ArticlePDF Available

Abstract and Figures

The concept of an operatic "Slavic Catharsis" originated with the Czech musicologist Vladimir Helfert. Although the characterology of Slavic opera personages coined by him in 1932 is obsolete today, his ideas remain an interesting contribution to the history of the application of an ancient Greek notion to modern musicology and art theory. Helfert was concerned with explicating Leoš Janáček's idiom of musical drama. However, in Janáček's operatic works, catharsis is employed not primarily as a form of "purification". We try to demonstrate - by means of examples from his operas The Cunning Little Vixen and From the House of the Dead-that it might be more appropriate to define the specific Janacek catharsis not primarily through the category of compassion, but rather as a kind of nondiscursive insight, conveyed through music, into how we and our world are constructed.
Content may be subject to copyright.
V. Zvara: Leoš Janáček and the
»Slavic Catharsis«
IRASM 43 (2012) 1: 23-34
Leoš Janáček and the
»Slavic Catharsis«
Vladimír Zvara
Comenius University, Faculty
of Arts
Department of Musicology
Gondova 2, P.O.BOX 32
814 99 Bratislava, Slovakia
E-mail: vladimirzvara@yahoo.
UDC: 78.01 JANAČEK, L.
Original Scientific Paper
Izvorni znanstveni rad
Received: October 9, 2011
Primljeno: 9. listopada 2011.
Accepted: April 14, 2012
Prihvaćeno: 14. travnja 2012.
Abstract - Résumé
The concept of an operatic
“Slavic Catharsis” originated
with the Czech musicologist
Vladimír Helfert. Although the
characterology of Slavic opera
personages coined by him in
1932 is obsolete today, his
ideas remain an interesting
contribution to the history of the
application of an ancient Greek
notion to modern musicology
and art theory. Helfert was
concerned with explicating Leoš
Janáček´s idiom of musical
drama. However, in Janáček´s
operatic works, catharsis is
employed not primarily as a
form of “purification”. We try to
demonstrate – by means of
examples from his operas The
Cunning Little Vixen and From
the House of the Dead – that it
might be more appropriate to
define the specific Janáček
catharsis not primarily through
the category of compassion, but
rather as a kind of non-
discursive insight, conveyed
through music, into how we and
our world are constructed.
Keywords: Aristotle •
Leoš Janáček •
Vladimír Helfert • opera
• catharsis • musical
[...] Observe the tragic figures and tragic situations in
Slavic operas, at least those you have witnessed at
your local theater. For example Dalibor, [Dvořák’s]
Dimitrij, Boris Godunov, Igor, [Zdeněk Fibich’s]
Šárka, [Josef Bohuslav Foerster ’s] Eva, the Kostelnička,
Katya Kabanova, Halka, [Otakar Jeremiáš’s] Dmitri
Karamazov, the prisoners in From the House of the
Dead, [Petar Konjović’s] Koštana, and the tragic
atmosphere that surrounds them. These are certainly
not the straightforward and strictly consequent tragic
figures created as ideals of French 18th century
classicism and German romanticism, following
antique models. The Slavic stage figures represent a
type sui generis, different from the Romance, English
or Germanic tragic types. […] All these Slavic tragic
figures are more lyrical, and thus milder. They are
not cloaked in the hard and dark tones that surround
Hans Heiling, the Dutchman, Telramund, Alberich,
Hagen, Electra or Clytemnestra. […] All these tragic
heroes of Slavic operas have a very different
relationship to their surroundings than Wagner’s
heroes have, for example. They do not inhabit the
cothurn of the superhuman; they are devoid of that
exaggerated individualism and solipsism which
V. Zvara: Leoš Janáček and the
»Slavic Catharsis«
IRASM 43 (2012) 1: 23-34
would persuade them to despise their surroundings, to despise their enemies and to
destroy them mercilessly. They are filled with compassion for humanity, even if it
should be their enemy. Brotherly love for humankind fills them, even when fate or
dark passion drives them to crime. […] Their creators always manage to reveal
something within them that arouses our sympathy, which makes the mysterious
