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Leos Janacek

Leoš Janáček (July 3, 1854 - August 12, 1928) was a Czech composer. He is particularly remembered for his orchestral piece Sinfonietta and for his operas, and is thought of as the greatest Czech composer of the early 20th century.

Janáček was born in Hukvaldy in Moravia, the son of a schoolmaster. As a boy, he sang in the choir of the monastery in Brno. He later went to Prague to study music, and made a living teaching music. 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 Dvořák, and began composing in a relatively traditional romantic style, but after his opera Sárka (1881), his style began to change. He made a study of Moravian 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 Jenufa (1904). Going much father than Mussorgsky and anticipating the later work of Bela Bartok in such styles, this became a distinguishing feature of his vocal writing (Samson 1977). When Jenufa 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.

His work is tonal, though vastly expanded tonality, though marked by unorthodox spacings, and often makes 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 Katya Kabanova (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 (with words from a text in the Glagolitic alphabet) 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. He died in Ostrava.

Janáček's music in film

A film that draws extensively from Janáček's (mostly non-vocal) music is The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988, after a novel by Milan Kundera), amongst others:

  • The Madonna of Frýdek , from the piano cycle On an Overgrown Path (1st series) is more or less Tereza's (Juliette Binoche) theme music: heard the first time she appears on the screen, and after recurring several times also accompanying the final scene of the film.
  • 2nd string quartet ("intimate letters") , especially the final movement, which generally accompanies scenes of insecurity or imminent danger.
  • violin sonata and cello sonata .


  • Samson, Jim (1977). Music in Transition: A Study of Tonal Expansion and Atonality, 1900-1920, p.67. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0393021939.
    • Hollander, Hans (1963). Janáček, p.119. London.

Last updated: 11-08-2004 07:40:03