Karel Janovicky - Czech sputniks in suburban London

Karel Janovicky

Karel Janovicky has had a distinguished career as a composer, pianist, writer and broadcaster, and at 77 is still full of energy. When I interviewed him in his study in the family's house in North London, there were few signs that he might be contemplating retirement. His latest composition, a sonata for clarinet and piano, lay open on the upright piano in the corner, as he added a few finishing touches, and the room was full of books, scores and articles.

Karel Janovicky | Photo: Radio Prague International

Music has always taken centre stage in Karel Janovicky's life. He was born in Plzen in 1930 into a musical family - his father was an opera singer. But his dreams of a musical career were cut short with the communist take-over of 1948. His unashamedly middle class family was mistrusted by the new regime, and the father of his fiancée Sylva even faced arrest. So in October 1949, Karel, Sylva and Sylva's parents fled to an unknown life in England, where Karel and Sylva still live today. Karel Janovicky began our conversation by telling me about his flight from Czechoslovakia.

"My prospects for further study were fairly bleak because my family were considered politically incorrect and I was told at the entry exams for the academy in Prague that I would not be taken on for that reason."

And you had wanted to study piano and composition.

"I was learning the piano already and I was composing a bit, but I also wanted to go in for conducting. That was a sort of optional extra. Basically, I wanted to do music. My father was an opera singer and I wanted to go on with music."

You arrived in London as a refugee. It must have been pretty hard to pick up the pieces.

"I was lucky in a way because there was a little case I could take with me across the border. We had to pretend that we were in the no-go zone around the border on some sort of business, and my business was looking for some freelance work in the hotels in Marianske Lazne as a musician. I did have a few of my compositions in my travelling case and I sent one or two to London to a well-known Czech violinist who was there during the war, Jan Sedivka. He arranged for me to study on a small scholarship at a place which no longer exists called the Surrey College of Music. This also was a good reason for the British authorities to give me an entry visa, because nobody really wanted to have refugees. The British authorities were very cagey about that."

And then, after you finished studying, the BBC played a crucial role in your career, didn't it?

"Only after about ten years. It took a long time for me to get some freelance work for the BBC at the beginning, and then I got into the gramophone department of Radio 3, which was the classical music station - in 1964 in fact - so it was quite late in the day. Before then I earned my living as a freelance musician, composer, teacher."

And you had brought with you a whole Czech musical tradition. Did you find that in this new, very different musical context, you were able to build on your musical identity as a Czech, or did you find yourself becoming an English composer?

"This is a difficult question, because at that time in the post-war years, there was a lot of ferment in music. Everyone was looking for new ways of composing music, and there were also kinds of composition methods being used and taught. The main one of course was Schönberg's twelve-tone system which had come back after the war, having been proscribed in Germany as "entartete Musik". So in this ferment it was quit easy to find one's own feet, as it were. I joined the Society for the Promotion of New Music and one of my pieces was put on the recommended list of this society, so this was quite an exciting time."

I notice that one piece you composed was an opera on a science-fiction theme.

"That's right. That was at the time when the sputniks started flying at the end of the 50s, and there was a competition put up by Ricordi, the Italian publisher, for a one-act opera. So I got together with my good friend, the writer and poet, Karel Brusak, and he wrote a libretto. I wrote the music and we sent it to Ricordi. We didn't get the first prize, but it was quite an exciting project. The opera is basically the story of the crew of a spaceship flying into space. The scenes are the control room on earth and the control room on the spaceship, both of them identical and peopled by the same kind of characters. It's almost uncanny, the relationship between these people. The spaceship eventually - towards the end of the opera - watches the earth being consumed in a sort of nuclear holocaust, so it's that kind of science-fiction story."

And in the meantime you and your wife had settled in North London and had two children.

"Yes - they are now grown up. They pursue their own careers."

Did you speak Czech at home, when they were growing up?

"We lived in this house in Muswell Hill with my wife's parents, so you can imagine that the household generally spoke Czech. Until the children went to school, they spoke Czech. After that it became a bit more difficult to keep it up, because there are only two years between them, and so going to school, playing with their schoolmates and then coming home and playing with each other, they started more and more speaking English, and they almost lost their Czech. My daughter still can understand it and can speak basic "kitchen" Czech. My son has in the meantime, having finished university, picked up Czech again, and is now totally bilingual."

For the whole period of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia you never once came back home again. What did it feel like, going back to Czechoslovakia after the fall of communism?

"This was a very strange experience, because it came so suddenly. None of us ever thought that the communist regime, after surviving for so long, could suddenly roll over on its back and give up the ghost, but it did. So, two months after the so-called Velvet Revolution, the fall of the communist regime, I got into the car with three of my colleagues from the BBC and we drove there, in the middle of winter, in January 1990. We wanted to see what the country was like, and of course there was the ferment of the Obcanske forum [Civic Forum], which was a movement, not a political party but more a mass movement to put the country back on its feet, because it was basically bankrupt. And not having been anywhere near the country for forty years before, I was surprised how my memories of the places, of the people and of the language, and of the sound of the street even, were flooding in. I could remember all these places. It was a very exciting time.

"We spent a fortnight there, came back, and after that I suddenly went into a sort of long sleep. I found that I was falling asleep during the day, after a whole night's sleep. This went on and on for about two weeks, and after that I've been alright and I've been coming back to the country, which shows that it really is quite against human nature to be cut off from one's roots for forty years without going back. It shows that my mind was going through a very intense period of sorting itself out."

And one thing that must be exciting for you is to have your music performed in the Czech Republic now.

"Yes, that's very exciting, particularly as it's not being played just because it ought to be played - as the work of a composer who had been a persona non grata and now ought to be played - but I feel that the young people who pick up my music and play it actually enjoy it. This for a composer is very important and most gratifying. It's not like an artist who can look at his pictures. A composer is totally dependent on having it performed by somebody and then hearing what is does and what it's like. It's been an inspirational thing because I write more freely and with more zest, I suppose, in my older years, than ever before."

And finally, do you feel today, after spending most of your life in Britain, more Czech or more British?

"I certainly feel both very strongly. I feel I can move around in Britain with the same sort of ease - I mean move around intellectually - as I do back in the Czech Republic. I think I can quite honestly say that I feel at home in both places."