chord of compassion with every human being resound in us. […] Thus, one leaves
the theater not struck by the weight of superhuman heroic tragedy, but uplifted and
moved by the Slavic catharsis of pent-up passions. After all, these passions have been
cleansed through something hidden in each of us: the feeling of brotherhood, of
human love, of compassion with those suffering, which also include those who have
been swept up by the malstroem of dark and ungovernable passions.1
This text was written by Vladimír Helfert, an eminent Czech musicologist
born in 1886 and killed, a Nazi victim, in 1945.2 The quotation is taken from an
essay he wrote in 1932, under the impression of the Brno performance of Koštana,
written by Petar Konjović, a leading Serbian composer at the time (and a student
of Vítězslav Novák at the Prague Conservatory).3 However, even more than by
Konjović’s Koštana, Helfert’s essay seems to have been inspired by the operatic
works of Leoš Janáček, and the terminological construction »Slavic catharsis«
which Helfert coined has become most widely used in the Janáček literature. As
an important instrument of the Janáček exegesis, of which Helfert is considered a
classic, this term also influenced the interpretation of other Slavic operas of the
20th century, for example those of the Slovak opera composer Ján Cikker.4
Of course, the quotation can be questioned in multiple ways.
First of all, the cultural characterology of peoples and races – so popular at
the time – has been widely compromised, mainly through the political events in
Europe which were just beginning at the time Vladimír Helfert’s text was written,
and whose victim he was to become. In addition, the category of »brotherhood«
emphasized by Helfert reflects not only Slavic, but Western influence as well:
reconstitution of national common feeling became an important topic in German
1 Vladimír HELFERT, Slovanská katharse (Pod dojmem Konjovićovi Koštany) [Slavic Catharsis
(after seeing Konjović’s Koštana)], Divadelní list Zemského divadla v Brně VIII (1932–1933): 231–32 [trans.
Alexa Nieschlag].
2 On his life and works cf. Ivan POLEDŇÁK, Article »Vladimír Helfert«, Český hudební slovník
osob a institucí [The Czech Lexicon of Music – Persons and Institutions], ed. by Petr Macek (Brno: Ústav
hudební vědy Filozofické fakulty Masarykovy univerzity);
3 World premiere at the National Theater in Zagreb in 1931, Czechoslovak premiere in 1932 at the
National Theater in Brno. Score (revised by Zdeněk Chalabala) and piano reduction (by Karel Šolc)
published in Beograd (Državni izdavački zavod Jugoslavije, 1946).
4 Cf. for example Peter FALTIN, Sonda do svedomia [Testing the conscience], epilogue for the
libretto edition: Ján Cikker, Vzkriesenie [Resurrection] (Bratislava: Štátne hudobné vydavateľstvo, 1963):
V. Zvara: Leoš Janáček and the
»Slavic Catharsis«
IRASM 43 (2012) 1: 23-34
thought and German culture of the time – long before the »Blut und Boden«
ideology had fully crystallized.5
At first glance, the figures from Slavic operas enumerated by Helfert seem to
constitute rather a colorful bunch – placing Borodin’s Prince Igor, Smetana’s Dali-
bor and the inmates from From the House of the Dead in one line-up seems rather
bold. The operas quoted are based on different dramaturgical models; they are
not tragedies in the same sense. Helfert’s emphatic description, therefore, applies
to their protagonists in very different measure.
Finally, Helfert claims concrete genre characteristics (simple humanity, root-
edness in the collective, crimes engendered by social circumstances or »fate«) for
the Slavic opera that actually also belonged to the middle-class tragedy and the
village tragedy which were at home not only – and not primarily – in Slavic culture
during the late 19th and early 20th century. In the field of opera, the aesthetic
characteristics and the typology of the abovementioned theatrical genres are not
a Slavic speciality either – on the contrary, they only found greater application in
Slavic opera with the rise of verismo.
