By Tom Acord
The sad tale of Jenůfa parallels Leoš Janáček's own tragic loss of his children and his long battle for popular recognition.
"I can only attach the black ribbon to the illness, pain and suffering of my daughter, Olga, and of my baby boy, Vladimir, to the score of Jenůfa."
The opera Její pastorkyňa (Jenůfa in German and Her Foster-Daughter in English) is not so much a direct statement on the life of Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) as much as it is a creation that embodies his personal pain and grief.
From its conception around 1891 to its celebrated success in Vienna some twenty-seven years later, Její pastorkyňa and its tragedy about a child parallel Janáček's loss of his children and his efforts for acceptance and recognition.
In 1881, Leoš Janáček married his 15-year-old piano student, Zdenka Schulzová, and even though they were blessed with a daughter, Olga, on August 15, 1882, their first years of marriage were stormy and, on occasion, spent in separation. On May 16, 1888, the long hoped-for son was born and, like his elder sister, received a sound Russian name, Vladimir. A delicate little boy with dark eyes, fair hair and dark eyebrows, Vladimir, when barely able to walk, was already showing interest in the piano, and Leoš, ever the proud father, would carry the child about, bragging of his musical prodigy.
During this time, Janáček was a choir master, organist, teacher of music at the state Teacher's Training Institute, founder and director of the Brno Organ School, musical director of the Beseda Society, and, of foremost importance, a student of Moravian folk music. One can trace his 'pre-Její pastorkyňa musical ideas to the summer of 1875 when he first came into contact with the folk music of Strážnice, Velká and others. Soon followed small choral works written for his Beseda Society entitled The Threat and The Soldier's Lot, which depended on dramatic folk themes. His collection and harmonization of folk songs and dances led to the Lachian Dances and the Suite for Orchestra. Theatrical pieces would include the Rákocz Rákoczy (a collection of songs and dances for both solo and choral voices intended to popularize native dances and customs) and the opera The Beginning of a Romance based upon a libretto by Gabriela Preissová. Though this effort was not successful, the eventual collaboration with Mrs. Preissová would result in Janáček's most famous work, Její pastorkyňa.
In the fall of 1890, while Preissová's play Její pastorkyňa was opening in Prague, Olga caught scarlet fever and, though she recovered within five weeks, little Vladimir was infected. Meningitis developed quickly, and the boy died on November 9, 1890, the same day as the premiere of the Preissová play in Prague. With his death went the hopes for the stable and happy marriage of Leoš and Zdenka Janáček. Though they would never divorce, the warmth and closeness of their union would not be the same again.
With the tragedy of Vladimir still weighing heavily, Leoš Janáček doted on his very lovely daughter, who remained somewhat frail from even earlier childhood illnesses. Though not inherently musical, Olga was a clever student with an enormous facility for memory, and she desired to study Russian (her father's favorite subject) in order to become a bilingual teacher.
Gabriela Preissová brought her play to Brno after it closed in Prague. It is not known when Janáček first saw the play, but it is thought he became aware of it in January 1891 when Mrs. Preissová gave a lecture at the Vesna Choral Society on her plays depicting Moravian peasant life. The Brno premiere was in February 1892.
In the margins of Janáček's own copy of the play are dates indicating when he finished preparing each act for a usable opera libretto: Act I on March 18, 1894; Act II on January 17, 1895; Act III on February 11 of that same year. Interestingly, a symphonic poem entitled Jealousy (January 31, 1894, before serious work began on the libretto) was originally intended to be the overture for the opera. He declared this in an article, "The Prelude to Jenůfa," some twelve years later on November 10, 1906. However, since the overture duplicates the roughly 50-bar introduction of Act I, it is not included with the opera's music, and during Janáček's lifetime, was never performed as the overture to Její pastorkyňa.
In 1894, the same year that Janáček was becoming acquainted with the Preissová play, Olga suffered further from recurring bouts with rheumatism of the joints and pericarditis. This was a result of frequent attacks of tonsillitis when she was but five years old. Normal childhood joys of running, skating and swimming were impossible for her, leaving her to develop into a reserved, shy young lady, more at ease around adults than with children her own age. A slim girl with red hair and light blue eyes, she fit very easily into the adult world of Janáček and his wife, frequently attending the Russian and French social clubs with them.
