Saturday, June 16, 2012

800 Words/Late Friday Playlist #18: Janacek - the Good Stuff

Let's start with some of the operas:

To see some of the extraordinary stuff in Jenufa, scroll down to end of the last post. But here's one more gorgeous clip. 

The opera after Jenufa was Osud. A hall of mirrors in which the main character is a composer who is putting on an opera. Listen to the music here and try to tell me why the hell is this music not performed more often?

Next came his sci-fi/fantasy opera The Excursions of Mr. Broucek. Mr Broucek gets drunk and finds himself first on the moon and then in the 15th century. If I told you that an opera with a plot this awesome was merely the 7th-best opera by Janacek, you'd have no reason to believe me. It's not at all a bad opera, Janacek is just that good. 

After the premiere of Jenufa, Janacek ran off with the mezzo who played Kostelnicka (the older lady who drowns the infant), and even brought the singer home with him – insisting that she stay as both his mistress and a houseguest. Understandably, this caused Janacek’s wife, Zdenka, to attempt suicide. Leos and Zdenka remained separated for the rest of their lives, rarely ever seeing each other. It’s said that the turbulence of his first string quartet, the “Kreutzer Sonata” (based on the Tolstoy novella about a husband who murders his wife, not Beethoven’s sonata) is based upon the turbulence of his marriage. In a letter, he confides about the work “I was imagining a poor woman, tormented and run down, like the one the Russian writer Tolstoy describes in his Kreutzer Sonata.”

Janacek was a Moravian Czech, not a Bohemian Czech. While this distinction may mean very little to us, it meant a great deal to him. The Bohemians (among them composers like Dvorak and Smetana) hailed from the Czech lands’ Western half, and were oriented to Central Europe. Their capital was Prague, the second city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and their culture modeled itself on the polished sophistication of Vienna and the German capitals. The Moravians hailed from the Czech east, with the comparative backwater Brno as their capital. The Moravians were very much Slavophiles who hoped that Russia would unite the Slavic peoples. Their lifestyle was more rural, coarser, more peasant-rooted. This is reflected in Janacek’s music, which is far less refined than Dvorak’s and must have disturbed many German listeners, who thought even Dvorak an exciting Czech barbarian. True to his pan-Slavic beliefs, Janacek created an orchestral rhapsody called Taras Bulba, based on a Gogol novel about a militant Cossack feudal lord in the Middle Ages who must sacrifice his two sons in his pursuit of Russian glory. In addition to being a very political work, one can’t help but notice the symmetry to Janacek’s personal life, in which he lost both his children before adulthood.

There are three other great works, greater than Taras Bulba, that have to be considered explicitly political. One after the other in 1926, Janacek wrote two of the most exciting works in the concert repertoire. The Sinfonietta, which he dedicated to The Czechoslovakian Armed Forces, and which he said was intended to celebrate ‘contemporary free man, his spiritual beauty and joy, his strength, his courage and determination to fight for victory'….whatever. I just know that it’s one of the most exciting pieces of music ever written, with a particularly stunning finale.

And then there’s the still more amazing Glagolitic Mass - described by Milan Kundera as 'more an orgy than a mass.' It’s just the plain Church Mass which so many Christian denominations use to this day, but it’s in Old Church Slavonic rather than Latin or Greek or Russian. Oddly, the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) section is missing, with its invocation ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’ (Give us peace). It’s fruitless to speculate, but my guess is that Janacek did this deliberately, and substituted in its place a war cry. Specifically a war cry played by the Organ, to sound a note of defiance for the Czech people who had been under Austro-German subjugation for so many centuries (and would soon be again).

As a sidenote, I will say that the most extraordinary musical experience of my life occurred when I heard this piece performed in London’s Royal Festival Hall next to an old lady who claimed to know Bela Bartok. We spoke about Bartok for a number of minutes, about Janacek, and about the conductor Sir Charles Mackerras – an Australian judged by nearly all music lovers to be the greatest Janacek conductor of all time. I sat in the audience, and wept hot tears for the next forty-five minutes as the most religious experience of my life came over me. At the time, I was unaware that the ‘original’ version of the piece existed – and that it made certain passages sound completely unrecognizable. The Veruju always felt like there was something missing, as though the highest peak had not been hit – and then it most certainly hit that peak. After an experience like that, how could I ever leave music? After the performance, I stood in line to greet Mackerras at a CD signing and I said “Maestro, I hope I should one day be able to conduct ay composer half as well as you do Janacek. Everybody around Mackerras seemed extremely impressed by my gumption, but he beckoned me to say it to him closer. He still couldn’t hear after the second time. I tried one last time, but he still couldn’t hear me and simply said “Yes,…. Janacek’s a great composer!

