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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 7 Social Validation
Richard Taruskin

Rhythms like these pervade Janáček’s later operas, in vocal and instrumental parts alike. Indeed, the orchestral part, which provides the essential continuity in these declamatory works, consists largely of ostinatos drawn from key vocal phrases (along with leitmotifs of a more conventional kind). It is sometimes wrongly assumed that these ostinatos are drawn directly from life, by way of the composer’s speech-tunelet notebooks. Rather, they are drawn from the librettos, as mediated by the composer’s own imagined speech. Kat’a Kabanová, the first opera wholly conceived after Jenůfa’s Prague premiere, was the great laboratory of Janáček’s maximalist technique.

The title character, Katerina Kabanová (Katya for short), is a merchant wife in a Volga town, who takes a lover during her husband’s absence on a business trip, confesses in shame, and, hounded by her vindictive mother-in-law, kills herself in despair. The concluding portion of the last scene contains the lovers’ last meeting, the suicide, and its aftermath. It is fairly self-contained, but knowledge of the origins of two of its themes is needed for a full grasp of its musical and dramatic properties, and their relationship to speech melody.

The first (Ex. 7-32a) is the opera’s main leitmotif, first heard at the very beginning of the overture. It consists simply of eight thwacks on the kettledrum, four on the dominant and four on the tonic. Although its aural effect is “duple-metered,” it is always notated in triplets so that when it appears in counterpoint with other thematic material it sounds as though it is moving at a slower tempo than the rest. This rhythmic effect enables it to intervene portentously at fraught moments of the drama to sound an “implacable” note of doom. It is especially prone to appear whenever Katya’s music soars lyrically aloft, to quash it. At the beginning of act III it is finally given an “objective” referent in the thunder accompanying the storm that gave Ostrovsky’s original play its title.

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ex. 7-32a Leos Janáček, Kát’a Kabanová, motifs, timpani motif

The other motif is one that is developed at the beginning of the final scene from another idea planted early on. The first Allegro theme in the overture gives a preview of the music that accompanies the husband’s departure on his business trip in act I (Ex. 7-32b). On the surface it is merry traveling music, set for flutes and oboes, accompanied by the characteristic sound of Russian sleigh bells. Closer inspection or longer acquaintance reveals the hidden resonance of the menacing timpani motif at its beginning (marked “X”). And as the opera unfolds, the myriad repetitions of the group marked “Y” invest that group, too, with a dramatic significance that accords with its resemblance (surely no accident) to the beginning of the Dies Irae, the old funeral chant that had carried a grisly baggage of associations through the whole nineteenth century, ever since Berlioz had quoted it in the Symphonie fantastique.

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ex. 7-32b Leoš Janáček, Kát’a Kabanová, motifs, Allegro theme

At the beginning of the final scene, the husband and a servant rush on stage in pursuit of Katya, who has already confessed her sin and fled. They shout her name to a speech-tunelet that reverberates in the orchestra at three levels of diminution (Ex. 7-32c). The tunelet is then immediately subjected to an expressive chromatic transformation that becomes the next orchestral ostinato (Ex. 7-32d).

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ex. 7-32c Leos Janáček, Kát’a Kabanová, motifs, “Katérino!” with its accompaniment

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ex. 7-32d Leoš Janáček, Kát’a Kabanová, motifs, chromatic transformation and ensuing ostinato

Another example is found in the last measure of Ex. 7-32d, when the oboe immediately picks up the speech tunelet “Bude zle!” (“There’ll be trouble,” or “You’ll be sorry”). As an instrumental motif, the phrase haunts the music that follows; but it had already appeared in the orchestra at the very beginning of the scene, in advance of (and disguising!) its derivation from a speech-tunelet (Ex. 7-32e). Thus speech pervades the music even before it is heard as speech, and relates dramaturgically to the more “purely” melodic aspects of the music as well.

A Musico-Dramatic Laboratory

ex. 7-32e Leoš Janáček, Kát’a Kabanová, motifs, Curtain (Opona/Vorhang) Music

Turning now to the concluding scene and following the musical- dramatic development in the process of its unfolding, we may observe similar transformations of speech-tunelets into orchestral motifs at every turn. One happens almost immediately (Ex. 7-33a), when Katya’s obsessive “At’ vidím cokoli, at’ slyším cokoli” (“All I see around me, all I hear around me”), reverberates in the orchestra as if illustrating the thought. But the most impressive and dramatically significant instance occurs at the Moderato that immediately follows, where the tunelet arising out of Katya’s wishful line, “Snad, kdybych s ním mohla žít” (“Ah, if only I could live with him”) is immediately echoed in a phrase that, gently rocking in alternation with its descending counterpart, accompanies the whole last meeting of the lovers (Ex. 7-33b).

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ex. 7-33a Leoš Janáček, Kát’a Kabanová, Act III, scene 2, obsessive reverberations of speech tunelet

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ex. 7-33b Leoš Janáček, Kát’a Kabanová, Act III, scene 2, transformation of speech tunelet into love music

Although the resemblance is patent, neither the pitch sequence nor the rhythm of the tunelet is exactly paralleled by the ostinato. The rhythm has been adjusted, possibly, to recall in its regular long-short-short-long pattern the rhythmic palindromes (or “mirror-rhythm,”28 as Tyrrell calls it) of Moravian folk songs. If so, it must have been an unconscious impulse that guided the composer’s fancy, since Moravian folklore would seem to have little to contribute to the expressive ambience of an opera set in Russia. To identify Janáček’s music with it here creates a “problem.” Taking a closer look at the words to which the original tunelet is set in Ex. 7-33a, however, we notice that the last vowel in the triplet (s ním) carries the mark of lengthening, so that when pronounced idiomatically by a Czech singer, its rhythm would already approach that of the orchestral ostinato. It is likely that Janáček notated the orchestral part differently from the vocal so as to indicate to the instrumentalists something of the rhythm the singer would produce “instinctively.” All the closer, then, are the implicit bonds between the music at all its levels and the contours and rhythms of Czech speech. Speech, with all its attendant and automatic emotional expression, pervades the ambient music in which the characters live and breathe.