Though the libretto's preparation is fixed, actual composition dates are somewhat sketchy. Janáček refers to his maid remembering that he had begun work on the opera some time in her second year, which would have been in 1896. J. Stross, the copyist hired by Janáček, dated his finishing of Act I, but, for some unexplained reason, Janáček himself erased this date. The copying of Act II was completed on July 8, 1902, and the third act finished January 25, 1903. Even these dates do not give a true picture of Janáček's efforts, for he would write the complete orchestral score before reducing this to a piano-vocal score for rehearsal and staging uses.
In early February 1900, while Janáček was busy on Její pastorkyňa, daughter 0lga was preparing to take part in an amateur dance group celebrating the founding of a rest home for older women in Brno, near Janáček's hometown, Hukvaldy. Her charm and grace attracted the eye of a young medical student, Vorel, who paid her more attention than her parents liked. After a year and a half of this romance, they declared she could no longer see the young man as it was distracting her from her studies and straining her already weak constitution. The tempestuous Vorel, a lover scorned, vowed to take a gun and shoot his fickle sweetheart.
Not surprisingly, when the opportunity soon arose for Olga to visit a brother of Leoš in St. Petersburg and prepare for her final examinations in Russian, the family leaped at the chance. St. Petersburg, the scene for Tchaikovsky's premiere of The Queen of Spades barely a decade earlier, was a thriving center for culture and the arts. On March 13, 1902, with the opera at the copyist's, Leoš and Olga set out for St. Petersburg, and he returned alone in a few days.
About two months later, a message came from Leoš’ brother saying that Olga was hospitalized with typhoid fever. Though she recovered, a relapse in June convinced her parents that she should return home immediately. Traveling by train with her mother, the daughter's condition deteriorated quickly, and while changing trains at Studenka, help was needed to carry Olga from one train to the other. The lovely, frail young lady was beginning to suffer from failure of her liver and kidneys. She could not walk easily due to the recurrence of the rheumatic fever. By the end of the summer holidays, she was suffering from severe bronchitis.
Though the comfort of home provided some stimulus for recovery, by October 1902, Olga was unable to leave the house. It was to be her last Christmas. On Sunday, February 22, 1903, Olga was, at her own request, given the last rites. Candles were not lit for fear of affecting her breathing. Her last request of her father was for him to play the newly finished opera, Její pastorkyňa. Four days later, she passed away, and Janáček wrote on the first copy of the vocal score, "18. III. 1903, Olga, to your memory." In April of that same year, Janáček, in memory of his daughter, who, according to his own words, was for him Jenůfa personified (though the opera was not actually written for her but dedicated to her), composed a work for mixed-voice chorus and piano, entitled Elegy on the Death of Olga, a setting of Russian words by Mrs. Verericova, Olga's Russian teacher.
Soon after his daughter's funeral, Leoš Janáček vowed to produce Její pastorkyňa in her honor. He wrote to Karel Kovařovic, who, from 1900 to his death on December 6, 1920, wielded almost unlimited power at the opera of the National Theater in Prague. Janáček was most cautious in his letter for it was this same Karel Kovařovic that he had unmercifully reviewed in the Hudební Listi, January 15, 1887, 16 years earlier. This was a Brno-based newsletter of sorts to promote and review music and the arts in general. Janáček was the editor and chief contributor. Kovařovic, primarily a harpist, had composed two comic operas, The Way Through the Window (1886) and The Bridegrooms (1887), and the ballet, Hašiš, in 1884 (styled after the successful Delibes ballets). Always fiery, tactless, impulsive and embarrassingly iconoclastic, Janáček wrote a review of the first performance of The Bridegrooms.
Can you remember any tunes from this comic-opera, this so-called original novelty? Can you call it dramatic in any sense whatsoever? Story and music are "staged simultaneously," but in reality each is quite independent of the other. One of two things can be done—either write new music to the libretto, or write a new libretto to the music—this so-called music, filled with menacing obscurities, desperate screams and dagger stabs. It is true that one sometimes laughed, but this was at the absurdity of the story, nothing more. The Overture, with its instability of key sense and wavering harmony, gave proof of the composer's genius—to induce deafness.
