Wednesday, May 25, 2005


One of the things that has changed about opera since I began noticing it is that Leoš Janáček has moved into the standard repertoire. When I was cramming my head full of facts for my doctorate, none of them seem to have been about him.

He is considered modern even though his dates fit somewhere around Puccini, who is definitely not considered modern. So what makes him modern? His Czech compatriots, Smetana and Dvorak, went to a lot of trouble to fit into the Romantic idiom of their German colleagues in order to gain acceptance in the mainstream. Janáček clearly didn't do this. He appears to have decided on a specific style based on Moravian melodies and Czech national idioms without particularly caring to seem like everyone else. This bothered his contemporaries, but apparently it doesn't bother us. It's rather like the difference between Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky. Janáček's operas are singable, always a prime consideration, and his plots are about people we recognize.

Charles Mackerras carefully reconstructed the original cut and orchestration for Jenufa after it had been performed for decades in a romantic orchestration, and it is more popular now in this original version. I don't think we hear Janáček as modern. Does he remind you of Bartók, a fellow ethnomusiciologist? Or Berg? He doesn't have the iconoclastic purpose that is the fundamental definition of modernism. He's just doing his own thing. After listening to modernists for decades, we're unthreatened by Janáček. He's comfortable and just different enough to be interesting.

No comments: