia, it's something you can live in your life. It will be an opera for all the next generations."

If the plot of the opera seems bleak, with the main character forced into tragic and impossible situations, Janacek does at least end on a note of optimism. The strength of the human spirit and the will to forgive and to move on eventually save the story from despair. The musicologist Mark Audus, sees many autobiographical elements in the opera.

"It's got this rich psychological vein to tap into. It's not just another folk story. And around the time that he was writing it, Janacek was going through a very emotionally troubled time himself. First his daughter was ill and she had a difficult relationship which she had to bring to an end with an unsuitable suitor. She went off to Russia and then eventually she contracted this terrible fatal illness. All this was going through Janacek's mind at the same time as he was working on the opera. It's not surprising that a lot of this was channeled particularly around the time that he had been working on Act II. It ends up making it such powerful music. I've spent years working on it, and still every time I look over a passage, I'm moved to tears."

It was just as Janacek was completing the opera that his daughter Olga died. His housekeeper Mara Stejskalova later remembered that time:

'The more sick Olga became, the more obsessed she became with her father's new opera. And sensitive as he was, he put his pain over Olga into his work, the suffering of his daughter into Jenufa's suffering. And that tough love of Kostelnicka - that's him, there is much of his own character in this part.'

The path of the opera to international acclaim was not a smooth one. After its hugely successful premiere in Brno in1904, it took years for the opera to reach Prague. The chief conductor of the National Theatre, Karel Kovarovic, had a strong personal rivalry with Janacek, especially after Janacek had criticized some of his own compositions. He didn't agree to put on the opera in Prague until 1916, under huge pressure from Janacek's allies in the Czech musical establishment. Even then he insisted on numerous alterations, and to this day, one of the biggest problems for anyone wanting to stage the opera, is to decide which of its various versions to perform. But Jenufa has survived, and today is one of the most widely performed of all Czech operas.

Magic Carpet - world music in the heart of Europe

Petr Doruzka
Magic Carpet is Radio Prague's monthly music magazine that looks at music from Czech, Moravian and Silesian towns and villages. The programme covers a wide selection of genres, from traditional folk to the exotic and experimental.

It is presented by Petr Doruzka, one of the Czech Republic's foremost music journalists.


29.2.2004: The gypsy settlements in Slovakia are probably the nearest place to the Czech Republic where Roma are still able to maintain their lifestyle untouched by urban life. In past years, the Slovak song collector Jana Belisova from Bratislava made several field recording trips to these villages, produced two CDs, and two books (in Prague you'll find them in the Romen Shop, Nerudova Street 32). In the programme: a Gypsy Christmas song from Slovakia, plus Zuzana Navarova with Mario Bihari, the blind Gypsy accordion player, and The Devil Fiddlers from Bratislava meet Andalusian flamenco.


For copyright reasons we are unable to archive the programmes in audio, but here at least are a few words about some of the recordings featured recently in the programme.

1.2.2004: Up in north-eastern part of the Czech Republic, close to the Polish border, lies the city of Ostrava, formerly a heavy industry centre, now developing a new identity. One of the most important artists of this region is Jaromir Nohavica - a singer, songwriter and poet. His latest CD, titled Babylon, was one of the most successful and also most interesting albums of past year. Also in the programme: Salute Zappa, a homage to the American composer Frank Zappa by Czech bands.

4.1.2004: Petr looks at some new releases by Czech independent labels. Well be hearing the Czech guitarist Pavel Richter as well as the amazing Romany musician Iva Bittova, with the re-release of a fantastic recording from 15 years ago with her half-sister, Ida Kellarova. Listen out as well for the new album of the band Gothart, entitled "Rakija 'n' Roll". Gothart are a group of Czech musicians who've become enamoured of the Balkans and draw from Serbian, Greek, Macedonian, Bulgarian, and Armenian tradition.

7.12.2003: Petr Doruzka introduces us to Tarafuki a very unusual band, made up of two young women cellists who sing their own songs ranging from quiet intimacy to load ecstasy. Dorota Barova and Andrea Konstankiewicz are of mixed Czech-Polish ancestry and sing in both languages. They have just released their second CD Kapka meaning a drop - and are rapidly becoming well known, throughout Europe and especially in France. At the end of the programme, listen out from the most unusual song on the CD Quiet Weeping.

09.11.2003: To this day in Moravia you still come across traditional cimbalom-and-fiddle village wedding bands. In the last ten years this music has enjoyed a revival. Established artists like Iva Bittova now compete with a new generation of young, fresh and creative musicians. In Magic Carpet we hear music from the CD sampler "Magic Playing Moravian Roots", introducing new discoveries and featuring a rare recording of Iva Bittova and her sister Ida Kellarova.

Link: www.indies.cz

12.10.2003: Katka Sarkozi, singer, songwriter and guitarist started her career almost ten years ago, but her latest CD seems to be a breakthrough.  It is titled "Magorie", translated as Insanity, Rage or Ferocity, and its impact is like that of a hushed scream that keeps haunting you for the rest of the day.


See also The History of Music.