Speech Melodies

Paul Mitchinson

  • Janáček: Years of a Life, Volume I by John Tyrrell
    Faber, 971 pp, £60.00, November 2006, ISBN 0 571 17538 4
  • Janáček: Years of a Life, Volume II by John Tyrrell
    Faber, 1074 pp, £60.00, November 2007, ISBN 978 0 571 23667 1

Pierre Boulez took his final bow in the opera pit last summer at the Aix-en-Provence festival. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the production was the music chosen: Leoš Janáček’s opera From the House of the Dead, written in 1928, the final year of his life. Boulez seemed a little ambivalent about the choice. ‘Janáček never develops anything,’ he said in an interview printed in the programme; his works display a ‘kind of primitivism’ with ‘no complexity’ in form or expression. Still, he acknowledged, ‘it is fascinating to see how much power Janáček’s primitivism can wield.’

Born in 1854, Janáček has walked a long and unlikely road to respectability. As late as his 60th birthday, he might well have been seen as a failure. He had published fewer than thirty works, and was writing only one new piece a year. Almost none of his music had been performed outside Moravia, where he was the head of the Brno Organ School. His operas had been abandoned before completion, rejected for performance, or at best performed badly in Brno. His life changed when, in 1916, his decade-old opera Jenufa – a sordid tale of Moravian village life – was performed in Prague, and Vienna and Berlin clamoured to stage it in their turn. Janáček retired from the organ school soon afterwards and, enjoying his new-found celebrity, wrote five operas, a song cycle, a string quartet and dozens of other works. Nearly all of them remain in the repertoire.

It’s not too hard to work out why it took so long for Janáček to gain recognition: he was a very difficult man. As a 20-year-old student at the Prague Organ School, he wrote a critical review of a concert conducted by the school’s director, Frantisek Skuhersk´y, and seemed bewildered when he was suspended. ‘This day will be memorable for me,’ he wrote, ‘since force was used against me because of the truth.’ Skuhersky, who saw promise in his student, cancelled the suspension.

Not everyone proved so forgiving. In 1887, Janáček wrote a derisive review of a new opera whose composer, Karel Kovarovic, later became the director of Prague’s National Theatre opera. Fifteen years later, when Janáček was struggling to have Jenufa performed in Prague, Kovarovic refused to stage it, and didn’t relent until 1916. John Tyrrell believes that the reason was simple vindictiveness. When Jenufa was finally performed in Prague, Janáček infuriated cast members by lavishing praise on the soprano Gabriela Horvátová, with whom he was having an affair, and ignoring the other performers. His librettists had an even tougher time. In the most painfully detailed part of his biography, Tyrrell describes the decade-long gestation of Janáček’s fifth opera, The Excursions of Mr Brouček, on which more than half a dozen librettists worked. Janáček was infuriating, hectoring them and at the same time changing his mind about what he wanted them to write.

His success as a composer came partly because more tactful people worked on his behalf. Rosa Newmarch played this role in the English-speaking world. But the most influential figure was Max Brod. Without Brod, Alma Mahler wrote, Janáček would have staggered on as ‘a nothing, someone who even in the boundaries of his homeland would have remained unappreciated’. Even so, the damage Janáček did to his own career and reputation persisted long after his death. In Testaments Betrayed, published in 1993, Milan Kundera complained that his compatriots had still not written ‘a single important musicological study analysing the aesthetic newness’ of Janáček’s work: ‘No complete recorded edition of his works. No complete edition of his theoretical and critical writings.’ Since its premiere in 1916, Jenufa has continued to be performed in Kovarovic’s radically reorchestrated version. Even in Brno, Janáček’s own version wasn’t staged until a few years ago, when his original score was reconstructed by an Australian conductor, Charles Mackerras, and Tyrrell himself. Eighty years after his death, Janáček still needs foreign boosters.

What might seem paradoxical is that Boulez is now one of them, despite Janáček’s unabashed enthusiasm for the Moravian folklore which undermined his reputation as a ‘serious’ composer among Modernists during his life and after it. Speaking in London in 1926, he told this story:

Once an educated German said to me: ‘What, you grow out of folk song? That is a sign of a lack of culture!’ As if a man on whom the sun shines, on whom the moon pours out its light, as if all that surrounds us was not a part of our culture. I turned away and let the German be.

Bartók, who faced similar resistance to his music, earned a little more deference because he acknowledged the advances made by the introduction of atonality and dodecaphony, and – in his most critically respected works – translated the folkish elements of his music into a structured and astringent language that any Modernist could respect.

Janáček never saw the need for this. He kept abreast of musical developments, but refused to pay obeisance to the Second Viennese School. He persisted for years in misspelling (in multiple ways) Arnold Schoenberg’s name, and filled his copy of Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre with critical commentary. (‘Ass!’ he wrote in the margin next to a discussion of chord-construction on fourths.) Even in his later years, long after he had stopped arranging and orchestrating Moravian folk songs, the influence of folklore and the rejection of elitism remained constant.

