BOOK REVIEW / Notes for a hausfrau: 'Intimate Letters: Leos Janacek to Kamila Stosslova' - ed & trs John Tyrrell: Faber, 25 pounds

Michael White
Sunday 30 January 1994 00:02

IN THE summer of 1917, in a Moravian spa resort called Luhacovice where life went on despite the war in the rest of Europe, a married man of 63 met a married woman of 25 and fell in love with her. It was a commonplace. It might have turned into a holiday romance. It might have been an innocent and transient infatuation. But the man was Leos Janacek, composer, fiercely passionate, obsessive, and about to emerge as perhaps the most remarkable late-developing genius in the history of music. And the woman was Kamila Stosslova, loyal housewife, at a loss to know how she should deal with the attentions of this venerable older man but sufficiently flattered (or perhaps just overwhelmed) not to send him packing.

The result was that nothing happened. But it went on not happening for the next 11 years, during which time Janacek wrote her (and occasionally her husband) more than 1,000 letters that document in increasingly ardent terms a bizarre history of withheld affection. The most we know that ever passed between them was a kiss: in August 1927, 10 years after their first meeting. An attempted embrace was repelled. But what Janacek failed to obtain in reality, he obtained in his imagination. The letters fantasise about Kamila as his 'wife'. He imagines her as pregnant with his child. And if that doesn't of itself amount to more than small change in psychiatric terms, it becomes serious material for musicologists when he lays his ultimate claim to Kamila by writing her into his music.

Specifically, she became the private inspiration for the heroines of the three great operas of Janacek's old age, Katya Kabanova, The Cunning Little Vixen and The Makropoulos Case, as well as for the couple of female roles in From the House of the Dead. She also 'features' in the extended song-setting The Diary of One who Disappeared and in the Second String Quartet which Janacek, in the programmatic manner he applied to instrumental works, subtitled Intimate Letters and which he equipped (so he claimed to Kamila) with a direct musical statement of his childbirth fantasy.

More broadly, though, Kamila became - through her very unattainability - a source of the drive and energy that swept Janacek into his eleventh-hour apotheosis from respected musician to great composer. The letters repeatedly address her as his 'soul': the presence that, he writes in April 1927, will make his compositions 'more passionate, more ravishing: you'll sit on every little note in them. I'll caress them; every little note will be your dark eye.' 'Oh Kamila,' he continues, 'it is hard to calm myself. But the fire that you've set alight in me is necessary. Let it burn, let it flame, the desire of having you, of having you]'

In retrospect, it was probably as well for opera that the flame of desire burned, unsatisfied, for so long. But reading the letters, there is an almost psychopathic perversity in their persistence. Like a literary rondo, they return, endlessly and across the years, to the same themes: recollections of the first meeting in Luhacovice, laudatory invocations of Kamila's black hair and dark eyes (she was Jewish: he addressed her as his 'gipsy'), complaints that his letters pass unanswered, and invitations to visit his home or come to his performances that he knows will be ignored. Kamila did not attend the premieres of the works she inspired, despite Janacek's pleading for her to witness the esteem in which the world was beginning to hold him. In all likelihood she never really appreciated how significant a figure Janacek was.

Kamila had no particular interest in music, no special cultural awareness and, indeed, nothing more in the way of formal education than any lower-middle-class Czech housewife of her time. Her few surviving letters to Janacek (most of them were burnt at her insistence) are rambling, ungrammatical and childlike. Because she died young - not long after Janacek, in 1935 - she also never realised how significant a gift it was when he assigned to her the royalties of Katya, The Diary, House of the Dead and the Second Quartet. But then, in other ways, the early death was merciful. The other members of her Jewish family later died in concentration camps.

It would be an overstatement to say that this correspondence sheds great light on Janacek's work - if only because he knows his reader well enough to write to her without profound reflection or analysis. References to the major works drop out of the text with the vacuous innocence that Hollywood used to apply to its romanticised biographies of great composers. 'So, my dear soul,' he writes in October 1927, 'today I've finished that opera of mine. From the House of the Dead. Terrible title, isn't it?' Kamila's replies, when they come, are along the lines of 'You always choose operas that make one's blood run cold'. But cumulatively, the letters provide a fascinating record of life separated from art only by the thinnest of membranes; and although their existence has always been known, their detailed content has only recently been accessible after years of suppression by Janacek's surviving representatives; not least, his wife. A complete Czech edition appeared only in 1990, and John Tyrrell's admirably annotated edition is the first of its kind in English - beautifully translated to retain the clipped volleys of passion, prickliness and touching pathos that characterised Janacek's prose as much as his music.

If the letters are sometimes so intimate that to read them feels like voyeurism, the fact is that Janacek was never unmindful of the chance that they might find their way into other hands. He seems to have regarded them as acts of amorous bravado, like carving lovers' hearts on trees. 'I always think to myself,' he writes in October 1927, 'will some inquisitive person spy on this daily correspondence? And (yet) it's only my conversation with you - when mountains divide us. A conversation without which I couldn't exist.'

And who was this femme fatale who launched 1,000 letters, without whom Janacek couldn't exist? Turn to the photographs in the book and you find, by 1927 at least, a plain and podgy middle-European hausfrau. What could he have seen in her to hold him captive for 11 years? A mystery of the heart, and one that opera-lovers can only be thankful for.

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