Leoš Janáček: A musical sensation

17 October 2019

Born in Hukvaldy, Czech Republic in 1853; Leoš Janáček was the unsuspecting musical genius that took the 20th century music scene by storm.

Responsible for some of the most expressive music of the century, Janáček continues to stride the international music scene. What is the secret of his success? Like many other great composers, Janáček was a man in love. He loved nature and animals, he loved Russia and Russian culture and most of all; he loved Moravian folk music. His interest and lifelong affection of other European cultures and composers (such as Puccini and Dvořák) saw Janáček create his own modern musical style – a style that has made him one of the foremost Czech composers on the 20th century, but how did it all begin?

At the age of 11, he joined Brno’s Augustinian Monastery as a chorister before receiving his education at the Prague Organ School and the Leipzig and Vienna Conservatoires.

In 1881 he founded a college of organists, which he directed until 1920, and conducted choral societies, for which he wrote his first compositions.

In the 10 years before his death in 1928, in fervour of unrequited love with Kamila Urválková – an emotional upheaval which resulted in over 650 love letters - he wrote one masterpiece after another, works that would make him famous in his own lifetime and keep music-lovers in awe, 90 years on. Katya Kabanova, The Cunning Little Vixen, From the House of the Dead, the GlagolithicMass, the Sinfonietta, the two string quartets - each of these works pushed into new musical territory. 

Young woman lying next to big flowers with chin in hands.
A dozen men wearing dark clothes walk somberly in line, across the dimly lit stage.

Janáček’s most notable operas

Jenůfa (1904)

A gritty tale of honour, love and sacrifice, Jenůfa explores the stigma of pregnancy out of wedlock against the backdrop of a small claustrophobic community.

Katya Kabanova (1921)

Inspired by Alexander Ostrovsky’s play The Thunderstorm, Katya Kabanova is a breakneck tragedy of forbidden love and self-destruction. 

The Cunning Little Vixen  (1924) 

A fantastic love story, The Cunning Little Vixen follows a playful creature as she takes on the world on her own terms. Based on the themes of obsession, exploitation and of course, love, this is a tale that celebrates the circle of life.

The Makropulos Affair (1926)

To outwit death and attain immortality is a dream as old as human history. Despite owning a formula for eternal life, a jaded 337 year old finds her humanity in death. Janáček’s penultimate opera, The Makropulos Affairis based on Karel Čapek’s play about Elina Makropulos, who was given a potion to preserve her youth when she was 16. 

From the House of the Dead (1930) 

From the House of the Dead is a compelling collage of stories that follows different inmates as they recount why they ended up in a claustrophobic Siberian prison.

Although considered eccentric and even amateurish by many at the time, these operas gradually assumed repertory status in the second half of the 20th century, belatedly crowning Janáček as one of the greatest opera composers of the last 100 years.