As Boris, her lover, prepares to take his final leave of her, Katya begins to hallucinate, hearing an offstage chorus that sings to an unearthly vowel that Janáček directs be “somewhere between U and O,” representing “the sighing of the Volga” into which she will soon be hurling herself (Ex. 7-34a). The pentatonic motive thus introduced, which shares many intervals with the complex of motives quoted in Ex. 7-32, participates along with them at the opera’s grisly climax, where all of these motivic relationships reach an epitome (Ex. 7-34b). The last human voice is the mother-in-law’s, icily dismissing the horrified onlookers with thanks for their attention. Her music is based on Ex. 7-32b, with an extra emphasis on the “Y” motif, associated with the Dies Irae. Following that, a stormy little orchestral fantasy brings the opera to a close, bluntly juxtaposing the “X” and “Y” motives against the “Volga sigh,” while the ostinato repetitions of “Y” ineluctably recall the obsessive repetitions of Katya’s name at the beginning of the scene (Ex. 7-32c).

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ex. 7-34a Leoš Janáček, Kát’a Kabanová, Act III, scene 2, “Sighing of the Volga”

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ex. 7-34b Leoš Janáček, Kát’a Kabanová, Act III, scene 2, end

Katerina’s final page of music (Ex. 7-35), beginning where she hearkens dementedly to the singing of birds, seems suddenly, and startlingly, to resemble a traditional mad scene in the romantic vein of Donizetti. Like Lucia di Lammermoor, Katya withdraws right before the dénouement into a fantasy world represented by the dulcet music of an accompanying flute. But no sooner is the comparison made than it turns ironic. The romantic mad scene in bel canto operas was always their most ornately “musical” moment. Dementia was depicted, and its fascination conveyed, through lavish ornamentation and roulades.

Meanwhile, it would be difficult to imagine music more starkly denuded than the mad scene in Janáček’s opera. The vocal writing is straight syllabic declamation, as sedulously modeled on speech as ever. The bird song consists of a typical ostinato phrase, repeated like an obsession but never embellished or even varied, except to distend it by the use of dissonant skips. It is accompanied by a harsh percussive tattoo drawn from the notes of the Volga’s “sigh.” This demonstratively stripped-down, barren sonority is the nub of Janáček’s maximalism. What is maximalized is laconicism, “plain speech” deliberately void of “poetry” in the name of “unvarnished truth”—the realist or naturalist strain in nineteenth-century literature and literature-influenced music brought to a peak (or perhaps one should say a nadir). All during his astonishingly fertile final decade, Janáček was becoming increasingly obsessed with spareness, and with a bluffness of expression that was virtually without precedent.

He began ruling his own staves rather than using manufactured music paper for his orchestral scores lest he be seduced by all those empty bars to pad his orchestration. He began deliberately flouting schoolroom rules of voice leading (rules that, unlike Musorgsky perhaps, he knew as well as any composer) to lend his music a rough-hewn or “primitive” texture. The climactic love music quoted in Ex. 7-33b is a vivid case in point: even at this tender moment the music must borrow a bit of honest clumsiness from the deliberately unprepared chord with which it begins, and from the deliberately skewed intervals (augmented second against augmented fourth in contrary motion) with which it proceeds.

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ex. 7-35 Leoš Janáček, Kát’a Kabanová, Act III, scene 2, Katerina’s suicide

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fig. 7-5 Janáček, page of the autograph manuscript for From the House of the Dead.

In From the House of the Dead, his last opera and almost his last work, Janáček brought artlessness to an extreme in his depiction of sensibilities hardened and distorted by prison life. In Ex. 7-36a, a chord is approached by leap in similar motion, and proceeds, again in inelegant similar motion, to another voicing of the same dissonant harmony. Ex. 7-36b is an ostinato that accompanies one prisoner’s rueful narration of the brutal crime for which he was sentenced. An unprepared chord ascends in similar motion to the next harmony without resolving its dissonance, and descends, also in similar motion and without resolution, to a chord that is supposed to mark the cadence (not to be confused, of course, with a “cadential ”). On its repetition the ostinato is accompanied by an ersatz “tonic pedal” on E≭ that jars wretchedly with the soprano E.

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ex. 7-36a Leos Janáček, From the House of the Dead, Act III, 6 before fig. [15]

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ex. 7-36b Leoš Janáček, From the House of the Dead, Act III, ostinato at fig. [26]

Both in Ex. 7-36b and at various points in the final scene from Kát’a Kabanová, the harmony is tinged with whole-tone effects. Janáček was attracted to Debussy’s music and studied Pelléas et Mélisande, which as an essay in prose-setting especially interested him. Nevertheless, his whole-tone usages seem more indebted, yet again, to Russian music, where, in the wake of Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmila the whole-tone scale was usually associated, as it is in Janáček, with evil or horror. Rather than cooling the emotional temperature, as whole-tone harmony did for Debussy, it remained for Janáček, as it had been for the Russians, an emotional stimulant.


(28) Tyrrell, Leoš Janáček: Kat’a Kabanová (Cambridge Opera Handbooks; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 13.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Social Validation." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-007010.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 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-007010.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 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-007010.xml