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  • Born

    3 July 1854

  • Died

    12 August 1928 (aged 74)

Leoš Janáček (3 July 1854 in Hukvaldy – 12 August 1928 in Ostrava) was a Czech composer. He was inspired by the broader field of Slavic folk music, weaving it into some of his greatest compositons: his Sinfonietta, Glagolitic Mass, Taras Bulba, string quartets and operas. Janáček is generally recognised as an inimitable composer, and one of his country's foremost talents.

Janáček, the son of a schoolmaster, sang as a boy in the choir of the monastery in Brno. He later went to Prague to study music and made a living as a music teacher. He also conducted various amateur choirs. In 1881 he moved back to Brno, and founded the Organ School there, which was later to become the Brno Conservatory.

As a young man Janáček became friends with Antonín Dvořák, and began composing in a relatively traditional romantic style, but after his opera Šárka (1881), his style began to change. He made a study of Moravian and Slovak folk music and used elements of it in his own music. He especially focused on studying and reproducing the rhythm and the pitch contour and inflections of normal Czech speech, which helped in creating the very distinctive vocal melodies in his opera Jenůfa (1904). Going much farther than Modest Mussorgsky and anticipating the later work of Béla Bartók in such styles, this became a distinguishing feature of his vocal writing (Samson 1977).

When Jenůfa was given in Prague in 1916 it was a great success, and brought Janáček real acclaim for the first time. He was 62 at the time and began to compose the pieces he is now best known for, what many consider his, belatedly, mature style. A year later he met Kamila Stösslová, a young woman who was a profound inspiration to him for the remaining years of his life.

Much of Janáček's work is marked by a great originality and individuality. His work is tonal, though a vastly expanded tonality, and marked by unorthodox spacings, often making use of modality: "there is no music without key. Atonality abolishes definite key, and thus tonal modulation….Folksong knows of no atonality." (Hollander 1963) He uses accompaniment figures and patterns prominently, with, according to Jim Samson, "the on-going movement of his music…similarly achieved by unorthodox means—often a discourse of short, 'unfinished' phrases comprising constant repetitions of short motives which gather momentum in a cumulative manner." (Samson 1977)

The operas Káťa Kabanová (1921), The Cunning Little Vixen (1924), The Makropulos Affair (1926) and From the House of the Dead (after a novel by Dostoevsky, premiered in 1930, after his death) are regarded by many commentators as his finest works. The conductor Sir Charles Mackerras has become particularly closely associated with them.

Other well known pieces by Janáček include the Sinfonietta, the Glagolitic Mass (the text written in Old Church Slavonic), Lachian Dances, the rhapsody Taras Bulba and his two string quartets. These pieces and the above mentioned four late operas were all written in the last decade of Janáček's life.

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