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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

The old composer, his wife and his lovers

By Norman Lebrecht / June 28, 2006

No bedtime story gives greater encouragement to disappointed artists and men of middling years than the late flowering of the rustic Czech composer Leos Janacek. A provincial music master, unable to attract attention beyond his hometown, Brno, Janacek was 61 when Prague’s National Theatre in May 1916 grudgingly staged his opera, Jenufa, a searing, keening tragedy written as his only daughter lay dying.

Overnight acclaim plunged the white-maned teacher into a whirl of temptations. The National’s glamorous mezzo, Gabriela Horvatova, whisked him off scandalously to a popular spa, prompting his wife, Zdenka, to attempt suicide. When she recovered, he forced her to allow Gabriela to spend nights at their home. The following summer, he returned to the same spa, Luhacovice, where his eye fell on a young woman in her twenties with two small sons and a husband away at the war.

Kamila Stösslova did nothing to encourage him. Contentedly married and running to fat beneath a fashionable cloche hat, she was neither physically nor intellectually alluring, a salesman’s wife of conventional interests and mundane conversation. Yet Janacek, over the remaining twelve years of his life, wrote Kamila 700 love letters and spent every available moment in her company. It was while tramping the woods near his birthplace to look for one of her boys who had gone astray that he caught the summer chill that killed him, aged 74, in August 1928.

His love for Kamila inspired a run of masterpieces unequalled by any composer of comparable age – the operas Katya Kabanova, Cunning Little Vixen, Makropoulos Case and From the House of the Dead; the astonishing Glagolitic Mass; and two unmistakably explicit string quartets. The first, Kreutzer Sonata, is named after the Tolstoy novella of marital enmity and sexual envy; the second, Intimate Letters, contains direct quotations from Janacek’s correspondence with Kamila.

Nothing in these works is avuncular or benign. They blaze with the passions of a man rejuvenated by love and demanding a consummation that Kamila chastely denied. The letters amount to a running commentary to Janacek’s late masterpieces, a heart-scan of art in the making. A caustic counter-text was recorded by Zdenka, in a private diary and conversations with her housemaid.

‘Zdenka knows that I love you and will love you to the end of my life,’ Janacek tells Kamila. ‘You stole and destroyed my husband,’ Zdenka rebukes Kamila, over the composer’s dead body. Kamila flings into Zdenka’s open handbag the gold ring that Janacek gave her, saying ‘Be glad he is dead, at least you will have some peace.’

In musical terms, it is almost impossible to express such tenderness and cruelty in one and the same phrase, to find an interpretation of the second string quartet that sets the ravishing beauty of the composer’s fervour against the ugly ambivalence of his attachments. Musicians play the notes on the page. It takes a writer of genius to illuminate the human dilemma.

Enter Brian Friel. The ‘Irish Chekhov’, 77 last birthday and a current Tony-winner on Broadway with Faith Healer, was given an copy of the Janacek letters in Faber’s English edition by Michael Colgan, who runs Dublin’s Gate Theatre. The empathy was instantaneous. ‘He immediately saw a play in it,’ says Lou Stein, director of the resultant Performances, which opens next week at Wilton’s Music Hall.

But this is no ordinary drawing-room drama. Friel, like Janacek, has acquired a cloak of guile with advancing years. A lesser writer would have set the story in cloche period, borrowing copiously from Janacek’s fervent words and Kamilla’s clumsy locutions. Friel took the decision to depict Janacek not in his time but in ours, as a spectre in the corner of a 21st century rehearsal room where young members of a string quartet are wrestling with the score of Intimate Letters.

The device is extraordinarily effective, both dramatically and in terms of musical intuition. For the Janacek we see and hear on stage is the Janacek who we have come to know through posthumous publication and musicological research. The nub of the play is the spectre’s disputation with a dewy-eyed and apparently virginal doctoral student who is determined to nail the truth of his love for Kamila.

Friel, as an empathetic Angry Old Man, has no truck with romantic clichés that depict Leos and Kamila as Dante and Beatrice, lover and muse. His take is subtler and more satisfying. Without giving away too much of the play’s resolution, Friel views Kamila as a myth of the composer’s invention, a necessary fiction in which the old man found inspiration. Not that she was physically unreal. Kamila was a dumpy housewife, sexually unattainable and cerebrally unstimulating. What the composer saw in her was a template, a blank page on which he could allow the imagination to run riot. What Friel sees in that connection is something close to the secret of creation.

A severely private man - it is whispered that he will attend the London premiere but no-one’s quite sure – Friel opened Performances at the Gate in Dublin, where it split Janacek followers into angry camps of romantics and rationalists. ‘I’d love to see fisticuffs in the bar at Wilton’s,’ says Stein, who met Friel in Belfast when the playwright attended a choral concert of works by the director’s wife, Deirdre Gribbin. ‘This is not a conventional play for a conventional theatre,’ says Stein, founder of the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill. ‘Brian uses words and musical quotations with a deftness we haven’t seen since Tom Stoppard wrote Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, three decades ago.’

The spectral part of Janacek is taken by the versatile Henry Goodman, who has played Mel Brooks on Broadway and Gilbert and Sullivan at ENO. Rosamund Pike is Kamila and the excellent Brodsky Quartet, who have just recorded the work perceptively on their own label, will play Intimate Letters live during the course of the performance.

Apt as the Stoppard reference might be, Performances is as sharp a take on the social context of musical composition as any play I have read since Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus – and that clever text captures more of the nature of musical relationships than most musicians will ever grasp. Performances is about essence more than appearance. It encourages us to look beyond the hissy gossip and accepts as natural law that gain in art never comes without those around the artist feeling the pain.

The ultimate tragedy in Janacek’s story was Kamila’s - dead of cancer seven years after him at the age of 43. She uttered no reproach for anyone, least of all for the moonstruck old man who plucked her from a promenading crowd to grant this very ordinary woman the gift of immortality.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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