Until little more than a half-century ago, what the rest of the world knew of the music of what was then Czechoslovakia emanated from the far-western area of Bohemia, with Prague as its capital, Vienna the city of its dreams, and German the language of its educated classes.
The great 19th-century composers, Smetana and Dvor?ák, introduced native elements into their music – and not the music of the cities or even exclusively of Bohemia. They were among the early musical nationalists. But their orientation remained westward-looking.
Janác?ek, on the other hand, was from Moravia – situated in the middle of the country, between today's Czech Republic and Slovakia – physically as well as culturally, and if Moravian culture looked anywhere beyond its borders, it looked east, to Russia.
To differentiate Janác?ek further from his distinguished predecessors, his long creative career, while spanning some of the most productive years of Brahms, Dvor?ák, Richard Strauss, and Mahler, was also to witness Stravinsky’s breakthrough masterpieces and the innovations of the Second Viennese School. But his glory years were his last, and what he wrote then – between 1920 and 1928 – gives us the picture of a composer more modern than Romantic, with a free attitude toward tonality and a preference for the terse, rhythmically charged statement over the long-lined melody.
The composer to whom Janác?ek is most often compared is Modest Mussorgsky. Which makes sense up to a point. It was certainly from the Russian’s example that Janác?ek evolved his own naturalistic concept of opera, as an extension of spoken drama. And if Mussorgsky said, by implication, “look to the people,” Janác?ek looked even more closely than he, particularly to his own Moravian people, studying their music and literature and, particularly, their speech-patterns. Janác?ek approached these researches in the scientific manner employed at the same time (the early years of this century) by Bartók and Kodály in nearby Hungary.
At the age of 60 he was a respected local composer and director of the music conservatory in the Moravian capital of Brno. He was little known even in Prague. It took another decade for him to achieve wider recognition, with the incredible burst of late-life energy, spurred by his love for a much younger married woman, Kamila Stösslova, that would inspire his final masterpieces, among them the operas The Makropulos Case, Katya Kabanova, The Cunning Little Vixen, From the House of the Dead, the Glagolitic Mass, and chamber works including his two string quartets and the wind sextet, Mládí (Youth). The composer described this last creative period as “a new burgeoning of my soul. I have settled my affairs with the world.” He was known throughout Europe. There were no fetters on his creativity, no financial woes – and there was Kamila.
Mládí might be regarded as a sort of cognate to Makropulos: the opera’s theme is the curse of the inability to grow old, to be ever resurrected in youthful form and mind, while those around us – even worlds around us – are subjected to the succession of birth, life, and death.
The sextet in a recollection of youth, its pleasures and pains, without philosophizing, without mystification. It was written in July of 1924, in conjunction with the composer’s 70th birthday and is scored for flute (doubling piccolo), oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, and bassoon. The opening movement is suggestive of a children’s game – of tag, perhaps. The moderato is a tender set of variations, nostalgically depicting youthful love. The third movement is derived from a little piece written earlier in the year, “The March of the Blue Boys,” which Janác?ek described: “The little singers of the monastery, in their blue cassocks, cheer as they march – looking like bluebirds.” The finale is a free, at first dark-hued, recollection of the opening movement, working its way toward a jolly, prestissimo conclusion.