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The Operas of Leoš Janáček
by Erik Chisholm
Pergamon Press, first published 1971, 390 pages
Now only available in this online version produced for the Erik Chisholm Trust by MusicWeb International

Pedagogue, composer, writer on music, inspiring teacher and music administrator – Erik Chisholm was many things; he was also an enthusiast for and an authority on the music of Janáček. So in 1963 Pergamon Press commissioned him to write a book about Janáček’s operas. It took him two years to write and was eventually delivered in 1965, just before he died … probably of over-work. It still remains one of the most lucid English language books on Janáček’s operas.
This is not a biography of Janáček. Chisholm’s biographical introduction is a mere sketch. It is very firmly a guide to Janáček’s mature operas. Curiously Chisholm chose to treat the operas in reverse chronological order so that we start with The House of the Dead and finish with Jenufa. There then follows a chapter dealing with the lesser-known early operas, Sarka, The Beginning of a Romance and Osud.
Though the music of each opera is dealt with extensively, complete with music examples, in an appendix Chisholm gives us a detailed thematic analysis of Siskov’s monologue.
Some operas seem to interest Chisholm more than others. The House of the Dead is covered in 82 pages, The Makropoulos Case in 48 pages, Sharp Ears – The Cunning Little Vixen in 44 pages, The Excursions of Mr. Broucek in 74 pages and Jenufa in 46 pages. The House of the Dead is clearly a favourite with Chisholm but we should not necessarily associate length with preference. A point worth bearing in mind is that Janáček’s operas were far less common when the book was first written; readers could be expected to know only one or two of them.
This is further emphasised by the illustrations, which include some fascinating photographs of then contemporary productions.
Each chapter gives a brief historical introduction to the opera, detailed synopsis of the plot and a detailed musical analysis, act by act. The introductions are not always extensive and not always music-historically obvious. That for The House of the Dead takes Janáček’s visit to Britain in 1926 as its starting point before going on to talk about the composer’s speed notations. And The Makropoulos Case starts with Karel Capek’s visit to London in 1924.
The synopses are no mere single paragraph affairs, but detailed plot analyses. These were extremely helpful in pre-internet days but still very helpful today when trying to get to grips with these fascinating but tricky operas.
For The House of the Dead, Chisholm extends the chapter by comparing the plot of the opera to the plot of Dostoevsky’s novel. As Janáček was his own librettist, this helps to shed fascinating light on the composer’s methods; illuminating indeed. Chisholm undertakes a similar exercise for Katja Kabanova where Janáček was again his own librettist. As with The House of the Dead, the relationship between the opera and its source material sheds light on Janáček’s methods.
Chisholm’s musical analyses of the operas are always lucid. Sometimes you feel that he is aware of the pressures of space and wish he could have written at greater length. As a an opera composer himself, Chisholm was well placed to analyse the operas and as an educator he was able to present his analyses in a lucid fashion.
Musicology and music-history have moved on since Chisholm first wrote this book, but other authors can be consulted if musicology or music-history are your interests. This volume remains a fine introduction to the music-drama of Janáček’s operas, illuminated by Chisholm’s intelligence and graced by his lucid prose.
Robert Hugill

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