Janáček’s Musical Influences

7 January 2022
Women dressed as chickens in farmyard with buckets.

Jenůfa will be the second opera performed by Welsh National Opera as part of our Janáček Series that began with The Cunning Little Vixen in 2019. The Czech composer is a very important part of WNO’s history. Sir David Pountney’s relationship with WNO started with a Janáček cycle of operas co-produced with Scottish Opera, beginning with Jenůfa in 1975. Sir David Pountney, Sir Richard Armstrong and former WNO Music Director Sir Charles Mackerras brought Janáček’s music to great acclaim in the UK. In 2017, WNO Music Director Tomáš Hanus received the Janáček Medal, recognising him as an outstanding performer promoting the composer’s work, following a performance of our production of From the House of the Dead at the Janáček Festival in Brno.

Like many other musical nationalists Janáček spent some of his early life collecting folksongs. His interest in folk music dates from the early 1870s, the time of his first male-voice choruses, but it was not until 1880 that he made his first systematic study of folk songs and dances in the region of his birth and became utterly captivated. He was born in the village of Hukvaldy in Northern Moravia, and his trip to the region marked a turning point in his life. Several of his earliest works, including his second opera The Beginning of a Romance (1894) and the better-known Lachian Dances (1889), incorporate Moravian folk tunes directly into larger structures. By the time he came to write Jenůfa, folksong had hugely influenced Janáček’s musical language. The programme for the opera’s premiere claimed, ‘it is the first opera which consistently wants to be Moravian’. Although Jenůfa was first performed in Brno in 1904, Janáček remained little more than a local celebrity in his Moravian homeland until the opera’s Prague revival in 1916, when he was 61 years old.

Another lifelong interest and the theme of many of Janáček’s articles was speech melody, which he considered to be of great importance when writing music for the stage. To Janáček, theatre was the most important national institution, and in his ceaseless promotion of Czech culture and Czech music, he felt that there was a great need to cultivate the language. In an open letter to the editor of Moravská Revue on the foundation of the National Theatre of Moravia he wrote ‘If we want to have a theatre with an individual character then we need to plunge to the depths and find the truth: even the tone of our actors’ language, in fact the speech melodies of actors’ language have to be genuinely Czech, genuinely Moravian’. In his speech melodies Janáček noted down the speech of people from all walks of life, during all sorts of activities – at work, on the train, and in the streets of Brno. Tomáš Hanus describes Janáček as a form of truth in music. ‘He does not lie; he does not show off or rely on effects or techniques. In his music, we hear the life and suffering of normal people.’