However, Helfert has a right – especially in an essayistic, not strictly scien-
tific text – to claim virtues for the Slavs that Czech 19th century intellectuals had
assigned to them. His unspoken, but emphatic assumption is that Slavs exist as a
cultural entity, sharing a common basic character and common historic experi-
ences. It is well-known that the political concept of a great »Slavic Nation« had
already become outdated within the Czech national movement by the mid-19th
century.6 However, the consciousness of cultural and linguistic familiarity and ties
existed well into the 20th century; this cultural Pan-Slavism was also embodied by
Leoš Janáček, an active member of the Brno Ruský kroužek [Russian Circle] and
author of several works based on Russian literary models.7 This tendency is also
reflected in the efforts of several Slavic musicologists, including Helfert’s teacher
Zdeněk Nejedlý, to establish »musical Slavic studies«.8 Especially in the times of
turmoil around and after Hitler’s rise to power, this Slavic characterology was felt
to be relevant again, as the political relations between the Czech and German
5 Cf. Bernhard HELMICH, Händel-Fest und »Spiel der 10.000«. Der Regisseur Hanns Niedecken-
Gebhard (Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 1989).
6 Cf. Vladimír MACURA, Znamení zrodu. České národní obrození jako kulturní typ [Mark of nascency.
The Czech national renaissance as a cultural type] (Jinočany: H&H, 1995): 164–69.
7 Cf. John TYRRELL, Janáček: Years of a Life. Volume I (1854–1914): »The lonely blackbird« (Lon-
don: Faber and Faber, 2006): 77–82, 444–51, 737–42. Volume II (1914–28): »Tsar of the forests« (London:
Faber and Faber, 2007): 748–51.
8 Cf. Zdeněk NEJEDLÝ, Slovanská hudba [The Slavic music], Slovanstvo. Obraz jeho minulosti a
přítomnosti (Praha: Jan Laichter, 1912): 606–26. A summary of the topic, albeit not without contempo-
rary ideological influence, is offered in Jiří VYSLOUŽIL’s article »On Slavonic Music (An Outline of
the Developmental Problems, Relationships and Values)«, Hudba slovanských národů a její vliv na evrop-
skou hudební kulturu. Hudebněvědné sympozium, Brno 9.10.-13.10.1978 (Brno: Česká hudební společnost,
1981): 25–36.
V. Zvara: Leoš Janáček and the
»Slavic Catharsis«
IRASM 43 (2012) 1: 23-34
people in Czechoslovakia became increasingly tense. All this forms the context
and backdrop of Helfert’s article.
Thus, it is by no means our goal to belittle Vladimír Helfert’s thoughts. His
hypothesis of the existence of a special »Slavic catharsis« in opera – which is not
merely a utopian dream, familiar from the Czech debates on art during the first
half of the 19th century, but based on concrete works by internationally recognized
Slavic composers (Smetana, Dvořák, Mussorgsky, Janáček) – remains interesting
and relevant to the historian in two ways: from the perspective of the history of
Czech national ideology and its various categories, and in the context of Helfert’s
attempts to ensure Leoš Janáček an appropriate place in the canon of Czech music
and opera, and to grasp and emphasize the specific aspects of his poetics.
Regarding national ideology, Helfert endows Slavic opera figures with char-
acteristics that crystallized during the course of the 18th and 19th centuries as
characteristics of the Czech people, in order to distinguish them from the Germans:
mildness (Helfert’s »lyrical character«), simplicity (human beings instead of
heroes), brotherliness (already mentioned in another context), and life in the serv-
ice of a collective.9 Also, objectively founded suffering, which – as the Slovak au-
thor Ľudovít Štúr writes – is not based on a »torn inwardness, but on tormented,
violated reality«.10 Štúr delineates the concept of an objectifying Slavic romanti-
cism as the highest level of romantic art per se. Czech 19th century opera featured
works which were meant to manifest the greatness of Czech culture, not by using
the national-historical subjects usually preferred, but on the basis of universal,
human, tragic problems confronting the dramatic figures. One important example
for this is Bedřich Smetana’s opera Dalibor.11 Helfert tries to emphasize this line of
Czech opera, which culminates in Leoš Janáček’s operas, with his characterology.
