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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 7 Social Validation
Richard Taruskin

Here is how Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno (1903–69), the musical philosopher whom we met in chapter 6 as an advocate of Schoenberg and his pupils, managed to “salvage for history” a composer he admired, but one whose music failed to keep up with the pace of Viennese innovation. Perhaps significantly, the composer in question, Leoš Janáček (1854–1928) was, like Bartók, a member of one of the outlying non-Germanic populations within the old empire of which Vienna was the center and capital. “Where the evolutionary direction of Western music failed to be realized fully,” wrote Adorno,

as in some of the rural regions of southeastern Europe, tonal material could be used, until quite recently, without shame. One thinks of the magnificent art of Janáček: all its folkloristic tendencies clearly must be counted part of the most progressive dimension of European art music. The legitimation of such music from the periphery is based ultimately on the fact that a coherent and selective technical canon emerges from it. Truly exotic music, the material of which, even though it is familiar, is organized in a totally different way from that of the West, has a power of alienation which places it in the company of the avant-garde and not that of nationalistic reaction.18

Although Adorno was arguing from a position that he identified as “progressive,” it is painfully easy now to perceive the smug ethnocentric bias that informs it—and it becomes even easier if we switch the terms around. What is permitted to Janáček (or Bartók, whose music is discussed nearby) would be thought unworthy of a German, Adorno implies, for the task of German music is to represent “the West” (and even “humanity”) in general terms. Moreover, the authenticity of Janáček’s “magnificent art,” which Adorno quite wrongly assumed to have been the product of a rural or agrarian society, is measured entirely in terms of its appeal to urban Germans, for whom it is exotic (and therefore “alienated”), rather than in terms of its appeal to the composer’s compatriots, the group to whom it was actually directed in the first place, the educated and urban strata of Czech society. Germany, or rather the German-speaking urban centers with their emotionally self-absorbed upper-middle class, remained for Adorno the measure of all things. That in itself was evidence of its (and his) emotional self-absorption.

Meanwhile, the very definition of alienation—the loss or renunciation of fellow-feeling in the wake of emotional stress or social injustice—proclaims its irrelevance to artists like Janáček, the object of Adorno’s ostensible praise, who saw right through it. “Not everyone understands a fellow man,” Janáček told a London audience in 1926:

Once an educated German said to me: “What, you grow out of folk song? That is a sign of a lack of culture!” As if a man on whom the sun shines, on whom the moon pours out its light, as if all that surrounds us was not a part of our culture. I turned away and let the German be.19

But of course this statement, too, must be unpacked. The man who made it was at the age of seventy-one just beginning to enjoy “world” celebrity after half a century of strictly regional (and not even “national”) fame. That is one of the reasons why Janáček had such a strangely shaped career, one that made him by a fairly wide margin the oldest composer who is customarily (and rightly) treated as a representative “twentieth-century” figure, alongside contemporaries young enough to be his children or even his grandchildren. He was older than Mahler or Richard Strauss, but his music is more often (and more tellingly) compared with that of Debussy, Stravinsky, or Bartók. Part of the reason for that was its determined anti-Germanism.

The attitude toward culture (and nature) with which Janáček countered the cosmopolitanism of “educated German” taste was (like Bartók’s) akin to the relativistic attitudes first put forth by Herder, an educated German, a century and a half before to counter the cosmopolitan universalism of Enlightened France. But like everyone else who has figured in the last several chapters, Janáček participated in the suddenly quickened tempo of stylistic change that seized European composers around the turn of century. That made him a modernist. And he applied his radically renovated technique to an intensified or radicalized pursuit of traditionally accepted expressive tasks, which made him a maximalist. The remarkable difference was that he accomplished all of this at a singularly advanced age.

One of the major factors contributing to what may seem his retarded development was indeed the place of his birth, but not for the kind of reason that would typically occur to an “educated German” like Adorno. Janáček was a Moravian—a member, that is, of what was even within Czech-speaking society a slighted minority. Moravia, the central farming area of what became Czechoslovakia in 1918, is bounded on the west by the more urbanized Bohemia, and on the east by “Magyarized” Slovakia. (Since the division of 1993, Moravia has been the eastern portion of the Czech Republic.) Brno (called Brünn in German), Moravia’s industrial center and its one large town, was under Austrian rule even more a Germanized city than Prague, the Bohemian (later the Czech) capital. It was officially a German-speaking city before 1918, and a predominantly German-speaking one even after, as long as Janáček was alive.

Janáček, born into the Czech-speaking family of a village schoolmaster, was sent for his education to a monastery in Brno, and after more advanced studies in Prague, Leipzig, and Vienna, he returned there and settled down to a lifelong career as music teacher and choral conductor in the Moravian capital. In 1881 he founded the Brno Organ School under the auspices of the Society for the Promotion of Church Music in Moravia, served as its director for thirty-eight years, and continued on the staff until his seventieth birthday. He was Brno’s most prominent musician, but as of his sixtieth birthday, in 1914, he was almost completely unknown outside of that city. Even in neighboring Bohemia he was thought of as an insignificant provincial, a “hick.” That is what retarded his career. The earliest work of Janáček’s that is now a world repertory item, the opera Její pastorkyňa (“Her stepdaughter”, known outside the Czech lands by the name of its title character, Jenůfa), composed between 1895 and 1903, could not get a hearing in Prague until 1916, twelve years after its Brno premiere, when the composer was sixty-two. When it finally did reach the Czech capital it made such a sensation that it was immediately picked up (in German translation) by the Vienna Opera, and made its way in short order as far as America, where it was staged (in 1924) by the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Its chief appeal to early audiences was less its folkish exoticism (by then an old story) than its effectively shocking treatment of a violent plot, very much in the naturalistic spirit of the “verismo” operas of Mascagni and especially Puccini (Janáček’s close contemporary). In act I a jealous lover slashes the title character’s face; in act II her stepmother kills her illegitimate child. Act III contains the novel and emotionally potent turn that made the opera so successful: the crime is discovered, the stepmother condemned, but both she and the lover receive forgiveness from the title character, who marries the man, now sincerely contrite, who had slashed her, acting not in the spirit of martyrdom but in that of mature empathy and Christian reconciliation.

The opera, as a result, cannot easily be read as a social criticism (and might today merit some feminist criticism on its own account). Ultimately it did not threaten the traditionally patriarchal values of its audience, and it was further aided in its foreign conquests by the presence in the title role of a fashionable singer, Maria Jeritza (1887–1982), a great Vienna favorite who, as it happened, was a native of Brno. By 1924 she was “the Metropolitan’s most glamorous and beautiful star”20 (according to The New Grove Dictionary of Opera), and Janáček’s opera was staged there as her novelty vehicle. It did not immediately hold the stage outside of Central Europe.

But its international success, however fleeting in the short run, stimulated its formerly pent-up composer into a frenzy of creativity. In the twelve years that remained to him after the Prague premiere of Jenůfa, Janáček wrote five more operas: Výlet pana Broučka do XV. stoleti (Mr. Brouček’s Excursion to the 15th Century, 1917), a patriotic comedy after a fantasy novel by Svatopluk Čech, composed to greet the impending proclamation of independent Czechoslovakia; Kát’a Kabanová (1921), another realistic tragedy after the classic play The Storm by the Russian dramatist Alexander Ostrovsky; Příhody Lišky Bystroušky (“The adventures of little foxy sharp-ears”, usually translated “The cunning little vixen,” 1923), after a series of whimsical captioned drawings published in a Prague newspaper; Včc Makropoulos (“The Makropoulos affair”, 1925) after a surrealistic play by Karel Čapek, whose futuristic satire R. U. R. was the source of the word “robot,” one of the few international borrowings from a Slavic language; and Z mrtvého domu (“From the house of the dead”, 1928), after a grim novel of prison life by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

In addition to these operas, between the ages of sixty-two and seventy-four Janáček wrote a large concert setting of the Slavonic Liturgy, Glagolská mše (“Glagolitic mass”, 1926); a major song cycle, Zápisník zmizelého (“The Diary of One Who Disappeared”, 1919); several orchestral works including a Sinfonietta (1926) composed for an outdoor national sports rally; a dozen chamber works including two string quartets and two chamber concertos for piano (one of them, Capriccio for piano left-hand, flute, and brass sextet, written for a one-armed veteran of the First World War). It seemed virtually a life’s work crammed into a dozen years, testifying to a revived and rejuvenated creative vitality without precedent or counterpart in the work of any other composer. (In a unique case like this one looks for as many biographical explanations as possible: another that is often cited in connection with Janáček’s late explosion of creativity is an invigorating infatuation with a much younger woman who seems not to have reciprocated his passion, but served passively as a stimulant to the composer’s fantasy life.)

This amazingly varied body of late work was united by the composer’s newly maximalized style—more evidence, perhaps, of Janáček’s access of self-confidence in the aftermath of belated success. His maximalism, typically, was what attracted to Janáček the interest of historians; but it was differently motivated from the other maximalisms we have noted, and had different consequences. Uniquely, it never took an abstract turn. Unlike any of the other maximalists (save Ives) whose music we have examined in detail, Janáček never tried to generalize his new methods into a rationalized compositional technique. Indeed he decried such efforts as leading to music that “depends on just notes and ignores man and his surroundings,” or music that “seeks only an acoustic quality.”21 This put Janáček at odds even with Bartók, who was very much driven, at a certain point in his career, to generalize his socially validated innovations into a systematic technique. The act of generalization, Janáček believed, was inimical to social validation, precisely because it put social reception at risk. Of all the latter-day Herderians, he was surely the most orthodox in his insistence that his music be accessible to the population on whose natural artifacts it drew.

And that is why Janáček is generally classified as a folklorist. He never disavowed the category. In his youth he made the same kind of expeditions into the field that Bartók would later make. With an older collaborator named František Bartoš (1837–1906) he published large collections (“Bouquets”) of Moravian folk songs with piano accompaniment in the 1890s. One of the most abundant genres in his catalogue of works is that of folksongs arranged for male chorus, which he produced in quantity for his own choirs to sing. As late as 1926 he observed that “if I grow at all, it is only out of folk music….”22

But it is nevertheless something of a misnomer, for it applies only to the earlier portion of his career, and wholly fails to account for his maximalist phase, the very period that Adorno was so eager to ascribe to Janáček’s “progressive folkloristic tendencies.” The list of late operas given above, unlike a comparable list covering the first four decades of Janáček’s career, is not confined to Czech subject matter to which collected folklore might have been appropriately applied. Two are adaptations from Russian literature and have Russian settings, and The Makropoulos Affair, while nominally set in Prague, concerns an international opera diva, who knows but renounces the secret of eternal life (a “universal” subject if ever there was one), and her very urbane circle of acquaintances.

The subjects of these operas did not grow out of folklore at all, and neither did the music that provides their ambience. That music grew out of a natural element that Janáček valued even more than folklore as a wellspring for art. To complete now the sentence of which the first half was quoted two paragraphs earlier, Janáček declared in 1926 that he grew out of “folk music, and out of human speech,” the most basic expressive element of all, which (in Janáček’s passionately held view) underlies all folklore, as well as all cultivated art.


(18) Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophy of New Music, pp. 35–36n5.

(19) Mirka Zemanová, ed., Janáček’s Uncollected Essays on Music (London: Marion Boyars, 1989), p. 61.

(20) Desmond Shawe-Taylor, “Jeritza, Maria,” in New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Vol. II (London: Macmillan, 1992), p. 893.

(21) Janáček’s Uncollected Essays on Music, p. 61.

(22) Ibid.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Social Validation." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 28 Sep. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-007008.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 7 Social Validation. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 28 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-007008.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Social Validation." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 28 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-007008.xml