The third of them is Janacek’s last ‘completed’ work, “From the House of the Dead.” It’s his most advanced piece of music – musically, dramatically, politically. The opera is based on a Dostoevsky novella of the same name about a Siberian prison camp. There are scenes in which prisoners are beaten and humiliated, but the book is meant to show how people are capable of keeping their dignity even under the worst conditions – an opera that proved more and more prophetic as the 20th century advanced. Musically, Janacek never wrote a more daring score – full of harmonies and instrumental effects which would be advanced even for the 1960’s. But to the end, however much he bended it, Janacek stuck stubbornly to tonal music.

And then there’s his unfinished Symphonic Poem “Danube” (doubtless meaning the Danube River which runs through all the Balkan lands). It very well have been meant as a similarly political statement, but we’ll never know because the always sloppy Janacek left Danube in such an incomplete mess that it had to be reconstructed. Even in its reconstruction, it’s a shame this piece isn’t better known – it has some of Janacek’s most daring writing, perhaps that’s why he couldn’t complete it.

And now comes the Kamilla story…

In 1917, the 63-year-old Janacek developed an infatuation for an unsophisticated girl he met at a spa. Kamila Stosslova was thirty-seven years Janacek's junior, married anything but his intellectual equal, and it’s probable that their relationship was never consummated – in spite of the hundreds of letters Janacek sent her, nearly all of which Kamila saved. Many, perhaps most, of these letters contain melodramatically passionate declarations of love. It’s probable that Janacek’s feelings were unrequited, but Kamila kept a very close correspondence with him all the same and made Janacek a close family friend. It was Kamila who was with Janacek at his bedside when he died in 1928, after going out into the woods at night to search for her son.

One also has to wonder whether Janacek’s own feelings were quite as erotic as he claimed. Janacek developed a similar infatuation for another young woman (also named Kamila) shortly after his daughter died – it’s possible, though perhaps unlikely, that Janacek was in fact seeking a psychological substitute for his deceased daughter Olga.

In any event, even if Kamila was never Janacek’s lover, she was certainly his muse. The first fruit of his infatuation was an unforgettably beautiful song cycle: The Diary of One Who Disappeared. It is a diary in poems which tells a story about a village boy who comes across a gypsy girl (re: the worldly Leos and the unsophisticated Kamila) and decides to leave his family and village to be with her. The song cycle has parts for both tenor and alto (and an almost unbearably haunting offstage ensemble of three female singers). In one letter to Kamila, he wrote “…And the black gypsy girl in my Diary of One Who Disappeared – that was you. That’s why there’s so much emotional fire in the work. So much fire that if we both caught on, we’d be turned to ashes…And all through the work I thought of you!”

If that declaration was embarrassingly intimate, there is also his second quartet, which he subtitled ‘Intimate Letters.’ In case there is any doubt what’s meant by that title, he wrote in another letter to Kamila “You stand behind every note, you, living, forceful, loving. The fragrance of your body, the glow of your kisses – no, really of mine. Those notes of mine kiss all of you. They call for you passionately…” ….yowza! Well, even if this is dirty old man music, it’s breathtaking. The two middle movements contain some of the most gorgeous music written in the twentieth century.

And then, finally, there are the three operas in which Janacek claimed to represent Kamila in his protagonists:

The first was Kata Kabanova, which Janacek explicitly dedicated to her – which tells story in a drab, provincial town (not unlike a smaller version of Brno) of an extra-marital affair and the woman’s eventual suicide. The music representing Kata, the protagonist, is both pure and ecstatic – like a perfect fusion of religious and sensual feeling, but set against her is oppressive music that at times sounds like apocalyptic brutality. The fusion between these two creates the greatness of this opera – the contrast between all life’s savage tribulations and all that makes life worth living – is what makes the opera work so miraculously. The tragic ending is made that more poignant because she’s clearly an oasis of something lovely in a drab place.

 For the moment, we’re going to skip over the next opera chronologically and move on to The Makropulos Case, an opera based on a play by Karel Capek (better known as science fiction’s inventor of ‘robots’). In this opera, Kamila is represented by the world-famous singer: Emilia Marty. While Marty seems young, she is in fact 338 years old and possesses a potion which keeps her perpetually young. Like so many great performers, Emilia’s core of vulnerability is concealed by an emotionally frigid exterior – treating subordinates and lovers alike with terrible indifference. The layers of psychological meaning in this opera are unbelievably thick. Is Emilia Marty in fact a portrait of Kamila, or is she a portrait of Janacek himself – a great artist, coldly indifferent to those around him (like his wife) and with great sexual bravado into old age? Or is Janacek represented by Hauk-Sendorf, the senile old man who recognizes Emilia as Elina, a girl he had an affair with half-a-century before when Emilia assumed a different identity.