The reply from Kovařovic to Janáček's letter was, given the situation, rather civil and restrained. It was indirectly delivered to him by the director, Gustav Schmoranz. There was no need for Kovařovic to address Janáček directly. Not surprisingly, Kovařovic’s answer was negative.
Determined to produce the opera, the composer approached the small Brno Opera. At the urging of a former pupil of Janáček's, Cyril Hrazdira, a dedicated Moravian nationalist, a contract was arranged. Její pastorkyňa was produced by Josef Maly and the sets were designed by the well-known Slovak architect, Dusan Jurkovič. The cast was such that the National Theater itself could hardly have done better: Kostelnička—Leopolda Hanusová-Svobodová, Jenůfa—Marie Kavelácová, Laca—director Alois StaněkDoubravský, Števa—Bohdan Procházka, old mother Buryja—Vera Pivoňková, the Miller—Karel Beníško. The work went into production on November 12, 1903. At the last minute, during the first full rehearsal of Act I, there was a commotion when one of the bass players became obstreperous and soon the entire orchestra was in the thick of a wild melee. "A bad rehearsal means a good performance" is the proverb, and on January 21, 1904, Její pastorkyňa opened to a rave reception. Janáček was hoisted high on the shoulders of his students and carried to the Beseda Society's club for a huge celebration. Most important was the public acceptance of this opera, the first truly Moravian opera (also Janáček's only opera to be performed in traditional Moravian dress), for, as Europe was to divide with the approaching World War I, the uniting of the Slavic nations would be well served by this culturally representative work.
Writing once again to Kovařovic regarding the opera, Janáček was more confident and demanding that his work be heard. Kovařovic, in his answer of March 3, 1904, denied the accusation of being unjust and referred to 'very serious reasons' which, however, he did not specify. He did promise to go to Brno and attend a performance, and a total of nine invitations were extended him. The mighty man from Prague did not appear that season in Brno.
Meanwhile, Její pastorkyňa was suffering from the limitations of the small Brno company's resources. At the premiere there were no flutes, and as the run continued even the horns and trumpets were released from their contracts. Janáček wrote to a friend, "I never go near the theater. I cannot bear to hear my work in such a state. What will a guest, who does not wish me well, think of such a performance?"
On December 7, 1905, Kovařovic traveled to Brno, heard the opera, and returned to Prague as negative as ever. Even when Jealousy, the proposed overture for the opera, was performed successfully in Prague on a program presenting other works of Janáček, Kovařovic refused to reconsider.
Její pastorkyňa was performed for the third consecutive season in Brno in 1906 before being retired from the repertory, due mainly to a change of conductors. Hrazdira had given up the post to further himself as a conductor and composer.
Were it not for the support of Janáček's close friends, Dr. Frantisek Veselý and his wife, Marie Calma (a very talented writer and singer of professional stature), Její pastorkyňa would have dropped from sight, and the composer, now in his fifties, would best be remembered for his choral pieces, settings and collections of folk songs and dances, and his teaching in the schools of Brno. At the request of Dr. Veselý, the Friends of Art Club in Brno underwrote the publishing of the vocal score off Její pastorkyňa in the spring of 1908. This would make the music more accessible to the professional world. The next step was to conquer Kovařovic and the National Theater in Prague. Dr. Veselý approached his colleague, Professor Hlava, president of the Board of Sponsors of the National Theater, in February 1911, to arrange for Její pastorkyňa to be performed.
