Saturday, May 30, 2015

A book report.(from 2008)


Yes, I finished Volume 2 of Professor John Tyrrell's magnificent biography last night.

I thought I'd toss out a few tidbits:

Janáček's endless tweakings.

Like any great artist, Janáček was meddling with his creations up to the very last moment -- in this case, his adaptation of Čapek's science-fictional stage play The Makropulos Thing. As he put it (in uncharacteristically clumsy syntax), "When one hears one's things, here and there [extra] filling in the orchestra occurs to one." He began to send insertions to the score up to and during rehearsals. According to a witness:

"Even at the final dress rehearsal he was still interposing with suggested alterations. At last the conductor lost his temper, 'This is impossible,' he shouted. 'No more changes!'

"Janáček appeared to accept the situation and disappeared. But on opening night, at a certain point, the cello leader looked up at the conductor in astonishment; the conductor maintained his beat, but in equal bewilderment -- both were hearing music they had never heard before. Although Janacek appeared to have been defeated, what he had done was to go to the library after the music was put away, and write into the cello part a solo that he felt should be in there."

Janáček's prose style.

The composer was always brilliantly -- and strangely -- expressive, especially in his later years. Not only in his music (as John Clute puts it, "the driven patchwork onomatopoeia of his mature music), but in his writings. Here is part of a feuilleton unearthed by Tyrrell, regarding how the composer felt at the end of Makropulos:

"I think of Abel's sacrifice -- an upright column of fire blazing up and disappearing high in the air in acrid smoke. [...] How many mosquitoes, wasps and beetles have had their wings singed. I was able to finish Makropolus. [...] I feel as if my pen wanted to drop out of my hand. Breathless, run off my feet -- I wait to see whether some little distant star will fall ringingly into my mind. [...] Tame as a dog, fierce as a vulture, dry as a faded leaf, crackling like a breaking wave, sputtering like brushwood consumed by fire. Receptive to every stirring of the mind -- and silenced in the holy stillness."


Janáček's uniqueness.

He was unorthodox in every way. Not only in his music but also how he behaved as a "great composer." Here he is in Frankfurt in 1927, the penultimate year of his life, for the German premiere of his unusual Concertino. Says Tyrrell:

Janáček sat in on various rehearsals. The conductor Jascha Horenstein recalled how he saw a man always sitting in the back of the hall and, from his appearance, decided that it must be the superintendent of the building. Kitted out with watch, chain and waistcoat, the man, he thought, looked more like the owner of an Austrian Gasthaus or a Czech coffee house: 'very bourgeois, very middle class, one would say lower middle-class, but middle class.' [...] At the reception after the opening night of the festival, Horenstein was eventually introduced to Janáček and the identity of this strange, uncomposer-like person was revealed.

Janáček's muse.

The predominent event of his last two years was his consuming obsession with his chaste-muse, Kamila Stösslová. It's undeniable that Janáček's towering achievements well into his sixties, up to his death at seventy-four, can be traced to her. She wasn't the first of these 'muses', having been preceded by Gabriela Horvátová (see below) and Camilla Urválková. But, as Tyrrell keenly puts it:

It is instructive to compare Kamila as 'muse' to her predecessor(s)[...]. the big advantage of Kamila Stösslová for Janáček was that she was so passive.
The managerial women for whom Janáček had a penchant usually got what they wanted out of him but inspired no works. Making no demands and seeming quite uninterested in Janáček's compositions, Kamila Stösslová turns out to have been his ideal muse: Janáček needed an empty canvas for his fantasies. Both the 'Kamila Stösslová' that Janáček imagined and the works this imaginary person inspired were Janáček's creation. Her very passivity allowed ample room for projection, her physical distance away from him in Pisek a positive advantage: too much reality would have burst the bubble.

And that fantasy, Tyrrell points out, even turns up in the fetish-bondage variety:

"And dear Kamilka, when you were lying on that divan, you were like a little lamb which I had a mind to take, tie all up in the shawl and run far, far away with it. And then I'd untie the shawl and stroke and kiss the dear little lamb. "

But all of this fades away when listening to the creations she inspired. Written in fire, is how Janáček put it. After reading Tyrrell's account of these last years -- never told so vividly -- I listened to the final opera, From the Dead House, based on Dosteyevsky's memoirs of his years in a Siberian prison camp, and to the second string quartet, Intimate Letters, a love letter to Kamila. Here, the driven patchwork onomatopoeia is pushed to near-breaking, and what might have been incoherant (like some of Janáček's more passionate letters to Kamila) is instead the most fearless and profound of his career.

Taken entire, Janáček: Years of a Life marks one of my most memorable reading experiences. And happily, Volume 2 comes at a crucial moment in the writing of my third Czech novella, One Who Disappeared, which tries to imagine a further eight years of Janacek's life, both personally and creatively.

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