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Leoš Janáček


When I was a kid, Antonín Dvořák’s symphony “From the New World” was numbered #5. Since then the discovery of four early symphonic works has bumped his best known symphony to #9. I’m still getting used to that.

Much of the #5/9 was written, or at least sketched out, during the summer of 1893, while the Dvořák family visited the Czech faming community of Spillville, Iowa. His near contemporary Leoš Janáček — a Moravian, whereas Dvořák was Bohemian, though they spoke mutually intelligible dialects of the Czech language — had no particular reason to have visited Iowa, let alone Agincourt. But I’m thinking about him this evening, along with Janáček and the Hungarians Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók for three reasons: 1) the were all born in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire (though Bartók’s birthplace is now in Romania) ; 2) their collected names have an inordinate number of oddly accented letters (oddly, that is, from our limited American perspective); and most important 3) because all of them approached music from varying degrees of anthropological perspective.

Somewhere here in the house, in the collection of vinyl recordings that will be with me until my estate sale, despite the turntable’s inability to turn, there is a Janáček album with a liner note about his visit to London. In it he observed to a traveling companion the speech patterns of the hotel bellboy, saying something like “There is the true language of the English people!” Until I can find that recording note, this hazy paraphrase will have to stand. The point is that Janáček’s music was drawn from speech patterns, and to that extent he preferred that his operas be performed only in Czech, believing translation would make the work inauthentic.

Janacek’s style was shaped not just by the music but by the speech patterns of Moravia. He was absorbed with Moravian speech, which he once called ”as soft as if it were cutting butter.” Indeed, his fascination with speech of all kinds was such that he was forever jotting down the tones and rhythms of the way people talked – or birds sang -even in languages he did not otherwise understand. The most moving instance of this came in 1903, as he sat helpless at the bedside of his dying daughter, Olga; his notebook consists of pitiful musical notations of her last words, down to the final, sighing, ”aja. …” [from: Tiina Vainiomäki, The Musical Realism of Leoš Janáček, p178]

I am no student of language, barely literate in the English of my childhood. Times without number I have attempted to learn a foreign language — French, German, and Scot’s Gaelic are among those efforts — and each was a dismal failure. Whether the fault was mine or the mode of instruction I cannot say. [Though I must admit the usual method, where the instructor jauntily enters the room and breezily introduces him or her self in the language du jour, is the wrongest possible way for me to learn. I’m a Capricorn, for fuck’s sake, and require structure. Stand at the blackboard, diagram sentences, show me parts of speech and discuss the rules of the connectivity. Treat language like a goddam Erector Set, give me that degree of order and I might actually have succeeded.] Perhaps that is why I am so fascinated by language.

Like the four Austro-Hungarian composers invoked above, I have to believe that the speech patterns of Agincourt weren’t necessarily unique to that community. But also that they were essential to its identity. There have been opportunities to express that idea, here in the blog and elsewhere, but there need to be more, a theme on which I need to expend some thought.

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