Leos Janáček

In 1927, needing to have the house painted and knowing that her husband would only be in the way, Zdenka Janácková packed Leos Janáček off for a few days to stay with his friend Mrs Kamila Stösslová. Ten years earlier, Janáček had met Kamila and her husband David Stössel on holiday at the Moravian spa resort of Luhacovice, where he had fallen hopelessly in love with the vivacious Kamila, 38 years his junior. Ten years of letters to her testify to the constancy of his feelings, as does the inspiration of many of his later works.

But Kamila’s nonchalant response and barely concealed lack of interest in her admirer’s music must have reassured Mrs Janácková that this was a harmless and one-sided flirtation. Mrs Janácková had made a fatal mistake. Janáček’s visit in April 1927 to the southern Bohemian town of Písek marked a change in Kamila’s attitude. Touched by the old man’s unflagging interest in her, and fed up with being left alone in Písek while her husband, an antique dealer, went off on his travels, Kamila confided her loneliness to Janáček. In the letters that followed (almost another 300 in 15 months) Janáček’s addresses to Kamila became more and more passionate and provide a fascinating glimpse of a creative genius at work. They also reveal how far he had travelled from unpromising beginnings.

Born in 1854, Janáček hailed from the large family of a schoolmaster in Moravia, and seemed destined to follow the family profession as a teacher. Music came second, and it was only at the age of 25 that he contrived to study music abroad – in Leipzig and Vienna. In the 1880s and 1890s, he established himself in the Moravian capital of Brno as one of its leading musical figures, but this was more as an educationalist and writer than as a composer. His first opera, Sárka (1887-8), was not performed because he had failed to get permission to set the text. The second, The Beginning of a Romance (1892), was taken off after four performances, and the third, Jenůfa (1894-1903), though successful with its Brno audiences, was rejected elsewhere. The Prague musical director who received Jenůfa, Karel Kovarovic, had suffered the scorn of Janáček’s reviews, and returned his opera, deeming it primitive and provincial.

In the late 1880s, Janáček had been swept up by the vogue for Moravian folk music, explored in his editions, arrangements, folk ballet and operas. In the years that followed Jenůfa (Janáček was now 50), he widened his range with two more operas, innovative choruses, his most characteristic piano music and his first mature orchestral and chamber works. After much lobbying from Janáček’s friends, Kovarovic grudgingly accepted Jenůfa and it was performed to surprising acclaim in Prague, in May 1916. Foreign publication and foreign performances followed. Emerging from a bitter period of self-doubt, Janáček was revitalised and began to compose freely. In the summer of 1917, he met Mrs Stösslová, who would unwittingly inspire Janáček in the years to follow, becoming the basis for the central character in Katya Kabanová, The Cunning Little Vixen and The Makropulos Affair.

For Janáček, at the age of almost 73, his visit to Písek and his ‘two walks’ with Kamila Stösslová marked a turning-point. It was not long before any trip that took him to Prague or beyond usually had a Písek extension. Kamila arranged her summer holidays in Luhacovice to coincide with Janáček’s (16-28 August 1927) and it was then, on the penultimate day, coyly known in later correspondence as ‘Friday feast-day’, that Kamila allowed Janáček to kiss her. At the end of the summer, Janáček travelled to Berlin for a performance of his Sinfonietta and his visit to Písek on the way home marked the beginning of the Kamila ‘album’, into which he wrote poetical prose and short piano pieces each time he visited her. This visit was celebrated in a piece called Our Children – Janáček’s fantasy was that Kamila was bearing his child.

Other works from this time include Janáček’s last opera From the House of the Dead and his Glagolitic Mass, a joyous combination of his pantheistic beliefs grafted on to a celebration of the beginnings of Slavonic Christendom. To Kamila, however, he confided a vision of two people walking down the aisle of the church: their nuptial mass. Together, they attended a new production of Katya Kabanová in Prague in January 1928 and he inscribed her copy of the opera thus: ‘I know a marvellous lady, miraculously she is in my mind all the time. My Katya grows in her, in her, Mrs Kamila Neumannová! [her maiden name] The work will be one of my most tender!’ (Leos Janáček to Kamila Stösslová, 12 February 1928). Soon after, he completed his String Quartet No. 2, Intimate Letters, which he declared to be ‘my first composition which sprang from directly experienced feeling. Before then I composed only from things remembered, this piece, Intimate Letters, was written in fire. Earlier pieces, only in hot ash.’ (Leos Janáček to Kamila Stösslová, 18 May 1928).

Kamila’s mother died in July, and soon after David brought Kamila and their youngest son Otto to Brno, and they all set off with Janáček to his holiday home in Hukvaldy. Kamila lived in the upstairs room that Janáček had built for her. She had brought the album with her, into which Janáček wrote a number of new pieces, penning his last, Golden Ring, in early August.

Four days later he died of pneumonia brought on by a chill caught during a searching in the woods for Kamila’s son. Aside from an unintelligible inscription written in his fever, his last words in the album were happy ones: ‘And I kissed you. And you are sitting beside me and I am happy and at peace. In such a way do the days pass for the angels.’ 

John Tyrrell

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