Take his most famous contribution to music: the ‘speech melody’. In the summer of 1897, perhaps under Dvorák’s influence, Janáček began notating the tempo and pitch of the conversation he heard around him: the cries of children, the comments of neighbours, even the sounds of farm animals. In 1903, as his daughter lay dying of rheumatic heart disease, Janáček notated her strangled cries. ‘Whenever someone spoke to me,’ he told an interviewer late in life, ‘even if I didn’t grasp the words, I grasped the rise and fall of the notes! I knew what the person was like: I knew how he or she felt, whether he or she was lying, whether he or she was upset … You see, these speech melodies are windows into people’s souls.’

There is a popular misconception that Janáček quoted liberally – and literally – from these notations in his music. This is false, and it also misses his more ambitious purpose. Janáček collected speech melodies much as a naturalist might gather laboratory specimens – as essential research into the musical expressivity of the human voice. When he quoted them, it was invariably in the context of his theoretical writings, or his more impressionistic non-fiction essays. But when it came to shaping his own music, Janáček would have considered direct quotation of speech melodies crude and unimaginative. Each individual, each situation, each emotional world called for its own specific musical expression. His notated speech melodies were not music per se, he said in 1925, but ‘the gate to music of the universe’.

Tyrrell is sceptical of the fetish that has been made of speech melody. ‘In making his vocal lines less structured and more naturalistic,’ he argues, ‘Janáček was hardly doing much more than responding to trends of the time, and one wonders whether he really needed a “speech melody theory” to help him do so.’ Schoenberg, after all, experimented fitfully with speech-influenced music, or Sprechstimme, in works such as Pierrot Lunaire (1912) and his unfinished opera Moses und Aron. So did his student Alban Berg, whose opera Wozzeck was revered by Janáček. But Sprechstimme was mainly a performer’s convention, calling for the singer to slide from pitch to pitch in a manner halfway between speaking and singing. It was a style used sparingly for special effect. Janáček believed that speech melody, by contrast, should infuse every aspect of his music, and Tyrrell describes what this meant in concrete terms. Speech melody helped Janáček ‘develop an awareness of music in miniature: potent, concentrated and on a very small scale … A fragment of someone’s speech conveyed to Janáček a distinct emotion and in his own way he wished to translate this sort of concentrated emotion into music.’

Tyrrell sees this point most forcefully realised in Janáček’s stage works, where his skill in quickly establishing character and mood are unsurpassed. But it is also evid-ent in his instrumental pieces, particularly the chamber works. His Second String Quartet (subtitled Intimate Letters), written six months before his death, was an attempt to translate his passion for Kamila Stösslová into music. ‘It’s a work as if carved out of living flesh,’ he wrote to Stösslová. ‘I think that I won’t write a more profound and a truer one.’ He evokes a ravishingly intense atmosphere in the opening bars. As a cello trills darkly, two violins take up a faltering theme that seems to simulate the cadence of a man out of breath. A few seconds later the viola interrupts with a mysterious melody played sul ponticello (near the bridge), as if from a great distance. (Janáček originally wrote the part for a viola d’amore – a romantic tribute to Stösslová – but switched to the more powerful modern viola.) The viola’s melody is quickly ambushed by the original theme, which is soon enhanced with one of Janáček’s characteristic punching ostinato accompaniments. And so the movement continues, with sudden juxtapositions of contrasting elements, often occurring simultaneously as well as sequentially, mimicking the awkward pauses and halting rhythms of speech. What gives the work its peculiar power is the way the music’s fleeting and contradictory moods, sometimes garbled, at other times bursting into an unexpected clarity, reflect the experience of emotion.

It is Janáček’s capacity to represent the extraordinary complexity of human expression that has made him such an alluring figure for more recent composers. As the backlash against mid-20th-century Modernism gathers momentum, the reputation of such figures as Janáček is enhanced. Steve Reich said in 1996 that American art music of the 1950s and 1960s put itself in a ‘musically unhealthy situation’ when it ‘lost all connections to American folk music’ – read jazz and rock and roll – ‘and instead self-consciously modelled itself on European serial models’. Janáček, as he saw it, offered a vital alternative path. Reich has repeatedly explored the musically expressive qualities of human speech in terms Janáček would have understood, if not approved. Different Trains, his 1988 work for string quartet and tape, includes recorded speech from interviews with individuals who lived through the Second World War. The spoken phrases form the basis for melodies echoed and developed by the instruments. ‘What particularly interests me in using spoken language,’ Reich says, ‘is what could be called the “documentary” aspect of recorded voices … There is no singer’s “interpretation” but, rather, this: people bearing witness to their own lives.’

Tyrrell doesn’t discuss Janáček’s legacy. Even his music is dealt with sparingly because Tyrrell believes that it is sufficiently well known not to need any introduction. What is needed now, he argues, is a ‘sound, detailed, footnoted, chronological’ biography that ‘illuminates Janáček’s day-to-day life and his creative life’. This is in stark contrast to Jaroslav Vogel’s classic biography, published almost half a century ago, or even Mirka Zemanová’s brief 2002 survey, both of which had a more standard ‘life and works’ approach. The level of detail in Tyrrell can sometimes give the impression that events are unfolding in real time. ‘What I have written here has all the joins showing and boasts no concealing art at all and no “poetry”,’ he writes, modestly but accurately. But if we now listen to Janáček more knowledgeably than before, we have him to thank.