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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 7 Social Validation
Richard Taruskin

Janáček’s veneration of speech as thought-and-feeling-made-incarnate gets down beneath the level even of Herder’s original argument about human linguistic diversity, and in fact somewhat contradicts it. The thoughts and feelings to which language gives access are the common emotional fund of humanity. What is linguistically diverse is the means of expression, which inevitably influences the thing expressed but is not tantamount to it. That is why Janáček felt he could express and intensify through a music based on Czech speech the thoughts and feelings of Russian merchants and prisoners, or an international opera diva of French birth, and through that music communicate universal feelings to international audiences. But full expressive intensity in any language could only be achieved through maximum (that is, maximalized) particularity—in Janáček’s case a music more closely based on the rhythms and intonations of the Czech language than any previous music had ever been based on any language.

Janáček planted the seed of his maximalist style around 1897 when he began jotting down what he called nápčvky mluvy—literally “speech-tunelets”23 (as translated by Michael Beckerman), better known in English as speech melodies—in notebooks. It seems significant that the beginnings of his interest in notating speech melodies should have roughly coincided with the end of his folksong collecting activity. The one effectively replaced the other as essential bearer, for Janáček, of musical truth. Folk song was the highly stylized and already generalized product of what at the level of speech was fully specific and particular.

The melodic curves and rhythms of speech, though dictated to a large extent by the conventions of language, were also influenced by spontaneous emotion, and by a person’s individual identity. They were, in Janáček’s words, “windows into a person’s soul.”24 He obsessively jotted down whatever distinctive speech he heard around him as a potential model for his music—even, notoriously, the last words of his dying daughter—and advocated the method for others as well. It was “objective” and “scientific” evidence for what most composers tried to capture vaguely and subjectively. Janáček began carrying around stopwatches and even more exact time-measuring devices like “Hipp’s chronoscope,” which gave readings of very short durations. His obsessive behavior gave him a local reputation for eccentricity that caricaturists were quick to capitalize on (see Fig. 7-4).

In a series of published articles Janáček demonstrated with examples what he thought of as his most significant discovery, the fact that speech melodies revealed subliminal thoughts and emotions unexpressed by the words alone. Some of these articles took the form of interviews in which the words of Janáček’s interlocutor were furnished with musical notations. One such musically recorded conversation took place, at Janáček’s request, with Bedřich Smetana’s daughter, whom he interviewed in 1924, her father’s centennial year. Janáček asked her to recall something her father had said, in hopes that it would disclose a distinctive speech pattern that might help account for the greatness (as well as the Czechness) of Smetana’s music. The only phrase she could come up with after forty years was a remark her father had made while leafing through the score of one of his operas: “All this will be appreciated eventually” (Ex. 7-28).


fig. 7-4 Janáček with his stopwatch (caricature by Hugo Boettinger, 1928).


ex. 7-28 Bedřich Smetana’s speech melody as recalled by his daughter and notated by Leoš Janáček

“The register of the Maestro’s speech would probably have been an octave lower,” Janáček remarked, but assured the reader that “the rhythm of the evenly pulsing beat and the melodic flow would be authentic,” and then added, in triumphant italics: “This is probably how Bedřich Smetana used to speak.”25 And yet, as Janáček knew better than anyone, Smetana’s was not typical Czech speech. Its evenly pulsing beat was evidence of Smetana’s having learned Czech as an adult, after his basic speech pattern had been formed on German. Native Czech speech is rhythmically distinctive in a manner that it became Janáček’s obsession to capture; and that is what chiefly gave his later music its maximalist edge. This was the fundamental musical “discovery” that made a modernist of him.

Actually, of course, it was no discovery at all, just as it was no “discovery” to observe that a speaker’s tone of voice can contradict the uttered words. Anyone sensitive to irony (indeed, anyone who has been caught in a lie) knows that much; and anyone who speaks the Czech language knows its two most distinctive rhythmic/dynamic properties (both of which it shares with Hungarian). According to the first, a word in Czech can have only one accent, and it all but invariably comes at the beginning. The second is a strongly marked distinction between short and long syllables that is independent of the stress pattern. The Czech diacritic resembling the French “acute accent” is placed over long syllables. When the syllable so marked is not the first syllable, stress and length fail to coincide; the word is “syncopated” in a manner that anyone learning Czech as an adult finds difficult at first to grasp and imitate.

