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Two Faces of Janáček

A Review of My Life with Janáček: the Memoirs of Zdenka Janáčková. Translated and Edited by John Tyrrell (London, 1998).

Posted: September 22, 1999

By Thomas D. Svatos

The explosive artist whose compositional imagination was primed by those melodic fragments of speech he could notate in seconds, one of the greatest musical dramatists opera has ever seen, Leoš Janáček now appears in a new, ominous role in the memoirs of his wife, Zdenka Janáčková, which this volume offers in complete form for the first time. In an English-language edition prepared by musicologist John Tyrrell, we come to know a Janáček who seems limitless in his harshness, licentiousness, and uncompromising nature.

A Sensation

The manuscript of the Janáčková memoirs came into existence in the years after Janáček's death in 1928, when the widow's life-long subservience and repression led her to confess the true story of her marriage to her secretary Marie Trkanová. Trkanová then produced a ten-chapter typescript which was known to early Janáček biographers but never fully released; only certain portions appeared in serialized form before World War II. Even though the Janáček archive in Brno acknowledged possession of the manuscript after the 1989 revolution (with certain pages missing), it was still unavailable for publication due to the restrictions placed on it by Trkanová's heirs. Indeed, it might have seemed that the memoirs would remain a mere archival relict for some time to come. But through the remarkable circumstances he describes in his preface, Tyrrell acquired a complete copy through a British antiquarian that had no publication restrictions. And thus Tyrrell, already a noted scholar of Janáček's life and work, author of Intimate Letters: Leoš Janáček to Kamila Stösslová and Janáček's Operas: A Documentary Account, was in a position to reveal the stunning tale told by Janáčková to specialists and the general public.

Caustic and Erratic

Zdenka Schulzová, the daughter of a middle-class family in Moravia, met her future husband as his piano student at the age of 12. Her father, Emilian Schulz, was an early supporter of Janáček's musical talents and – as director of the Teacher's Training Institute in Brno – found him a teaching assignment at the school. Standard biographies imply that the Schulz family provided Janáček relief from the destitution of his rural Moravian background, but Zdenka's account of her marriage to him in 1881 – just before her 16th birthday – brings out the full opportunism with which Janáček lept into the middle class. Through Zdenka's words, we learn of Janáček's sudden change in attitude towards her family after their wedding. The one-time charming guest in the Schultz household suddenly became her caustic and erratic partner. Perpetual anxiety descended on her after she realized his unlimited ability to devise cruel treatments for her. Once when attempting to return home from her parents, whom Janáček had forbidden her to visit, she found that "the door was bolted so I couldn't get in with the key. I rang, I knocked, I cried, I banged on the door, but he didn't open up for me. And he wasn't sleeping. He was walking to and fro behind the door whistling a song." The petty allowance he granted her, which barely enabled her to feed herself and their children, and his cold treatment towards the family in general, was at the core of her painful existence. After describing the lengths to which she would go to feed their infant boy Vladimír, she relates "... when hunger for something more substantial came over me, I went to my parents and they fed me. My husband didn't notice anything: he never cared about how I lived and whether I needed anything."

Life with Don Juan

These words are sufficient to sketch out the dreary existence Janáčková came to accept. And part of this was coming to terms with her husband's extra-marital affairs. Through Janáčková's memoirs, it becomes clear that Kamila Stösslová, the Jewish wife of a Písek antique dealer and the muse behind Janáček's late masterpieces, was merely the last in a string of life-long trysts. In great emotional detail, Janáčková describes her situation as a wife betrayed in the context of her husband's affair with Croatian singer Gabriela Horvátová, against whom she waged a long, moral struggle. She states, "I didn't know then what became clear to me much later, that one of the greatest thrills of this relationship for her was the very fact of seeing me being tortured, humiliated, and desperate." Janáček met the singer in 1916 when he was 61 and – as the Janáčeks' two children had died young – he saw in her evidently the last chance to father a child to survive him. Zdenka's narration of the affair provides the most sensational revelation of the memoirs: Horvátová's loss of Janáček's child either through miscarriage or abortion, the details of which Janáčková does not make entirely clear.

A New Face

Tyrrell's translation is cast in eloquent language making use of a rich variety of British colloquialisms in an attempt to render Janáčková's rhetorical style. What is more, the edition contains numerous informative notes for the reader less-informed about the composer. Some passages drag on, however, as Janáčková recalls the most various, seemingly banal details. But most importantly, the availability of her memoirs provides a stark alternative to the standard depictions of Janáček's life, which is commonly tied to his grand gestures of nationalism or his musical development in general. Indeed, admirers of Janáček's music must now confront the extent to which the brilliance of his music is bound to the callous and demeaning conduct he exercised in his personal life.

By Thomas D. Svatos

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