Leoš Janáček drew inspiration from the folk music of his native Moravia Silesia

Leoš Janáček

Composer Leoš Janáček is one of the most famous sons of Moravia-Silesia. He had strong bonds to the region, its people and its music from which he drew inspiration for many of his famous works.

Leoš Janáček was born on July 3, 1854 into a large and relatively poor family in the small town of Hukvaldy in Moravia. His father was a local school teacher and his mother who had a love of music often sung folk songs, played the piano and organ. Leoš Janáček showed an exceptional musical talent from an early age and was immediately accepted as a choirboy at the local church. Later his parents sought to help him get a scholarship for gifted children and at the tender age of 11 he was sent to study at the Augustinian Monastery in Brno. Associate Professor Jiří Zahrádka who lectures at the Institute of Musicology at Masaryk University in Brno is an expert on Janáček’s life and work:

Leoš Janáček memorial in Hukvaldy | Photo: Romana Kubicová,  Czech Radio

“As in many families of the time his parents’ ambition was to see him become a priest. He was sent to study at the Augustinian monastery in Brno where he learnt to play the piano, the organ, to sing and take part in figural masses. So he got a very good musical education and it was soon evident that this was the path he wanted to follow in life. He received a formal musical education in Brno and later studied at the Prague Organ School to become a music teacher. In 1878 he was invited to spend some time in Vienna where he further improved his skills and upon his return he founded and led the Organ School and Conservatory in Brno. That is how a poor, unknown little boy became one of the most important musical personalities in Brno in a matter of 10 or 15 years.

“In 1896 Janáček undertook his first visit to Russia and his studies of Russian literature influenced his later works (Káťa Kabanová and the rhapsody Taras Bulba). However, it was his love of Moravian folk music that had the greatest influence on his work leading him to create a musical style of his own, derived from folk elements and the inflections of his native language, which found its best expression in his greatest work, the opera Jenůfa (Její pastorkyňa). Although he traveled to improve his musical skills he never considered settling abroad – or even moving to Prague. He spent his creative years in Brno and in his home town.

Janáček's Káťa Kabanová | Photo: Czech Center New York

“Janáček found a wife here, lived here, had friends here, had a lot of work here, he ran his organ school and was involved in local activities. He was not attracted to Prague for many reasons. First of all, he was number one here, which he wouldn't have been in Prague. Moreover, Janáček soon make a lot of enemies in Prague, because he was a bit critical of Bedřich Smetana's operatic work, which would cause him terrible problems in the future. So he never really considered moving to Prague. In 1904 he was offered the job of director of the conservatory in Warsaw, but he turned that offer down as well.”

Janáček was happily settled in Brno but his personal life dealt him a number of bad blows.

“Janáček, when he married Zdenka, was very much in love. But it was clear right after the wedding that it wasn't a match made in heaven. They were completely different people. Janáček was a very intelligent, very ambitious, very temperamental man. And Zdenka Schulzová, on the other hand, was a little hothouse flower from a Brno bourgeois family, half Czech and half German, who didn't even go to school because she had her own private teachers. So they didn't belong together at all. They did their best to make a go of it. But tragedy struck. Their little son died at the age of two. Later Janáček was to lose his beloved daughter Olga at the age of 21. The loss of his children affected him deeply, particularly the loss of Olga who was the person he loved most in his life.”

It was at this time –the saddest period of his life - that he completed his opera Jenůfa in February of 1903. He offered the opera to the National Theatre in Prague but it was rejected, sending him into a period of deep depression. The National Theatre eventually premiered the opera in 1916 but it was not until its premiere at the Royal Court Opera in Vienna Janáček that became nationally and internationally recognized.

Janáček's Jenůfa poster | Photo: Pavel Novák,  Czech Radio

The bulk of his best creative work was composed in the last eight years of his life, reflecting his patriotism and pride in being able to contribute to the cultural heritage of independent Czechoslovakia.

“Roughly from 1920 to 1928, that's the last eight years of his life, Janáček was at his creative best. He was self-confident about his work and lived a happy life. He was in love with twenty-five-year-old Kamila Stosslova at the time and everything seemed to be going right for him. So he was composing a lot and he was lucky enough to be able to compose what he wanted, not writing to order but because of an inner need. That's why the works are so communicative and special. He had a lot to communicate. So in those eight years, he wrote his best works: Káťa Kabanová, The Cunning Little Vixen, The Macropulos Case, From the House of the Dead, the Sinfonietta, both string quartets and other works. In the last eight years of his life, he was at the height of his creative powers producing tremendously modern, youthful, energetic work. It was like he put the clock back.”

As he aged Janáček’s bond with his home town seemed to grow stronger.

The Cunning Little Vixen | Photo: HubertFM,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

“Hukvaldy was always important to him. He was born there, he had deep roots there. He left home at the age of 11 and didn’t live there for many years after. But as he aged he started to go back there more and more often because he was very comfortable there. He had part of his family there, he had friends there, he loved the place. He bought a house there, had a little field and an orchard where he picked apples. It may be that he was a countryman at heart. And the older he got, the more often he went there.”

In 1925 Janáček received an honorary degree from the University of Brno and on the occasion of his seventieth birthday a cycle of his operas was performed in the Moravian metropolis. Two years after his death, in 1930, an extensive cycle of his operas was performed throughout Czechoslovakia.

Today Janáček enjoys ever greater popularity with music-loving audiences the world over.

“Janáček is undoubtedly one of the five most important composers of the 20th century, opera composers. Not only are his operas amazing and ring true, but they bring a new approach to music drama. I really feel that Janáček is underrated at home. He is a composer who is performed all over the world. His music is vibrant, modern, compelling, as much as it was a century ago. There are not many who can achieve that.”

At the end of July 1928 Janáček left for Hukvaldy. He took with him the score from The House of the Dead to which he wanted to make some additions. However, he never managed to do so. He caught a severe cold and was taken to a sanatorium in Ostrava where he died on August 12. He is buried at Brno’s Central Cemetery.

Janáček’s most important works are the opera

  • Její pastorkyňa (Jenůfa),
  • Věc Makropulos (The Makropulos Case),
  • Z mrtvého domu (From the House of the Dead),
  • the two one-act satirical operas Výlet pana Broučka do Mĕsíce (Mr. Brouček’s Excursion to the Moon) and Výlet pana Broučka do XV. století (Mr. Brouček’s Excursion to the 15th Century), both performed in Prague in 1920,
  • and the comic opera Příhody Lišky Bystroušky (The Cunning Little Vixen).
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