There’s a lot to be said for taking on assignments out of your comfort zone.  The task of reviewing Janáček’s Jenůfa was one such for me, as I’m more familiar with the Italian and German repertoires than with the Czech one.  I had seen other Janáček operas, but not this one.  So off I trotted to the Royal College of Music Library.  What I discovered there about Jenůfa and Janáček’s subsequent operas was so riveting that I ended up spending days reading through the books available – far from enough, for sure, to make a Janáček expert, but plenty to spur me to share those exciting discoveries with fellow-writers.

Leos Janacek ca. 1890

Leos Janáček, ca. 1890

I had come across Milan Kundera’s admiration of this composer years ago in his The Art of the Novel and Encounter essays, but understood it better only after my RCM Library research – as there are helpful parallels between Janáček’s compositional process and aspects of literary fiction.  So what might Janáček (b. 1854 – d. 1928) teach us as writers?  Here are a few thoughts.  If you have more, please feel welcome to add them in the comments section below or here.

  1. Let go of ‘automatisms’

Experiment freely, especially in the early stages of your project: seek the form which will do justice to your vision of that particular novel or short story.  Trusting our intuition about key writing decisions (e.g. structure, point of view, voice) may not come easily, but over-reliance on the “dos and don’ts” of technique can work against a story’s emotional power.  For example, deciding which word is or isn’t earning its place in a sentence will depend on a narrator/character’s personality, back story, state of mind…  Janáček had mastered traditional composition but realized some of its rules would have detracted from the emotional truth of the drama.  Similarly, he had studied local folk music for decades, but the Moravian dances in the opera are his own invention, the fruit of his ‘absorption’ of the raw material.

  1. A well-chosen motif enriches the reading experience

From the opening bars of Jenůfa, the xylophone provides the recurring motif of the mill’s waterwheel: does it signify time ticking by? Or the inexorability of events? Or the flowing of each character’s actions into one tragedy?  Maybe any or all of these.  It’s a reminder that motifs ideally have two qualities: yes, they offer some insights into the story; but their plurality of meaning reflects the ambiguities of existence lived in the present without the benefit of hindsight.  By inviting questions more than providing answers, they engage readers, creating private space for their own perspectives and interpretations.

  1. The individuality of each character’s speech is all-important

We’ve all heard about paying heed to the individuality of each character’s speech, both direct and indirect, but Janáček went to extraordinary lengths to achieve that effect in Jenůfa and subsequent operas.  He was one of the first composers to use a libretto in prose (his own, derived from a play by Gabriela Preissová) and not in verse.  In the text and music, he strived to capture reality: by creating the impression (by mimicking, not replicating – see the section on “speech melody” in the review of Grange Park Opera’s recent Jenůfa) of the impact of characters’ emotional states on their utterances, moment by moment; by prioritising dramatic truth over melodic beauty.  He was unafraid of the resulting contrasts and contradictions within and between characters.  The outcome is an intensely believable evolution of his protagonists and their relationships.  The process and its effects illustrate every writer’s balancing act between the attractions of euphony and the ‘truth’ of characters who at times might demand ‘ugliness’ of expression.

Seen And Heard International

  1. Local can mean universal

Jenůfa demonstrates the enduring validity of the mantra that the more locally rooted a story is, the more universal it feels.  That’s because of the specificity of the ‘framework’ within which the characters move: it enables authors to dramatize situations arising out of the tension between the community (e.g. conditions and belief system) and individuals’ inner worlds.

  1. Let themes emerge by themselves

Jenůfa is ‘about’ many things.  Different productions may highlight one of them but don’t cancel out the others.  By and large, any opera, play, novel, short story… which engages with one universal theme is inevitably engaging with other themes too, due to their interconnectedness and complexity.  Trust them to emerge of their own accord.  The reasons for this are set out nowhere better than in Orhan Pamuk’s The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist and David Lodge’s The Practice of Writing: they both explain why ‘you discover what it is you have to say in the process of saying it’ – and why, in any event, it will be ‘read by different readers in a bewildering variety of ways’ (Lodge, ‘The Novel as Communication’, in The Practice of Writing).

  1. The order in which characters appear isn’t a given

Time and again, authors say the suggestion from a writing colleague, agent or editor to alter the order of scenes or chapters made a vital difference to the final manuscript.  That opportunity is most obviously open when the story is not recounted in strict chronological sequence.  It’s not as easy to remember that the order in which characters make their entrance is flexible even in stories told in that sequence – and how greatly it matters.  Jenůfa exemplifies it: in the original play, the mayor and his family appear early on; Janáček’s decision not to show them until the opera’s final act – even though he has mentioned them earlier on – heightens the contrast between the central couple’s hard-earned depth of understanding and the shallowness of the community’s moral conventions, personified by the mayor’s wife and daughter.  In other words, the tension between the external ‘framework’ and the internal worlds not only is sustained, but rises to a high pitch until shortly before the curtain’s close.

If this post has piqued your curiosity about Janáček and Jenůfa, DVDs of several productions are available online.  In the UK, Jenůfa is currently being performed at Grange Park Opera (until 8 July 2017).

Image credits:

Leos Janáček ca. 1890, author unknown. Reproduced under Public Domain License.

Image of review of Janáček’s Jenůfa from Seen and Heard International website.

2 thoughts on “What can writers learn from a composer?

  1. This gave me some useful reminders of how a composer’s way of working could be an influence for a writer and vice versa. I particularly chime with the ideas of allowing yourself to be playful at the early stage and in choosing motifs. I know writers who work all these things out before they begin, have the characters, the symbolism and so in mind and then allow it all to flow naturally. I think my brain feels bigger after reading this – if that makes sense!

    Liked by 1 person

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