Helfert’s second main motive, already mentioned, is connected to this: his
struggle against Zdeněk Nejedlý’s concept of Czech musical history, his attempts
to secure Leoš Janáček a place in the national Pantheon of music and opera. Here
too, Helfert attempts to redefine Czechness and Slavism as non-particularistic,
general human qualities. To this end, he also employs the old and venerable term
of catharsis.
But what is catharsis, actually?
The Greek word, translated into Latin as purgatio, was originally a medical
term and meant cleansing, primarily in the sense of emptying. It also played an
9 Cf. Vladimír MACURA, op. cit., 216.
10 Ľudovít ŠTÚR, Listy I [Letters I], ed. by Jozef Ambruš (Bratislava: Vydavateľstvo Slovenskej
akadémie vied, 1954): 350–51.
11 Cf. Marta OTTLOVÁ, Smetanův Dalibor jako tragická opera [Smetanas Dalibor as a tragic ope-
ra], Fenomén smrti v české kultuře 19. století, ed. by Helena Lorenzová and Taťána Petrasová (Praha:
Koniasch Latin Press, 2001): 230–37.
V. Zvara: Leoš Janáček and the
»Slavic Catharsis«
IRASM 43 (2012) 1: 23-34
important role in the cultic sphere, in the context of the Orphic mysteries. Among
the Greek scholars who applied the term to the theory of arts, Aristotle was
certainly the most influential. To him, the category of catharsis belongs to the field
of the effect of music and tragedy on the audience. With his fleeting remark on
catharsis in music12 he actually confirms the opinion of those who ascribe certain
emotional and ethical effects on man to certain modes, demanding of musicians
that they should perform the »right« chants in the »right« keys. More original and
consequential was his remark upon catharsis in tragedy.13 Here, Aristotle – in a
polemic obviously aimed against Plato’s views on art – interprets catharsis as a
kind of homeopathic medicine.14
»Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain
magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several
kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative;
through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.«15
This famous statement allows room for interpretation. Are the feelings
purged, or is one purged of them? Does this cleansing take place primarily inside
the acting figures, or rather inside the viewer? Does it take place during the course
of the drama or at its end? And what kind of purgation is actually meant – cleans-
ing in a merely emotional, in an emotional and moral, or even in a religious sense?
The complexity of antique tradition with its many branches allows various
answers to these questions. After all, there were no sharp boundaries between
psychology, philosophy and religion in Antiquity, as they became a matter of
course in modern times. For example, Plotinus defines the cleansing of the soul as
a psychological, moral and at the same time religious and mystic process.16
The ambiguity of Aristotle’s statement contributed to the historic develop-
ment of the term catharsis, ranging from medicine to psychology, aesthetics and
mysticism. In modern art theory, it was mainly the Enlightenment understanding
of catharsis as a phenomenon in the reception of art: as an effect of liberation from
negative emotions (usually following the »homeopathic« principle), or as a
balancing of opposite affects in the emotional landscape of the viewer / recipient
of art. For the two theorists who were most important in this regard, Pierre Cor-
neille and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, compassion (another translation of eleos,
used by Lessing and many of his followers) was a central category. It is the
12 ARISTOTLE, Politics, Book VIII, Chapter 7.
13 ARISTOTLE, Poetics, Chapter 6.
14 Cf. Enrico FUBINI, Geschichte der Musikästhetik: von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart (Stuttgart:
Metzler, 1997): 37−38.
15 ARISTOTLE, Poetics, Chapter 6, trans. S. H. Butcher (New York: Cosimo, 2008): 10.
16 Cf. Hazel E. BARNES, Katharsis in the Enneades of Plotinus, Transactions and Proceedings of the
American Philological Association 73 (1942): 358–82.
