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Brno and Moravia: Janáček’s inspiration

15 May 2020
Tied up fox character standing on bucket, hen characters in the middle, cockerel character stood on bucket.

‘I have one great joy,’ declared Janáček in 1916 in a letter to the National Theatre Association in Brno. ‘Moravia alone is enough to give me all the necessary inspiration. So rich are her sources.’

One of the most original operatic composers of the early 20th century, Janáček’s music is woven into the very fabric of WNO’s history. Leoš Janáček was born on the 3 July 1854 in the village of Hukvaldy in Northern Moravia, now part of the Czech Republic. Like many other gifted boys from large impoverished families, Leoš became a chorister at the age of 11 at the Augustinian Monastery in Brno. After further study at the Prague Organ School, as well as Leipzig and Vienna conservatoires, he returned to Brno and founded an Organ School in 1881, which he directed until 1919, when it became the Brno Conservatory. Janáček also established his own musical journal in 1884, Hudební listy, in which he wrote articles on music theory and reviews of operas at the recently opened Brno National Theatre, the first permanent institution in the city to stage plays and operas in Czech.

Like other musical nationalists Janáček spent some of his early life collecting folk songs. Many of his earliest works, including his second opera The Beginning of a Romance and the better-known Lachian Dances, incorporate Moravian folk tunes directly into larger structures. The programme for Jenůfas premiere at the National Theatre, Brno on 21 January 1904 claimed ‘it is the first opera which consistently wants to be Moravian’.

From 1919 until his death in 1929 František Neumann was head of opera at the theatre, inaugurating the most exciting period of Brno’s operatic history. In the first 10 years of Czechoslovak independence 101 operas were given of which half were new to the repertory, including 26 Czech operas. From Katya Kabanova (1921) all Janáček’s premieres were given in Brno.

A dozen men wearing dark clothes walk somberly in line, across the dimly lit stage.

Following a performance of the WNO production of From the House of the Dead at the Janáček Festival in Brno in 2017 our Music Director Tomáš Hanus received the Janáček Medal, which recognises him as an outstanding performer promoting the composer’s work. We asked him to tell us a little about his hometown, Brno, where he is currently on lockdown.'

Brno’ - this word is quite hard to pronounce - and not just for non-Czech speakers. (Three consonants!) If I were a composer, I probably would not use this word in any of my operas. But one of history’s greatest operatic composers, Leoš Janáček, used the word ‘Brno’ in his opera The Cunning Little Vixen. It appears in one very short sentence (the musicians of Brno used to make fun of it, saying that, thanks to Janáček, there is one and only aria about Brno, containing three words: ‘Je v Brně’  - ‘He is in Brno’).

Five decades later, I would pass Janáček's house quite often with my parents as our family lived on the same street – the house has since been turned into the Janáček Museum. I remember my feelings as a small boy; how fascinating it was for me to experience walking on the same path as the composer of The Cunning Little Vixen.

The current state of lockdown has given me some extra time to find the house of the real Forester from The Cunning Little Vixen (the tale of which was based on a true story, which writer Rudolf Těsnohlídek adapted into a series of comics for a local newspaper). Next to the house, is the well of Leoš Janáček. On the right side you can see a quote from the final Forester’s monologue: ‘Jak je les divukrásný’ (How beautiful the forest is…) While visiting I was completely surprised by how many people came to this well to draw this exceptionally clean water to take back to their homes. How symbolic!