Janáček’s Immortal Beloved and Her Literary and Musical Intertexts

Geoffrey Chew, University of London

The great creative upsurge during the last decade of the life of Leoš Janáček (1918–28) is often attributed predominantly to his emotional involvement during those years with Kamila Stösslová: the picture is a fundamentally simple one, of an elderly composer trapped in an unhappy marriage, with his creativity at last released through his defying conventional bourgeois morality and falling in adulterous love.

Readings of his work as intertwined with the events of his biography admittedly enjoy copious support from the composer’s own statements, and have been gaining currency since the publication in English translation of his letters to Stösslová (1994). He writes not only that the inspiration for almost all his mature work is found in her, but that she is present in their narratives: he sees her in the heroines of Kát’a Kabanová, Liška Bystrouška and Věc Makropulos, and constructs leading parts for her in both String Quartets and even in the Glagolitic Mass. And the extraordinary extent to which he apparently saw his art as indivisible from his life is strikingly illustrated in his Album for Kamila Stösslová of 1927–28, which consists of intimate recollections in prose of their moments together, interspersed with tiny piano pieces and fragments of song, and including his will—which itself concludes with a piano piece.

This picture of art embedded in life may not, however, be quite reliable. The late-Romantic composer Zdeněk Fibich had published sets of piano pieces entitled Nálady, dojmy a úpominky (‘Moods, Impressions and Reminiscences’’) in the 1890s, with a parallel (secret) narrative in an amorous diary addressed to his own innamorata, Anežka Schulzová. The secret became public when the diary was published by Zdeněk Nejedlý in 1925, with an essay on the importance of Woman to the artist’s mentality, which insists that Fibich’s involvement with Schulzová and his contravention of bourgeois morality was in no way reprehensible. Janáček acquired a copy and discussed it with Stösslová, a fact that suggests at least an unusual degree of self-awareness.

Moreover, there are prior examples in fin-de-siècle Czech literature of the topos of the fictional authentication of the male artist through a grande passion, often adulterous, and one of the most prominent of these, Julius Zeyer’s Jan Maria Plojhar, is semi-autobiographical and so also apparently confuses fiction with life.

On the basis of a discussion of Nejedlý’s essay, together with relevant passages from Janáček’s letters and the Album, and from Czech fin-de-siècle fiction and drama, the paper will suggest that Janáček’s constructions of himself were more various and sophisticated, and more embedded in fin-de-siècle aesthetics, than is usually thought. Hence it will suggest that interpretations of Janáček’s mature work will be inadequate if this is not taken into account.