V. Zvara: Leoš Janáček and the
»Slavic Catharsis«
IRASM 43 (2012) 1: 23-34
compassion of a viewer with the hero, based on fear »that the same misfortune
might not befall us«.17 This is compassion inspired by fear, not by love. Rationalistic,
secular aesthetics. On the other hand, during the 18th and 19th centuries, the term
catharsis gradually incorporated elements of the new metaphysical aesthetics,
mainly in form of a »romantic love religion«. A new, romantic, occasionally
larmoyant understanding of catharsis became prevalent. This explains how it was
possible that Bertolt Brecht disparaged catharsis as an attribute of bourgeois theater
of the »culinary« sort, as a »washing« celebrated »for the sake of pleasure«.18
Vladimír Helfert was classically educated, aware of the history of the term he
used and its various aspects. He knew how to select and connect these aspects in
such a way that they supported his thesis of the »Slavic catharsis«. As has been
pointed out already, he drew upon the mythology of the Czech national move-
ment of the late 18th and the 19th century. He goes back to Lessing’s consider-
ations (compassion enforces our understanding of others19) and combines them
with his own, modern, sociocritical stance. He uses elements of Dostoyevsky and
the literary criticism of Dostoyevsky, which had a broad influence on the cultural
characterology of the Slavs at the time. For example, the reference to Dostoyevsky
becomes obvious when Helfert refers to »the suffering people«, those »who were
swept up in the malstroem of dark and uncontrollable passions«. If this were a
specific characteristic of Slavic opera, however, numerous Italian verismo operas
would have to be classified as Slavic operas, as well as d’Albert’s Tiefland, Hin-
demith’s Cardillac and Berg’s Wozzeck.
To us, furthermore, it is of interest that Helfert saw catharsis in opera as an
aspect of the musical-dramatic conveyance of the action, or more specifically: the
conveyance of the dramatic figures and their fate. And, last but not least: unlike
Aristotle and the Enlightenment tradition of catharsis, Helfert considers catharsis
as immanent to the work of art, as something composed and fixed. He transfers
the term catharsis from the field of psycho-physiology of art into the sphere of the
phenomenology of the work of art. This change in meaning, in fact, became a mat-
ter of course to many music and opera theorists of the 20th century.
17 Pierre CORNEILLE, Discours de la tragédie et des moyens de la traiter selon la vraisemblable ou le
nécessaire, in: idem, Oeuvres complètes, Vol. III, ed. by Georges Couton (Paris: Gallimard, 1987): 143.
Lessing phrased it as follows: »[...] it is the fear for ourselves which results from our own similarity with
the suffering person; it is the fear that the misfortune we see them subjected to might haunt us the same;
it is the fear that we ourselves might become the object of pity. In a word: this fear is compassion turned
toward ourselves« [trans. Alexa Nieschlag]. Gotthold Ephraim LESSING, Hamburgische Dramaturgie,
75. Stück, in: idem, Werke 1767–1769 [Werke und Briefe in zwölf Bänden, Vol. 6], ed. by Klaus Bohnen
(Frankfurt am Main: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1985): 556–57.
18 Bertolt BRECHT, Kleines Organon für das Theater. Vorrede, in: idem: Schriften zum Theater. Über
eine nicht-aristotelische Dramatik (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1957): 131–32.
19 Gotthold Ephraim LESSING, op. cit., 76. Stück: 561–65.
V. Zvara: Leoš Janáček and the
»Slavic Catharsis«
IRASM 43 (2012) 1: 23-34
In the Janáček literature, the term »catharsis« has become common; it is also
used frequently in journalistic texts on Janáček’s works and their performances.
