SFOpera - From Village to World

From Village to World

Start with the lay of the land. Encompassed in the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s wide borders in the years before the Great War are people of many bloodlines. Some are satisfied with Hapsburg rule, others hate it. Here, in the heart of the heart of Europe, we find the three Czech territories. Largest is Bohemia, with its capital, Prague. Immediately south of Bohemia and three-quarters its size lies Moravia; its provincial capital is Brno. To the northeast is Silesia, with mixed cultural allegiances, Moravian among them. It was in Moravian Silesia that Leoš Janáček was born in 1854, in the village of Hukvaldy, where his father taught in a one-room school. Throughout his life, until he died in 1928, Janáček filled his music with Moravia’s essences. Its folk tunes and dialects drench his work, all but infusing it with the fragrances of its countryside—the spice of mown hay, the pungent dollops mounded on its roads. Janáček arrived at fame late but captured it with music unlike any other, music that discovers the profundities inherent in simplicities, and in the people shaped by the soil. These are the people of his first great hit and greatest opera, Jenůfa.

Hukvaldy’s coordinates place it two hundred miles southeast of Prague and a hundred miles east of Brno, distances that in those days only the most ambitious of townsfolk dreamt of covering. Leoš’s father understood that his son’s gift for music needed to escape village boundaries. So the eleven-year-old boy journeyed to Brno, to begin formal musical training at the Queen’s Monastery, where an endowment enabled children of poor families to study. His education never stopped. It turned into a search for ways to capture what he called truth.

We sometimes think of Janáček as a provincial composer who spent his career outside the Western European mainstream. Yet his training included stints at the conservatories in Leipzig and Vienna. He kept abreast of the wider music world in a way that his countryman Dvořák, whom he knew and revered, never did, to say nothing of Bedřich Smetana, whose work Janáček found too Czech, insisting that he himself wished to create a music representative of all the Slavs. As Jaroslav Vogel points out in his biography of the composer, Janáček believed “the old Moravian folk music was closest to this ideal.”

Janáček came of age during a period of intense Czech nationalism, when Prague was a city of two languages, where the upper middle classes spoke German with their peers and Czech to the servants. Fluent in German, Janáček nonetheless hated what it symbolized, the rule emanating from Vienna. He may have surprised even himself when he fell for the daughter of a prominent Czech-German family, Zdenka Schulzová, eleven years his junior, a lady to his tramp. For all the ardor of Janáček’s courtship, their marriage soon disintegrated into an on-again, off-again union marred by the willful misunderstandings and eagerly dispensed cruelties signaling the end of love. The birth of their daughter Olga in 1882 was followed by a divorce, an annulment of the divorce two years later, and, in 1888, the birth of a son, Vladimir.

Through these years Janáček was a teacher first, a composer in his spare time. Because he was both musician and patriot, he was led inevitably to the music of the people he championed. Starting in 1886, Janáček made his first ethnographic studies, visiting Moravian villages and notating the songs and melodies he found. “Song is not only something of beauty and delight,” he said, “but something from which we are to learn the truth of life.” He took special note of the fact that, as Mirka Zemanová says (in her study Janáček: A Composer’s Life), “the melodic shape of [Moravian folk songs] is dictated by the words.”

Finding tunes in words seems hardly a discovery, but Janáček discerned a profound relationship between these two modes of communication, both emerging from the body’s depths, from the viscera. This understanding led him to conceive what he called “speech melody.” “I had been listening to the speech of passers-by,” he wrote later, “reading the expressions on their faces, following with my eye every raised voice…. I felt that in speech melodies there were lines of inner growth, kept secret. I understood from them sorrow or a flash of joy, determination or hesitation….” He maintained that speech melodies, including the intonations a speaker gives a word, or the rhythm with which a word is spoken, “are the expression of the whole state of the organism.” As New-Age goofy as this may sound, Janáček’s studies of speech melody led him to treat the vocal line as no composer had done. “Speech motifs are my windows into the soul.”

With a commitment to folk music and a theory of how speech and music could reinforce each other, Janáček invented an intellectual basis for his art. Two operas served as studies for something greater. First came The Story of a Romance, then Šarka. Neither captured much attention. In 1895, at forty-one, Janáček enjoyed little fame beyond Moravia. But that year he began work on a third opera, the greater thing that those first two stage works helped prepare. This new opera was Jenůfa. It would carry his name far beyond Czech borders.

