Czech composer Leoš Janáček was born 160 years ago today. A composer known for writing music inspired by Moravian and Slavic folk, Janáček couples these leanings with a preoccupation with rather sinister themes. A significant body of his work is built around grisly themes, death, betrayal and oppression being among them.
It may seem like an eccentric way to celebrate a birthday, but we've decided to look at five works that show Janáček at his most ominous.
1. Kátia Kabanová
Even though Janáček was 67 when he wrote Káťa Kabanová, it is widely considered to be his first mature opera. It tells the story of a young woman trapped in a loveless marriage and surrounded by stifling social conventions: Kátia’s controlling mother-in-law keeps an oppressively close watch on her. In her husband’s absence she embarks on a brief affair, but soon confesses upon his return. Racked with guilt, she throws herself into the sea during a violent storm. Janáček dedicated the work to his unrequited love Kamila Stosslova. The opera’s short, intense scenes are an outpouring of Janáček passion in a largely one-sided affair.
Janáček wrote his own libretto for this opera, one of the first to be written entirely in prose. It is based on Gabriella Preissova’s realist play Her Stepdaughter. A harrowing tale of infanticide and domestic violence, the opera sees Jenůfa transform from the most beautiful girl in her village to a disfigured mother left to raise her baby alone. The perpetrator of her disfigurement is Laca, motivated by jealousy of her love for Števa. After Števa flees, the girl's stepmother worries that she will never marry so lies to Laca that the baby is dead. When Laca agrees to marry Jenůfa the stepmother is faced with the consequences of her lie and the final act reveals the body of a baby in the melting snow.
3. Taras Bulba
Janáček based this programmatic rhapsody for orchestra on three episodes from Nikolai Gogol's novelTaras Bulba. The turbulent score features a violent battle scene and a merciless execution, ending with a rousing passage for brass, organ and bells that represents the eponymous character being led away to be burnt to death. The work, composed between 1915-1918, was inspired in part by the huge loss of life during World War One.
4. String Quartet No.1, 'The Kreutzer Sonata’
In a letter to Kamila Stosslova, Janáček revealed that he was inspired to imagine ‘a poor woman, tormented and run down’ – like the one from Tolstoy’s dark and disturbing novella, The Kreutzer Sonata – when composing his first string quartet. The music is unsettled with choppy melodic lines imitating violent outbursts of dialogue spoken by the novel’s jealous husband. Janáček developed his technique of ‘speech melody’ towards the end of his career, a technique in which he transcribes passages of speech into musical notation.
5. From the House of the Dead
Janáček‘s final opera, From the House of the Dead, is set in a bleak Siberian prison and is full of themes of loneliness and isolation. The composer had developed a tendency of modeling characters around his life-long love Kamilla Stosslova, but in this opera there is only one female part; perhaps in acknowledgment of her indifference to his feelings. An alternative ending was written posthumously by two of Janáček’s pupils to reduce the bleakness of the story.