Thus, the secular term of catharsis, coined by Helfert with reference to Lessing, also
influences the impact of Janáček’s oeuvre. It seems to be congruent with the non-
sentimental, austere beauty of his oeuvre. Nor does it contradict the understanding
of Janáček’s works as social dramas, particularly in evidence in his operas Jenůfa,
Katya Kabanova and From the House of the Dead, but also in his Sonata 1. X. 1905 »From
the Street« as well as the choral works in which he set texts by Petr Bezruč. At the
same time, the term catharsis is in harmony with the image of Janáček as a »musical
realist«, which was also coined largely by Vladimír Helfert, as an antithesis to
Zdeněk Nejedlý’s pejorative labeling of Janáček as a »naturalist«.20
Helfert’s interpretation might create the impression that for Janáček, as a
modern, realistic and socially conscient musical dramatist, the operatic metaphys-
ics of the 19th century no longer played any role. Of course, this is not true: actu-
ally, metaphysical exaltation and the Christian horizon of values remained a genre
characteristic of opera in his works too. In the finale of Jenůfa, God is not only
present in the text;21 the exaltation based on the Christian idea of redemption is
also referred to in the music. At the same time, the situation and its musical depic-
tion (in the original version, not the one with Karel Kovařovic’s instrumental »im-
provements«) are so simple and devoid of any conventional affective rhetoric that
the distance between the figures and the viewer disappears to a large extent. The
truth, so often invoked by the verists, is far more at home in Janáček’s operas.
The promise of redemption, the belief in a higher and better world is a fixed
element of romantic opera. This necessitates polarities upon which the traditional
dramaturgy of affects of 19th century opera is based: suffering and redemption,
happiness and unhappiness, good and evil. It is precisely these polarities that
sometimes blur in Janáček’s works. On the one hand, this is due to his predilection
for morally unconventional, »sullied« characters, which our Helfert quotation
also discusses and – as has already been pointed out – which have become quite
normal in the context of naturalism and social drama. On the other hand, it also
has much to do with the outlook on life of the musical dramatist Janáček: apart
from happiness and unhappiness, he is also familiar with resignation, with habit
20 Cf. Zdeněk NEJEDLÝ, Leoše Janáčka Její pastorkyňa [Leoš Janáček’s Her Stepdaughter] (Hudební
knihovna časopisu Smetana 22; Praha: Melantrich, 1916); Vladimír HELFERT, Česká moderní hudba.
Studie o české hudební tvořivosti [The contemporary Czech music. Studies on the Czech musical creati-
vity] (Olomouc: Index, 1936), reprinted in: idem, Vybrané studie I: O hudební tvořivosti, ed. by František
Hrabal (Praha: Supraphon, 1970): 210–15. Cf. also Mikuláš BEK, Vom böhmischen-mährischen Dorf in
die IGNM: Janáčeks »orientaler« Modernismus, Österreichische Musikzeitschrift 59(2004), No. 1: 21-29.
21 Jenůfa: »O Laco, duša moja! O pojď, o pojď! Včil k tobě mne dovedla láska ta větší, co Pánbůh
s ní spokojen!« [»Oh Laca, my soul! Come, oh come! For now, love led me to you, the greater love
which pleases the Lord God!«].
V. Zvara: Leoš Janáček and the
»Slavic Catharsis«
IRASM 43 (2012) 1: 23-34
that alleviates pain, the therapeutic routine of life. All this is expressed in Janáček’s
novel musical dramaturgy of affects, whose means are the prose of spoken motifs22
and the tonality clouded by chromaticism and modality. It is significant that in
Janáček’s works, cadences are not indefinitely postponed, as they are in Wagner’s
Tristan und Isolde, but – on the contrary – occur very frequently – but rarely in
a pure, radiant, affirmative form.
A wonderful example for Janáček’s unschematic, non-polar dramaturgy of
affects is – as Milan Kundera clear-sightedly recognized – the scene at Pásek’s inn
in Act III of The Cunning Little Vixen (Příhody Lišky Bystroušky).23 At first glance, this
is a completely »non-dramatic«, even »banal« situation. The dialogue is sparse,
random, the situation is quotidian and without any special »meaning«. But how
vividly does Janáček’s music plumb the depths of questions of human existence:
love, disappointment, and most of all, great melancholy about the merciless
passing of time. However – to add to Kundera’s remarks – it is also about the
healing powers of time. Within a superficially unremarkable narrative frame-
work, a deeply moving musical and spiritual event takes place.
