Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Janáček, the Old Avant-Gardist

Leos Janáček is increasingly recognised as one of the major operatic masters of the early twentieth century. In an intriguing new book, Derek Katz challenges prevailing views of the composer’s relationship to Slavic culture and demonstrates that the operas are deeply indebted to various existing traditions. The first chapter , ‘Finding a Context’, looks at Janáček’s work from a number of viewpoints, including the one in this short extract:

One of the final chapters of Miloš Štědroň’s 1998 study Leoš Janáček and Music of the 20th Century is entitled “Young Conservative—to Old Avant-Gardist?!?” Despite the intriguing punctuation, at the end of this chapter Štědroň did indeed conclude that Janáček grew into an avant-gardist and declared that Janáček’s music of the 1920s is one of the most radical manifestations of European music from the first three decades of the century. This view of Janáček’s career as culminating in an avant-garde, or modernist, period is a widespread formulation with a long history. In a 1983 essay, Milan Kundera wrote of Janáček, “A solitary conservative figure in his youth, he has become an innovator in his old age.” Kundera described Janáček’s late works as “audacious” and suggested that he must be heard in the company of composers thirty and forty years younger, like Bartók, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Krenek, and Schoenberg. Similarly, the opening narration of Jaromil Jireš’s 1986 documentary film about Janáček declared that “Leoš Janáček was born deep in the mid-nineteenth century. His music belongs wholly to the avant-garde of the twentieth century. Although he was thirty years older than Bartók or Stravinsky . . . Janáček’s works rank amongst the most progressive of modern European music.”

In particular, the idea that Janáček was somehow generationally displaced can be traced back to the composer’s lifetime. In an enthusiastic 1925 essay, Erwin Schulhoff, almost exactly forty years younger than Janáček, wrote that as “astounding as it may seem, the septuagenarian Janáček belongs to the latest generation of composers, whose struggle he has also fought.” Hanns Eisler also noted Janáček’s late fecundity, remarking after a 1927 performance of the Sinfonietta that Janáček was “entirely unique amongst current bourgeois composers” and “still astoundingly full of creative strength as an old man.” In September 1926, Janáček travelled to Venice to hear a performance of his first string quartet at the annual International Society for Contemporary Music festival. Other living composers whose works were performed at the festival included Roussel, Vaughan Williams, Schoenberg, Ravel, Malipiero, Szymanowski, Stravinsky, Ladislav Vycpálek, Louis Gruenberg, Ibert, Honegger, and Hindemith. These twelve composers, although a heterogeneous group in most ways, shared at least one trait: all were younger than Janáček. In fact, most were significantly younger, with only Roussel and Vaughan Williams within twenty years of his age. Put another way, their average age was forty-four in 1926, while Janáček had turned seventy-two in July of that year.

Another, rather more idiosyncratic, tribute came from Henry Cowell, who visited Brno and lectured at the Club of Moravian Composers in 1926. Apparently the meeting with Janáček was a success, for in August 1927 Cowell invited Janáček to be an honorary member of The New Music Society of California. The letter of invitation, although addressed to “Mr. Janarchek,” does describe him as “without doubt one of the very greatest of living composers, without reservations.” Cowell had already collected Bartók, Bliss, Malipiero, Hába, Krenek, Schnabel, Berg, Casella, and Milhaud as honorary members; all were at least a quarter-century Janáček’s juniors.

The image of Janáček as an aged modernist has become firmly entrenched in standard music history texts. John Tyrrell’s entry for Janácek in The New Grove Turn of the Century Masters, for instance, asserts that Janácek’s late works belong “in sound and spirit with the music of the younger generation around him.” Similar judgments can be found in many standard surveys. Jim Samson, in The Late Romantic Era, describes Janáček’s musical style as “a radical new language” and “strikingly original,” while Donald Jay Grout calls Janáček “individual” and “exceptional” in his A Short History of Opera. More recently, Richard Taruskin titled his section on Janáček in The Oxford History of Western Music “The Oldest Twentieth-Century Composer” and points out that “his music is more often (and more tellingly) compared with that of Debussy, Stravinsky, or Bartók” than with that of Mahler or Richard Strauss.

Janáček Beyond the Borders by Derek Katz is published by the University of Rochester Press and available from your local music specialist bookseller.

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