It was a superb move, psychologically speaking, because the Brno Opera had also been persuaded to revive the opera the previous month, and Janáček had made small changes thought to be offensive to Kovařovic. Unfortunately, these changes led Hlava to be suspicious: "Mr. Janáček has revised his opera and would be ready to revise it again—this, I think, proves that it is not the chef d'oeuvre you imagine," he wrote in answer to Dr. Veselý, and, "He would do better to write something new ... "
Undaunted, Dr. Veselý and his wife continued their quest to see Její pastorkyňa reach the stage of the National Theater. Taking advantage of an appointment in 1915 as a director of the spa Bohdaneč near Pardubice, Dr. Veselý arranged a somewhat captive audience for his wife to sing to. Karel Šípek, Kovařovic’s intimate friend and librettist, and the director of the National Theater, Gustav Schmoranz, would often spend their summers at the spa. Marie Calma sang for them, in private, all the major arias from the opera, and won their support, at last temporarily. As Schmoranz wrote to Šípek in September, regarding a recent conversation with Kovařovic:
"He considers the prayer and some of the monologues to be good—in fact, all that follows the pattern of Moravian-Slovak folk music. But he does not care for the dialogues. He [ still referring to Kovařovic] says that although the composer insists on the principle of the sound effect of the dialect, he makes his singers, contrary to all the rules of speech, repeat some of the words as many as ten times."
A last effort was proposed. The Moravska Beseda Society in Prague would perform a condensed version of Její pastorkyňa with an introductory speech by the composer and, perhaps, a performance of several of Janáček's piano works which were already accepted as exceptional compositions. This proved to be unnecessary, for in early November 1915 Šípek managed to persuade Kovařovic to again reconsider the opera. Mrs. Marie Calma-Veselý was brought from Brno to sing several of the arias on December 7, 1915. Kovařovic was at last converted, in all probability because it would be a political coup to present a Moravian opera in Prague. He promised to take on the musical direction of the opera himself, provided the composer would allow him to make some slight alterations and cuts. Since Kovařovic did not wish to negotiate personally with Janáček, the discussions were carried out by Dr. and Mrs. Veselý. Furthermore, to sweeten the pot and to soften the doubts of the conservative Board of Sponsors of the National Theater regarding the financial success of the opera, Dr. Veselý personally guaranteed the first six performances, pledging to cover any financial loss encountered by the production off Její pastorkyňa. Janáček was overjoyed, and there was little difficulty in persuading him to agree to these 'trifles.'
One of the cuts was concerned with the exit of the guardian in Act I; there were omissions in Laca's scene, and the repetition of single words and sentences was in many places eliminated. All in all, these alterations were really to the good, and they scarcely affected the dramatic construction of the three acts. The orchestration, which in parts had been too thin, was improved by doublings and tremolos; above all, the final scene was heightened in color by a more effective entry of the brass (trumpets and imitative work in the horns), whose brilliant and solemn tone, it is said, moved Janáček to tears at one of the Prague dress rehearsals. The adaptations made in the score by Karel Kovařovic are of interest, since it was in that form that the opera was published in 1917 by Universal Editions. Kovařovic gave the fees received for the changes to the benevolent fund of the National Theatre orchestra and did not wish his name to be printed in the score. After Kovařovic’s death in 1920, Janáček denied all justification of his interference when he learned that Kovařovic’s widow would receive one percent of the royalties.
The Prague premiere off Její pastorkyňa took place on May 26, 1916, and, now in its present mature form, thanks to the magnificent resources of the Prague National Theater, step two was taken on a journey begun some 13 years earlier. Several of the members of the cast were excellent: Gabriela Horvátová was Kostelnička; Theodor Schütz and Pivoňková performed the roles of Laca and old mother Buryja, just as they had in Brno; Arnold Flögl was the Mayor and, in the part of the miller, no less a person than Vilém Zítek (originally vehemently opposed to the opera, he reconsidered as the change in winds tended to favor the piece). But it was the presence of Max Brod at the premiere in Prague that had the most profound effect on Janáček, for it was he whom Janáček asked to translate the work into German, thereby making it more accessible to other major European and international opera companies. The title became Jenůfa in the German translation, and to this day is more popularly known by that title.
The German text might have resolved many problems for Janáček had it been available 12 years earlier, for, in the autumn of 1904, Janáček had attempted to contact the then director of the Vienna Opera House, Gustav Mahler, and invite him to the premiere of the opera in Brno. Mahler's response to the unknown Czech composer was quite different from the reception offered Janáček by Kovařovic and the National Theater at that time. Mahler wrote:
As I have explained to Baron Prazak [the minister for the Bohemian lands], I am unable to leave Vienna at the present time, but as I would be very interested to get to know your work, I beg you to be kind enough to send me the vocal score with German words.