Actually it was not called Jenůfa, but rather Její pastorkyňa, after the play by Gabriela Preissová on which Janáček based his libretto. Její pastorkyňa—literally, Her Stepdaughter. Max Brod called the work Jenůfa in his German translation, and Jenůfa stuck in English-speaking countries. Yet in relieving the opera of its inert original title, Brod obscured that title’s truth. For Her Stepdaughter is apt. Jenůfa is a story of two women, the one to whom that pronoun her refers, and the other the stepdaughter, Jenůfa herself. The her is the Kostelnička—that is, the village sacristan. In keeping with that churchly office, Janáček’s Kostelnička is a serious woman. An aging widow when we meet her, we gather her life has included just a single amorous chapter, marriage to a violent drunkard. We know her only by her title; her name remains unspoken, like that of a malign spirit. She wears her sour disposition as a badge and has little patience for men, especially those who, like her stepdaughter Jenůfa’s boyfriend Števa, refuse to bid their adolescence farewell.

Artists are admonished to treat subjects they know. Jenůfa’s characters are lifted from Janáček’s boyhood milieu: village folk whose aspirations are limited by circumstances and who understand how ready their neighbors are to judge them. Janáček also brought a more tragic first-hand knowledge to this opera, enabling him to sympathize with his bereft heroine. His son had died at two and a half. His daughter, only twenty, died a month after Jenůfa was complete. Janáček said he would bind his score “with the black ribbon of the long illness, pain and cries of my daughter Olga and my little boy Vladimir.” In Jenůfa, he continued, “I have painted in black on black: gloomy music—such as was my own spirit.”

Not such gloomy sounds as one might expect. For all its bite, this music is filled with compassion, though never with sentimentality. Here, writes Zemanová, “speech melodies and folk music influences merged into a style which has no analogy in Western European music.”

This opera, part verismo and not at all grand, lacks arias and set pieces. Its orchestra is restrained, breaking out occasionally with overwhelming results, as in the last hammering chords of Act II, those blows spaced just far enough apart to make us scream for the resolution Janáček  withholds until the final exclamation mark. In Jenůfa’s lines you will find more angles than curves. But although this score brims with stabbing rhythms (predating The Rite of Spring by almost a decade), it has more than its share of melodic beauty. The music flows rhapsodically and the action is cinematic, unfolding as though in a single take.

The music is a tissue derived from speech, and just as no phrase in conversation is ever repeated with the same intonation or stress, Janáček’s speech motifs do not repeat or even develop so much as they metamorphose. This weaves a tightly knit web of almost subliminal correspondences, allowing us to orient ourselves within the musical context without knowing exactly why. A few examples: Jenůfa’s Act II prayer is essentially a continuation of the music in which she addressed her baby son thirty minutes earlier. When the Kostelnička pleads with Števa to acknowledge his child, she foreshadows Jenůfa’s prayer, especially the words, “Jesus, the fruit of your womb.” Learning that her child has died, Jenůfa expresses her sorrow and acceptance in a vocal line anticipating Laca’s Act III reconciliation with Števa. Toward the opening of Act III, as Jenůfa tells Laca he deserves a more worthy wife, the orchestra briefly suggests the harmony and phrase that will play so prominent a role in the epilogue, when the lovers pledge themselves to each other. As in life, all is bound together.

Jenůfa, says Vogel, “is passion itself.” Passion drives each plot acceleration—Jenůfa’s pregnancy, the Kostelnička’s refusal to allow her stepdaughter’s marriage until Števa proves he can stay sober, the thrust of Laca’s knife across Jenůfa’s cheek, the baby’s murder. But passion and love often blend badly. At the end, passion subsides and love remains. Although Jenůfa has addressed her prayers to the Blessed Virgin from start to finish, it is human love that saves Jenůfa’s two women. The Kostelnička will not sacrifice her stepdaughter to the villagers who believe Jenůfa has murdered her child. At last, the stepmother understands the extent of her self-absorption and where it has led, and she confesses to the murder. Now Jenůfa broadens her heart in forgiveness, weary of misunderstandings that isolate and that can kill. This tale rooted in the Moravian countryside expands to encompass the world.

Epilogue. Jenůfa and Laca alone. Never have their nerve endings been more exposed. She prepares to free Laca of any responsibility he may feel for her. Laca wants none of that and matches Jenůfa’s generosity with his own. They exchange words—call them vows—over a sighing orchestral line full of nostalgia and promise. That music reveals a future. Jenůfa and Laca will look back on this moment, the start of their life together. “What do we care about the world, if we have each other?” Laca asks. But the world awaits them. Assured of that much, we watch the curtain fall.

Larry Rothe is author of the San Francisco Symphony history Music for a City, Music for the World and co-author of For the Love of Music.

Three Jenůfas