Leoš Janáček: Brno’s first hipster

Leoš JanáčekDid you know that Brno was home to one of the most famous composers of the 20th century, Leoš Janáček? Tell the average non-Czech that you live in Brno and you’re likely to get a blank stare, but mention this city to a musician or concert goer and the response is often going to be, “Oh right—Janáček!”

I took it as an omen when I had the chance to play his Slavic influenced Glagolitc Mass with The Philadelphia Orchestra last fall, just after making the decision to come to Brno. Now that I’m here, signs of the famous composer seem to pop up everywhere.

A (very) brief history: Janáček was born in 1854, in Hukvaldy, Moravia (about 30 km south of Ostrava). At age 11 he moved to Brno to study piano and organ at the Abbey of St Thomas, but later turned to composition. After studies in Prague, Leipzig, and Vienna, he returned to Brno, got married, and began to teach and compose.

He founded an organ school in 1881, which later become the Brno Conservatory. Janáček composed throughout the early part of the 20th century right up until his death in 1928. His legacy includes works for piano, organ, orchestra, choral and opera.

Janáček’s compositional style was heavily inspired by Moravian and Slavic folk music, but challenged conventional views of tonality. His works sometimes reflected the social injustice of the time. From the Street, a piano sonata he composed in 1905, was inspired by the brutal death of a protester in support of a Czech university in Brno. He was also involved in anti-German and anti-Austrian movements of the time.

Given his artistic and political leanings, it’s fair to say that Janáček was perhaps the very first Brno hipster.

Tributes to the famous composer can be seen throughout the city, most notably the grand Janáček Theater (Janáčkovo divadlo), which this year celebrates 50 years of existence. It opened in 1965 in the city center with a performance of  Janáček’s opera The Cunning Little Vixen. The Janáček Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Brno also bears the composer’s name. His Organ School still stands (out of place in the shadow of the futuristic Hotel Continental) and now houses the music department of the Moravian Museum and the Janáček Archives. A memorial is located in the school’s garden house where the composer actually lived.

Janáček may have been artistically ahead of his time, but initially he was undervalued by his peers. So much so that his emotionally charged 1904 opera Jenůfa, written in tandem with the death of his daughter Olga in 1903, failed to gain recognition in Prague, much to Janáček’s dismay. In 1916 it was finally programmed there, and Janáček began to gain more global recognition.

His best-known work, the 1926 masterpiece for orchestra, Sinfonietta, is dedicated to the city of Brno. (Listen to a guide on Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta with one of the best Czech conductors Jakub Hrůša from Brno!) Sinfonietta was immediately programmed by orchestras In New York and Berlin, and continues to be a mainstay of orchestral repertoire everywhere.

Are you intrigued to hear Janáček’s music with your own ears? You’re in luck. Jenůfa returns to Janáček Theater this season to celebrate the building’s fiftieth anniversary. The production opened in October and will return on Nov. 7; Feb. 2 and 21; and April 20.

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