Vienna, Dec. 9, 1904
As no vocal score with German words existed at that time, Mahler's request could not be satisfied, and the affair was dropped. Max Brod, already established as a translator, music and drama critic and composer of songs, was directly responsible for bringing other important people to the Prague performances. Emil Hertzka, director of Universal Edition, heard the opera on March 4, 1917, and immediately agreed to publish both the orchestral and vocal scores. Hugo Reichenberger, conductor at the Vienna Opera House, composers Julius Bittner and Richard Strauss, and critic Richard Specht (the biographer of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss) were most positive about the opera and sought its appearance in Vienna at the soonest opportunity. Janáček met with Strauss and relates, "I met Richard Strauss once more at the station before his departure. He liked best the dramatic tension of the third act. For many Prague musicians, Strauss' opinion was necessary. I feared it, this I don't deny; its blade could have been murderous.''
The Vienna production was proposed and now awaited only the complete Brod translation. Reichenberger, who would be conducting the work, insisted on the words being in dialect, preferably Tyrolean. Frequently overruled, he still made changes in Brod's careful translation (Janáček whole-heartedly supported Brod's work), altering the dialogue into "dreadful operatic German." As soon as these difficulties were straightened out, a new problem appeared, this time political. The nationalistic German members of parliament, Schurt, Weber and Wedra, protested to the Ministry of Culture on January 29, 1918, against the production of any further Czech operas at the Vienna Opera House. The high court of the land interceded and the handbills for the first night bore the memorable inscription "Auf allerhöchsten Befehl" ("By supreme order").
On February 16, 1918, Jenůfa received a truly enthusiastic welcome and Janáček was called to take no less than 20 curtain calls himself. A true measure of its success is best shown by the continued performances after October 1918, when the Czech lands separated from Austria. Janáček remarked:
"In the fuss of Vienna, the colorful Moravian stage is like a red carnation in a ministerial morning coat."
Regarding the production itself, the composer was full of praise:
"The production in Vienna is excellent. Every word is apparent even in gesture. What beauty of color. All new and shining bright. The mill and the distant view of the hilly landscape. All in brilliant sunshine making the audience perspire. The recruits with the miller's apprentice on a garlanded horse. It is the production which I longed for in Prague . . . in vain!"
Unlike Brod, Janáček found the Kostelnička of Lucia Weidt "excellent and according to the producer's instructions," although it was very different in its working-woman sobriety from the Kostelnička of Gabriela Horvátová, which Janáček also very much admired. In Act I, Lucia Weidt came on as though straight from the fields carrying a rake, and at the beginning of Act II, she was doing the washing, splashing the wet linen. Maria Jeritza, who studied in Brno and Olomouc, sang the role of Jenůfa. Selected by Richard Strauss to create the title role of Ariadne auf Naxos in Stuttgart in 1912, Jeritza also sang at the Metropolitan Opera House from 1921 to 1932, and she was America 's first Jenůfa and Turandot.
Jeritza's Jenůfa? During the previous year, Janáček had been trying in vain to persuade Emmy Destinn to sing the part of Jenůfa at the National Theater. He approached her with this argument, a lovely definition of the role of Jenůfa:
Wouldn't you like to sing Jenůfa? —a woman who goes through purgatory and the whole range of human suffering and who in the end, dazed by the vision of God's goodness and justice, forgives those who wanted to stone her and even the one who drowned her baby. She remains firm and steadfast in the love to which even God gives his blessing. I know you would bring this conception of Jenůfa to life . . . until now, the part has been merely sung.
After hearing Jeritza's performance, he wrote, "I have at last heard and seen Jenůfa in my opera." The dedication to Olga is complete.
(Tom Acord is a Professor of Music at California State University at Hayward. Besides performing with Spring Opera, Portland Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Scholar and Reno Opera companies, he conducts and directs opera on the university level.)