Friday, November 19, 2010

All Things Makropulos 1: Janacek

The composer Leos Janacek (1854-1928) should be named the patron saint of Artistic Late Bloomers. Janacek, pictured above and below, didn't become internationally known until age 62, when his breakthrough third opera "Jenufa" was produced in Vienna in 1918 and then swept the world. In the remaining ten years of his life, Janacek composed almost all of the great music for which he is known: the operas "The Excursions of Mr. Broucek," "Katya Kabanova," "The Cunning Little Vixen," "The Makropulos Case," and "The House of the Dead," along with the "Glagolitic Mass," "Sinfonietta," "Taras Bulba," the two string quartets, and a host of other compositions.

Janacek was sent away from his village home at age 11 as a poor, talented scholarship student to a Catholic music school in the provincial city of Brno. It is just north of Vienna and southeast of the Czech capital Prague. A good analogy for the place might be Pittsburgh, between New York and Chicago, with its own history, wealth and culture, but not a world city like the other two.

After graduating from a teacher's college, Janacek went on to music conservatories in Prague, Leipzig and Vienna, before returning to Brno and becoming the head of the organ school at the same teacher's college, and marrying a 15-year-old student, Zdenka Schulzová. He continued as head of this school until 1919, while his marriage became more difficult every year, exacerbated by the deaths of his two children and his falling in love with two other women later in his life.

The town of Brno was a majority German culture, with German being the language by law of schools and government. Janacek was part of the minority Czech cultural revolt from his Catholic school days, and as a music teacher, he organized Czech bands, choirs, and instrumental ensembles. He was also a major ethnomusicologist, traveling to remote villages and recording non-notated folk music which informed his own music for the rest of his life.

It was at the organ school in Prague that he started writing music journalism which he continued to do his entire life. He wrote honestly and fiercely, with an acerbic wit that managed to get him into lots of trouble. Negatively reviewing a mass that the head of the organ school had conducted got Leos kicked out of school briefly before they relented and let him back in. More damaging, in 1887 he wrote a mean review of "The Bridegroom," a comic opera by Karel Kovařovic (pictured above). Unfortunately for Janacek, Kovařovic became head of the National Theatre in Prague from 1900 to 1920, and so was able to keep "Jenufa" from being performed there until 1916, twelve years after its triumphant premiere in Brno. Kovarovic also insisted on reorchestrating some of the opera, including the finale, and it was his version that was played for decades until Janacek's original was rediscovered.

The Czech composer Josef Suk was the person who contacted the very well-connected, German-Jewish Prague resident, writer Max Brod (above left, with his best buddy Franz Kafka) and told him he needed to go hear "Jenufa." Brod did so, was overwhelmed by the music, and summoned the composer from Brno who knew this was his chance, finally, at the big time.

From Brod's autobiography: "He showed his hand immediately. Everything depended on my translating Jenufa. He told me that during his train journey he could not sleep. He thought only of me the whole time. And since six o'clock this morning he has been walking around my house, saying to himself, if this Brod will translate Jenufa, everything will be all right. If he refuses, I'll remain where I was. Everything will be as before. I shall not break through...When I saw him sitting in front of me, completely devoted to his work, I felt this is the kind of man that God wanted...I have postponed all other work and promised to translate Jenufa."

Brod not only midwifed the posthumous published works of his friend Franz Kafka into the world's consciousness, but he did the same for the living Leos Janacek. The two had a great collaboration until Brod, just like Kovařovic, decided to "improve" one too many of Janacek's supposedly naive instincts. In the case of the German translation of "The Cunning Little Vixen," he pretty much destroyed the meaning of the original (he confessed at one point that he had zero understanding or sympathy for nature). The final breaking point was on "The Makropulos Case," where Janacek stood his ground and demanded that Brod's "improvements" in the German translation be deleted and a simple transcription of the original Capek play be reintroduced.

Karel Capek (1890-1938), above, was a wildly original Czech writer who specialized in speculative plays and fiction. His 1922 play, "The Makropulos Case," is a Shavian black comedy centering on a 337-year-old opera diva who was given an elixir by her alchemist father. The story is set on the day she comes back to Prague in the 1920s to find the formula because time is finally running out, and the tale deals with issues of mortality, morality, and a 100-year-old legal case that is "Bleak House" by way of Kafka.

Janacek saw the play during its initial run in Prague, and was enchanted. He asked Capek for the rights for an opera, which the writer didn't want to give him because "I have too high an opinion of music -- and especially of yours -- to be able to imagine it united with a conversational, fairly unpoetical and over-garrulous play." Capek told his sister privately, "That old crank! Soon he'll even be setting the local column in the newspaper. It's good that he is not asking me to help him with it; I don't feel like working up a libretto from it, I probably wouldn't bring it off, I don't have the time, and even if I had, I wouldn't even want to do it." So Janacek, simply by cutting certain sections of the play, created his own libretto. "He did it a hundred times better than I could ever have even imagined!" Kapek is quoted after attending the 1926 Brno premiere of the opera.

For the last decade of his life, while writing his great works at a furious pace, Janacek had been carrying on an intense infatuation with Kamila Stosslova, a young, married woman with two children who became his muse. He sent her hundreds of letters, and treated her as his soulmate, which confused Kamila and tortured his wife Zdenka. The erotic energy in the "Makropulos" music for an ice-cold, terminally bored diva is probably intertwined with that personal drama, and led to one of the most unusual, advanced operatic scores of the twentieth century.

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