Leoš Janáček: Under the Influence

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In a recent BBC Music Magazine Janáček was quoted, when asked which composers had influenced him, as responding: “None.” Well, I hear a lot of Dvořák in Janáček.

The information we have: amongst other operas that we know from letters and other documents that he admired, are Madama Butterfly, and Charpentier’s Louise, as well as some Czech works, and also rather rarer pieces like Vladimir Rebikoff’s opera The Christmas Tree. The problem with Janáček being quoted on things is that he clearly enjoyed being a little mischievous with journalists. There’s a lot more about this in Vol. 1 of John Tyrrell’s superlative Janáček biography.

Composers, and artists generally, are often prickly when asked who has influenced them, as if they feel it as a slight on their originality. Thankfully, some (Stravinsky, Vaughan Williams) cheerfully embrace their influences and admit them.

In Janáček’s case, whilst we do have some idea of works he admired, influence is much harder to hear in the mature works.

There are some parallels with his contemporaries in terms of composing techniques (two obvious examples: ostinato ideas – very much something Sibelius thrived on too, but used in a different way; absorbing traits from folk music – as did Bartók and Vaughan Williams, but again the results are quite different).

And despite his fondness for Dvořák (both musically and personally), and a wide knowledge of other music, with Janáček the end result is music of glorious originality.

I may as well mention Janáček’s fascination with the acoustical properties of chords. He read Helmholtz and others carefully, and evolved ideas about resonance that really can be heard in his music.

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