On This Day
12 August: Leoš Janáček Died

Three great operas of Janáček’s old age and his private insipration

Leoš Janáček

On the occasion of his 70th birthday, Leoš Janáček received his first honorary doctorate from the Masaryk University in Brno. The composer was predictably proud and signed his correspondence and all his compositions as “Dr. Ph. Leoš Janáček” thereafter. It marked the beginning of a remarkable change of fortune, as his works were now eagerly performed in Europe and the United States, with Universal Edition publishing each new opera as soon as it came out. While his international fame continued to grow, it is worth remembering that three of his last four operas are intimately connected with Kamila Stösslová, a simple and uninhibited peasant woman.

Kamila Stösslová, 1917

Kamila Stösslová, 1917

Janáček was a married man of 63 and Kamila a married woman of 25 when they met in a Moravian spa in the summer of 1917. What might have turned into an innocent and transient infatuation became a full-fledged obsession. Kamila, always the loyal housewife was at a loss of how to deal with all this attention, but she was also sufficiently flattered and overwhelmed to keep in touch. Over the next 11 years, Janáček wrote her more than 1,000 letters that document in increasingly ardent terms a bizarre history of withheld affection. Kamila remained unattainable, so Janáček wrote her into his music. Specifically, she became the private inspiration for the heroines of the three great operas of his old age, Katya Kabanova, The Cunning Little Vixen, and The Makropoulos Case, as well as for a couple of female roles in From the House of the Dead.

Leoš Janáček: The Cunning Little Vixen (Excerpt)

Leoš Janáček with his wife Zdenka

Leoš Janáček with his wife Zdenka

In August 1928, Janáček took an excursion to Štramberk with Kamila and her son Otto, but during their voyage he caught a chill. It rapidly developed into pneumonia, and he was taken to the nearest large town, Moravská Ostrava. Janáček was admitted to the sanatorium of Dr. L. Klein, where he died at 10 a.m. on Sunday 12 August, at the age of 74. His funeral procession set out on 15 August and centered around Brno’s Theatre on the Ramparts, today the Mahen Theatre, where most of his operas had been premiered. Contemporary eyewitnesses report, “crowds waited in and outside the church, which was packed with flowers. After the religious ceremony, the coffin was taken to the city’s theatre where Janacek was laid in the wake in the foyer. The orchestra, under Frantisek Neumann, began to play the “Forester’s Farewell” from The Cunning Little Vixen, and his wife Zdenka jumped up from her chair and exclaimed ‘Little Vixen’ and was about to faint.” Many prominent public figures attended the funeral, from the composer and conductor Oskar Nedbal to Max Brod. Speakers included the Lord Mayor of Brno, the composer Boleslav Vomáčka, the Vice-Chancellor of the Masaryk University of Brno, and the director of the Brno Conservatoire Jan Kunc.

Leoš Janáček: The Danube (Karolina Dvořáková, soprano; Jiri Benes, viola; Brno Philharmonic Orchestra; František Jílek, cond.)

Janáček with Kamila Stösslová

Janáček with Kamila Stösslová

The Beseda Choral Society and the City Theatre orchestra, conducted by Janáček’s student Jaroslav Kvapil, performed the first part of Dvořák’s Requiem, and the city of Brno had allocated Janáček a place of honor in the local cemetery. “Frantisek Neumann spoke for the last time at the graveside, moved to tears. After a brief religious service, the Czech national anthem completed the ceremony and, to the sound of horns, the coffin was lowered into the grave.” Janáček did not name a sole beneficiary in his will but left his house in Hukvaldy and his land there to the village, and 100,000 crowns to the Faculty of Philosophy of the Masaryk University in Brno. The interest on this sum was to be shared by his wife Zdenka and the University. Zdenka also was to receive royalties of all his operas, except Katya Kabanova and From the House of the Dead. However, on 5 August 1928 Janáček had penned an addendum to his will, assigning the interest on the 100,000 crowns to Kamila. Kamila also was assigned royalties of Katya Kabanova, The diary of One who Disappeared, From the House of the Dead, and the Second String Quartet Intimate Letters.

Leoš Janáček: From the House of the Dead (Bojidar Nikolov, tenor; Barry McCauley, tenor; Peter Fraiss, tenor; Josef Veverka, tenor; Richard Novák, baritone; Nicolai Ghiaurov, baritone; Harry Peeters, bass; Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor; Philip Langridge, tenor; Elzbieta Szmytka, mezzo-soprano; Andrea Rost, mezzo-soprano; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; Claudio Abbado, cond.)

Janáček's grave in Brno

Janáček’s grave in Brno

Kamila’s husband, David Stössel, contested the original will on behalf of his wife in 1930. As expected, the case dragged on for several years, but eventually, the court decided in Kamila’s favor. She was paid 70,000 crowns, and the University agreed to pay her royalties for Katya Kabanova and From the House of the Dead. Zdenka found the court case and any reminders of Kamila’s relationship with her late husband degrading, and she tried to suppress the title of the Second String Quartet. In addition, Kamila had been saving all of Janáček’s letters, “although she often cut out parts of them or inked out some passages.” Two years after Janáček’s death, Kamila made some letters available to a biographer, who quoted them in his book. The press sniffed a good story and drew attention to the enormous collection of 1,000 letters in Kamila’s possession. To be sure, Zdenka was extremely upset by these developments and engaged legal counsel to suppress any further publication. However, a Czech musicologist and biographer approached Kamila, hoping to acquire the collection. Kamila refused to sell, and after her death at the age of 43, the offer was made to her husband. He also refused to sell, but shortly before WWII, the situation changed. Rudolf Stössel, David and Kamila’s eldest son pawned the letters, which were subsequently sold to the Faculty of Philosophy of Masaryk University. The collection included over 713 letters and postcards from Leoš to Kamila and others, and two autograph scores.

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Leoš Janáček: String Quartet No. 2 “Intimate Letters”

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