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Leoš Janáček

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Leoš Janáček (born Hukvaldy, Moravia, July 3 1854; died Moravská Ostrava, August 12 1928) was a Czech composer who lived at the end of the Romantic period and the beginning of the 20th century. He wanted his music to sound typical of his country. The rhythm of Janáček’s music sounds like the rhythm of the dialect he spoke. This was quite close to Polish. Janáček is famous for his operas which are all based on Czech stories. The Cunning Little Vixen is especially charming. It is about animals in a forest (a “vixen” is a female fox).

Most of his greatest works were written towards the end of his life. At this time he was in love with a young woman called Kamila. She was the inspiration for many of his last compositions.

His youth

Janáček’s family were poor people who lived in the countryside in Moravia. His grandfather and his father were both musicians and school teachers. Leoš was the fifth of nine children. As the tiny house was so crowded he was sent to Brno when he was eleven. There he went to a choir school, but soon the choir had to stop. He continued his music education there. After his final exams he had an unpaid job as teacher for two years. He became conductor of a monastery choir as well as a male-voice choir called Svatopluk. He made them a better choir and wrote music for them. He studied at the Prague Organ School for a year, but he was very poor and could not afford to go to concerts. He continued to conduct choirs and became friends with Dvořák. He spent a short time in Leipzig and Vienna.

Early career

When he returned to Brno he became engaged to his piano pupil Zdenka Schulzová who was only 14. She was still under 16 when they married. Janáček founded (started) an organ school in Brno. He was the director of this school. He also taught music at the Old Brno Gymnasium. His marriage was unhappy and, although they remained married all his life, they spent a lot of time separated. He went on a journey to northern Moravia to collect folk songs which he used in some of his dances for orchestra.

Janáček’s spent several years writing his opera Jenůfa. By the time he was finishing it his daughter had died. Some of his sadness can be felt in the opera. He also worked on a system of speech-melody (making his melodies sound like the rhythm of his language) which was to influence his operas for the rest of his life. Jenůfa was very successful when it was first performed in 1904. By this time Janáček was already 50.

Middle career

Janáček was now doing less teaching and concentrating on organizing the Brno Organ School which had moved into a new building because it now had 70 students. His next opera was called Osud (Fate), but it was not performed during his lifetime. The music is very good but the libretto (words) were poor. This is also true of his next opera: Mr Brouček’s excursion to the moon. He wrote chamber music during this period, as well as some very good choral music.

When World War I broke out Janáček was 60. He was well known in Moravia, but hardly known in other countries. His compositions from the war years include Taras Bulba which is a work for orchestra which describes a story by the Russian writer Gogol. He wrote a short, patriotic opera to follow Mr Brouček’s adventures. It was about a landlord from Prague who finds himself in the middle of the 15th century Hussite wars.

His final years (1916-1928)

In his final years Janáček wrote most of the great works for which he is world-famous. His opera Jenůfa was performed in Prague. This made him internationally famous. He was very proud when his country became independent after the war. He was also very happy because he was in love with Kamila Stösslová, who was 38 years younger than himself. He wrote three of his finest operas: Katya Kabanová, The Cunning Little Vixen and The Makropulos Affair. These operas were performed in Brno and then in Prague, and they were also published. He wrote two string quartets and a wind sextet: Mládi (Youth). By the time he was 70 he had retired from the Brno Organ School. In 1926 he wrote an orchestral work: Sinfonietta, followed by a piano concerto for the left hand (pianist just playing with the left hand) and chamber ensemble, and the Glagolitic Mass. All these works had enormous success in Czechoslovakia as well as abroad, even as far away as New York.

In 1921 he had bought a cottage in his birthplace, Hukvaldy. He spent a lot of time composing there, away from the busy life in Brno. In the summer of 1928 he went there and was joined, for the first time in Hukvaldy, by Kamila, her 11-year-old boy and her husband. He was working on the third act of his last opera From the House of the Dead. One day Kamila’s son got lost in the forest. They spent some time looking for him. Janáček got cold, he caught pneumonia and died. His funeral in Brno was a large public event, at which some music from his opera The Cunning Little Vixen was performed.

His musical style

Janáček grew up in the middle of the Romantic period, but most of his best music was written in 1920s, by which time musical styles had changed. Although he never wrote music which sounded as modern as that of Stravinsky or Schoenberg his music is Romantic, combined with Moravian folksong and sometimes with ideas from French impressionist composers such as Debussy. The music he wrote for choirs often continued in his operas. His music for instruments often started as programmatic, although a lot of it can be enjoyed without knowing the story it tells. He learned to write operas by learning from the operas of Smetana, but he made many changes such as shortening the duets and ensembles and using folksong in his melodies. Janáček was not just important as a composer, but is remembered for his studies of folk music, and as a music theorist and teacher.

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