Leos Janacek

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Leoš Janáček (1854-1928), Czech composer, was the third of the great Czech composers after Smetana and Dvorak, and like them was to draw musical inspiration from the folk songs and dance melodies of his homeland, in his case, Moravia, a south-eastern region of the modern Czech Republic which he would rarely leave, except for learning, during his lifetime..

At ten he became a choirboy and, at sixteen the choirmaster, of a monastery in the Moravian capital, Brno, taking over from a strongly nationalist composer/monk whose love of the traditional culture was to profoundly influence Janáček’s music. He studied in Prague then Liepzig before settling back in Brno.

He first drew attention outside the Slav lands with his instrumental music – he had begun collecting folk tunes in 1888, and these would colour his compositions for the rest of his life, so that it was the tuneful and distinctive orchestral music, the nationalistic and extremely personal piano works (some of which were originally written for harmonium), especially the two books entitled “On the Overgrown Path”; the two intense string quartets (the later of which, “Intimate letters”, is autobiographical); and the late “Sinfonietta” for orchestra, perhaps his most striking and popular work in the concert hall.

These days he is more known as a writer of operas. Nine have been recorded, and four are regularly performed. The first of these, though the third written, is "Jenůfa", composed in the years either side of 1900, premiered in 1907, but not heard in a major venue until 1916. It has been compared to Mascagni’s ”Cavalleria Rusticana” in its “social realism”. It is a rural tale of love and betrayal, of family tragedy, but with a surprisingly happy ending. “The Cunning Little Vixen” with its cast of forest animals is always popular, and is heard frequently as an orchestral suite. “The Macropoulos Affair” and “From the House of the Dead” are part of the repertoire of major opera companies.

Less than a year before his death, his unique “Glagolitic Mass” was premiered in Brno. This is a setting of the Latin mass ordinary in the Old Slavonic vernacular of the original 9th century text and followed traditional Slav ecclesiastical customs in its musical form (but is pure Janáček in its musical style.)

Leos Janáček is now recognised as one of the most distinctive composers of the 20th century. His orchestral and instrumental music, the mass, and especially the operas have become an important part of the canon of European music.

Reference: Oxford Companion to Music.

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