And now we come to the greatest opera of the last 200 years – if we still don’t count Sondheim musicals as opera then I’m deadly serious. Since Mozart, there has been no opera composer but Janacek who could possibly match him in the ability to create living characters, diversity of emotion, and sheer musical wonders. At the top of the opera heap, it’s just Mozart and Janacek, there is no third.

Mozart beats Janacek in his seamless ability to blend the emotional content and intellectual content to the point that they’re one and the same. In Mozart, just as there’s no musical effect that overwhelms the dozen others that are happening simultaneously, there is no character who overwhelms any other (except of course Don Giovanni – the exception who proves the rule because that’s exactly what Mozart set out to do). But not even Mozart (nor Beethoven) proved himself capable of writing a piece of music that showed an entire cosmic view of all life – birth to death, highest forms of life to lowest, highest tragedy to lowest comedy. There are four musical works I can think of which achieve this (obviously with extra-musical help) – The Creation by Haydn, Mahler’s 3rd Symphony, arguably Into The Woods, and The Cunning Little Vixen. And of those four, The Cunning Little Vixen clearly does it best. For profundity, there is not a single piece of music in all creation that equals it – and it’s an opera based on a comic strip!

Like all those cosmic works – it contains every dramatic state within it: tragedy, comedy, clearly there’ irony - we’re  watching animals talk like human beings, and there’s much Romance as well – a we watch foxes marry one another. So why then should a cutsie opera (made still more cuddly than it needs to be by too-cute productions) that skirts a fine line between the ridiculousness of opera and the ridiculousness of Disney be considered the most profound opera ever written? The answer can probably be found by a description of the plot.

It helps digesting all that depth to know that this is one of the world’s most entertaining pieces of music – full of comedy that needs no apologies by saying it’s ‘opera comedy’ and full of romance to balance out the death (and arguably rape) that takes place over the course of the opera. In this piece, Janacek presents us the entire natural world as though it’s an opera by Pixar – anthropomorphic animals seemingly of every genus and species, with opera singers playing foxes, dogs, gophers, chickens, frogs, mice, and insects. And these characters behave much as humans do – discussing matters of the farm and the forest as though they’re political and philosophical issues. It presents us with the life cycle of a vixen named Sharp Ears (Kamila) – independent, strong willed, a sort of female animal version of Tom Sawyer in her younger days who thumbs her nose at all authority. A farmer captures her to be a housepet, but she eats half the hens after luring them out of their coup with a rousing speech about how they are being exploited by the capitalist hen for their work. She then tries to befriend a haughty bourgeois gopher who rejects her, she then she drives out of his burrow by peeing on him.  We then watch as she meets a male fox and falls in love with him, gets pregnant, and summons the entire forest for their wedding – all in the span of twenty minutes.

The first act was comedy, the second act is romance. The third act is tragedy, a death so that the life cycle can begin anew. The farmer, swearing vengeance on the Fox for killing his chickens, hunts Sharp Ears obsessively. But it’s a friend of his who finds Sharp Ears with a tasty Rabbit trap which she escapes easily. But while Sharp Ears has an enormous family to feed, she still feels no compunction about breaking the trap or about scampering as though nothing’s wrong when men are clearly so closeby. And it’s this hubris which inevitably results in her getting shot.

But that only leads us to the most life-enhancing part of this story. Before the final scene, the old gamekeeper notices that the same friend, who married the town beauty every man had a crush on, gave her the fur of Sharp Ears as a present. This double loss causes him to go back into the forest to the place where he first saw the Vixen. He mourns the loss of them both, he despairs the dullness of his marriage and mourns the time of life when he and his wife were vigorous and attractive. But then he sees another Vixen who looks so much like the young Sharp Ears that it's clearly her daughter. And just before he can capture her, a frog jumps into his lap for the second time during the opera. But this frog speaks to him, and tells him that it was his grandfather who'd once jumped into his lap, and that his grandfather told all sorts of stories about the gamekeeper. And thus the opera ends on a note which says that life will always go on, even after death.

What makes Janacek so extraordinary is that he belongs in that elite cadre of artists for whom anything is possible – and nothing is predictable. So many artists have infinite intellectual reach, yet their intelligence precludes any emotional give – along with ditching traditional forms they ditch the emotions those forms housed. Other artists have a bottomless well of emotion to give us, yet their music is predictable – hewing to the same formulas again and again. But there is an exceedingly rare group of artists whose work suggests more things in the heavens and the earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy – if I wanted to count the number of musicians who master both playing fields consistently, even Mozart and Sondheim can’t make it on here – too rigid: I think of Beethoven, Schumann, Mahler, Janacek, Ellington, Schnittke, The Beatles, … and then my mind draws a blank. Janacek is one of the very few geniuses of music who can open up the entirety of the cosmos. If you’ve never heard his music, it’s a large part of the cosmos which you’re missing.

…And I haven’t even gotten into the piano or a cappella choral works….

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