Monday, October 12, 2015

Gregor Mendel, A Strange Nightmare, and Stalking the President

I'm continuing the immensely enjoyable voyage through Tyrrell's Tsar of the Forest (see below). I thought I might offer up a few random highlights from Volumes 1 and 2.

Certainly for me, one of the coolest revelations of Volume 1 regards Gregor Mendel, the famous Father of Genetics.
I'd become accustomed to the charming fact that most everyone in the Czechoslovak Republic (and the Austrian suburb that preceded it) knew one another; that here, there were no six degrees of separation, only two or three at the most. I could accept (gladly) that Janáček's foremost champion, Max Brod, performed a similar chore for his friend Franz Kafka, and that Brod also enjoyed playing Mozart duets with Albert Einstein. Or that Karel Čapek, whose sister worked with Janáček at the Brno newspaper, was also a close friend and acolyte of the Republic's President, Tomáš Masaryk, and that Čapek's anti-fascist science fiction novel The White Plague was made into a film by Hugo Haas, the brother of Pavel Haas, Janacek's student.
But Mendel, who died when Janáček was in his (relative) youth? When not experimenting with peas and bees in his garden, Mendel was Abbot of the Augustinian monastery in Brno. I knew this, and knew also that Janáček had spent his youth at the Monastery, but one of the marvelous nuggets of Tyrrell's exhaustive research, hitherto unknown, was this from Volume 1:

"It is one of the strange facts of Janacek's life that for two years he was under the charge of Mendel; two of the most famous people associated with Brno connected in this way. Mendel had contact with Leo at least twice a year since he needed to see his semester report. And from 1872 when Janacek took over Krizkovsky's post as choirmaster at the monastery during the latter's permanent absence in Olomouc, he would have had some dealings with Mendel from time to time."

Mendel, Einstein. . . Add to that Kurt Gödel, the mathematician, who was also born in Brno. His family home was a few doors down from Pavel Haas's on Gomperova street. In Gödel's case, there's no evidence that he played stickball with the Haas brothers, or ran over Gregor Mendel's foot with his bicycle. The fiercely German Gödel escaped from Brno at an early age, and eventually settled in Princeton, where he became a good buddy of Max Brod's piano partner, Einstein.

Janáček, like many of us, had strange dreams. This one seems worthy of David Lynch:
"I'm going through some sort of an alley of trees, and in the hollow of a tree I see a ham hanging. I seize it and wrap it in a bloody canvas. I bring it home. During the gluttonous meal it changes into a baked haunch of veal. But alas! My wife points to a sign on it, according to which someone recognized that it was stolen from him.
In terror I awake: I, a thief? I calm myself; after all it's just a dream. "

Tyrrell points out that this was written to the monstrous Diva Gabriela Horvátová (see below); and that it might be read as a potent yet puzzling allegory of their shameful tryst.

Lastly, to point out the pleasure of Tyrrell's telling, there's this set-piece from September, 1921. President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk arrives in Brno on his first official visit. Janáček awaits him at the train station, notebook and pen at the ready. A feuilliton, published later, captures:

". . .the murmurs of the crowd, the gun salute, the call to attention for the guards. It records the fragments of Masaryk's replies to the speaker of the Regional Council and to the Mayor of Brno. Masaryk, he declared, spoke in A flat minor (Janáček's favorite key) without modulation. 'There was certainty in his answers; on it lay a whiff of that known sadness of contemplation' (perhaps since Masaryk was a philosopher as well as a politician). But the next day the sun shone and when Masaryk visited the Czech Technical College and responded to his welcome. . . the mood had changed and Masaryk's 'key' had shifted to a "hypolydian D with a variable 2nd (E-E flat) and 4th (G-G sharp)'. To put this into perspective, one has to imagine, say, Elgar following Lloyd George around for two days of speeches, jotting down a dozen speech fragments and publishing a little article about it in the Manchester Guardian. The fact that this seems an unlikely enterprise is not just a reflection of how different Janáček was to every other composer of his time or of the pride Janáček took in his newly created state and its aged president; it also vividly demonstrates Janáček's creative response to just about everything around him." -- from Janáček: Years of a Life Volume 2

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