A good illustration is the name Janáček itself. Faithfully rendered in musical notation (as in Ex. 7-29, which reproduces an example from John Tyrrell’s history of Czech opera26), it looks (particularly in time) like something out of a late score by Janáček himself. The reason why it looks typically Janáčekian is that before him composers did not set the Czech language with such fastidious attention to its rhythms, whether it was because (like Smetana) they spoke—and heard—the language imperfectly, or because (like Dvořák) they set verse librettos that imposed on the words a “foreign” rhythm.


ex. 7-29 “Janáček” as a speech tunelet

Janáček, too, began his operatic career setting that kind of libretto. After 1916, however, when the success of Jenůfa gave him the courage of his musical convictions, he insisted on a laconic prose style that would not interfere with the natural rhythms of the language—and that meant writing his librettos himself, so loath were most professional writers to sacrifice the elegance of imported verse forms. To illustrate the fanatical care with prosody that arose out of Janáček’s conviction that “objectively” rendered speech patterns were an infallible register of human subjectivity, and to gauge the impact of that “scientific” purism on his later music, John Tyrrell set up an ingenious musicological experiment, contrasting the text setting in two versions of the composer’s earliest opera, Šárka (1887–88), the first dating from long before the “discovery” of speech melodies, the other from 1918, at the beginning of the composer’s maximalist adventure.27 Ex. 7-30 shows two of Tyrrell’s most revealing specimens:


ex. 7-30 Comparative settings from Janáčeks Šárka

In Ex. 7-30a, the word “Přemysle” is contracted into a triplet so that its last syllable will not fall on a downbeat and thus pick up an unwanted musical stress. Even more striking is the elongation of the second syllable in “velký,” so that it lasts seven times as long as the accented first syllable. In the earlier setting, only the accent had been faithful to the word’s normal pronunciation, not the relative length of the syllables, which is the more distinctively Czech index of fidelity. The result of both changes is to make the line remarkably varied, and at the same time remarkably asymmetric, in rhythm. Symmetry is even more graphically violated in Ex. 7-30b.

There was only one previous composer who used rhythms as finicky as these in operatic music, and for a similar reason. That was Musorgsky, the radical Russian “realist” whose lifetime overlapped somewhat with Janáček’s, and whose music was surely known to the Czech composer. (Boris Godunov was a repertory opera in Czech theaters beginning in 1910.) Janáček’s interest in Russian culture and his familiarity with it are attested, as we have seen, by the literary sources of two of his late operas. Such a “Pan-Slavic” interest, it is worth adding, was common among Czech patriots who resented Austrian rule.

Yet it would be rash to assume that Musorgsky was a decisive “influence” on Janáček, and not only because Janáček denied it. Composers are rarely forthcoming or trustworthy on this question; but the fact that Janáček publicly claimed in 1903 that Jenůfa was the first opera ever written to a prose libretto strongly suggests that he was unfamiliar as of that date even with Boris Godunov, which has a lengthy and famous comic scene set quite conspicuously (and groundbreakingly) to prose. (For what it is worth, Janáček is not known to have attended a performance of Musorgsky’s opera until 1923.)

Traces of Janáček’s interest in speech melody extend further back than his maximalist years, and the most distinctive aspect of his prosody—namely, the fastidious syncopations arising out of the noncoincidence of stress and length in Czech—can have no counterpart or precedent in Musorgsky because the feature has no counterpart in Russian. Most of all, Janáček’s use of speech rhythms became far more pervasive in his music than in Musorgsky’s, and led to a far more radical (and a far more general) recasting of his style. If Musorgsky was an influence on Janáček, then, Janáček was all the more impressively a maximalist.


ex. 7-31 Leoš Janáček, A Blown-away Leaf (from On an Overgrown Path, no. 2), mm. 1–17

So profound and formative was Janáček’s dependence on Czech speech rhythms that it remained evident in his music even when there was no speech. It pervaded his instrumental music, too, and the instrumental component of his operas, informing every musical level with the dramatic significance of speech. That is perhaps the operas’ greatest distinction. But to appreciate it in context a preliminary instrumental example may be useful. Ex. 7-31 comes from is a little piano piece, Listek odvanuty (“A blown-away leaf”), originally composed for harmonium in 1901 and eventually published in a set called On an Overgrown Path (Po zarostlém chodničku) in 1911. Ostensibly a folkloristic piece, it is really a study in long unstressed “syllables.” To accommodate them the basic duple meter of the melody in the second strain is distended to ; the final eighth is never played, however, just “waited out.”


(23) Michael Beckerman, Janáček as Theorist (Stuyvesant, NY.: Pendragon Press, 1994), p.133.

(24) Janàcek’s Uncollected Essays on Music, pp. 121–22.

(25) Ibid., p. 56.

(26) John Tyrrell, Czech Opera (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 255.

(27) Tyrrell, Czech Opera, pp. 294, 296.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Social Validation." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-007009.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 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-007009.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 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-007009.xml