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Reviewed by:
  • Janáček beyond the Borders
  • John K. Novak
Janáček beyond the Borders. By Derek Katz. (Eastman Studies in Music.) Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2009. [xi, 175 p. ISBN 9781580463096. $80.] Music examples, notes, bibliography, scores, discography, index.

The title of this book has a double meaning. Katz is interested in the influence of cultures other than Czech on Janáček's works. At the same time, he attempts to free Janáček from the "borders" that are often historically placed on him, i.e., the presumption that his music is significantly influenced by his own studies of "speech melody" and Moravian folk music. The result is, though short, an engaging and progressive work of musicology and music theory that is as thoughtful as it is thought-provoking.

Katz begins his study by examining the various roles that authors have traditionally placed on the Czech composer Leoš Janáček (1854–1928) as an "old (i.e. early) avant-gardist," as a folklorist, a modernist and a realist, but then Katz proceeds to find new methods by which to understand the composer's music. Katz describes the layout of the book as being [End Page 129]

along loosely chronological lines, starting with Janáček's speech melody theory, an intellectual obsession that began around the turn of the twentieth century; continuing to Janáček's musical responses to World War I, and then to the ways Janáček's use of elements from older Czech operas changed after the war. The remaining chapters examine Janáček's relationship to Western European opera.

(p. 11)

Throughout his life, Janáček jotted down in rhythm and pitch the sounds of speech in what he called napěvky mluvy, which has come to be known in English as "speech melody." Virtually all writings on Janáček discuss the fascination he had with the sound of speech, and the way the speech melodies disclose the true meaning behind what is being said. The author, however, agrees with John Tyrrell (Janáček: Years of a Life, vol. 1, The Lonely Blackbird [London: Faber and Faber, 2006]) that these collections actually had limited impact on the composer's own compositions, including his operas. Janáček himself said as much. Complicating the issue is the fact that Janáček also used the term "speech melodies" to indicate any melody that he composed to text. To conclude, Katz finds that Janáček composed his operas rather traditionally, that is, using musical motives rather than speech as the fabric of a composition. Katz does not write off speech melody altogether—it is not a "notorious" theory as the review by Gary B. Cohen on the back of the book puts it—but rather he examines Janáček's interest in speech melody to determine that its influence in composition is limited.

A subordinate theme in the book is Janáček's fascination with all things Russian. Katz finds folk-like or, in his words, "fake folk" melodies in the Violin Sonata, the Pohádka (Fairy Tale) for cello and piano, and the opera Kát'a Kabanová, which is set on the banks of the Volga. His overtly Russian rhapsody Taras Bulba's musical processes are more nuanced and lack fake-folk melodies.

The author is especially interested in the composer's mature operas, beginning with the transitional The Excursions of Mr Brouček. Katz's ability to trace Janáček's personal sense of being within the changing political climate of the Czech lands is uncanny. He sees Brouček as the last of Janáček's operas to be influenced by the national tradition of Bedřich Smetana, a tradition of which the coward Brouček is ill-suited to be a hero. All of Janáček's operas composed before World War I are set in the Czech lands and have minor attachments to the Czech traditions, while the postwar operas are set either elsewhere, or in a Czech locale that is not essential to the story.

Thus, the operas after Brouček deal with musical and topical issues outside the Czech Republic. Katz convincingly shows these works to belong to the canon...


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