Regarding the scene in Pásek’s inn, it is right to speak of catharsis. The relief,
or, in other words, the sublimation that the viewer experiences goes back to a kind
of insight, an insight of a deeper truth about this world, about the »course of
events« and thus also about the viewer himself. Catharsis as insight – the »epiph-
anic mode«24 – can be traced back to antiquity: Sophocles’ Oedipus, who admit-
tedly has other problems than the forester and the schoolmaster in Janáček’s op-
era, also experiences reconciliation through insight into his fate – a »higher level
of rational reflection of problems, experienced with pleasure«.25 The concept of
catharsis as insight seems very apposite in Janáček’s case as well, although given
the non-discursive character of music as a language, insight in opera should be
considered intuitive rather than rational.
This is also the place to contradict the widespread idea that catharsis is situ-
ated at the end of works of (musical) drama. John Tyrrell feeds this assumption
22 On this subject cf. Markéta ŠTEFKOVÁ, Das ‚Prinzip der Sprechmelodie‘ Leoš Janáčeks,
Musiktheorie 18 (2003), Vol. 2: 142–68.
23 »One scene in The Cunning Little Vixen always touched me especially: at the inn in the forest,
the forester, the schoolmaster and the innkeeper’s wife are chatting: they remember absent friends, the
innkeeper, who is in the city that day, the priest who moved away, a woman whom the schoolmaster
was in love with and who is getting married on that day. The conversation is completely banal (never
before Janáček had such a non-dramatic and banal situation been seen on the opera stage), but the
orchestra part is of a wistfulness that can hardly be borne, making the scene one of the most beautiful
elegies ever written about the transience of time.« Milan KUNDERA, Testaments Betrayed: an essay in
nine parts, trans. Linda Asher (New York: Harper Collins, 1996).
24 Geoffrey CHEW and Robert VILAIN, »Evasive realism: narrative construction in Dostoyevsky’s
and Janáček’s From the House of the Dead«, Janáček Studies, ed. by Paul Wingfield (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1999): 65.
25 Joachim LATACZ, Einführung in die griechische Tragödie (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck&Ruprecht,
1993): 66.
V. Zvara: Leoš Janáček and the
»Slavic Catharsis«
IRASM 43 (2012) 1: 23-34
when he speaks of a »cathartic slow waltz« as a finale convention in Janáček’s
operas.26 First of all, it is problematic to understand catharsis narrowly as a mere
effect which the author has inserted at a certain junction. Secondly, the effect of a
final scene is based not only in the final scene alone, but also within what went
before it. The last tableau in The Cunning Little Vixen is deeply moving, but it rep-
resents an epilogue rather than a real dramatic ending. Its effect has been pre-
pared by a latent and continuous line of »musical and cathartic elements«, which
are very clear and intense, for example in the scene at Pásek’s inn. Catharsis in this
work is not an isolated effect, but a principle of meaning which permeates Janáček’s
operatic music.
Together with Vladimír Helfert, we have gone down the – dangerous – path
of aesthetic interpretation, and this path has led us to the problem of meaning in
music. The question of the meaning of music in Janáček’s operas, which may
appear easy, even banal if we understand his works as »realistic« musical theater,
is actually not so easy to answer. This becomes especially obvious in his last opera,
From the House of the Dead (Z mrtvého domu), which possesses not only an unusual,
disparate dramaturgical construction, but also very specific structures of musical
There are recurring musical motifs in From the House of the Dead to which the
literature has assigned specific meanings. The »motif of fate«, the »motif of free-
dom« and several others seem to function as traditional leitmotifs.27 For example,
the »motif of fate« is used in the first section of Act I (from the beginning to the
flogging of Goryanchikov) in keeping with convention as an eloquent musical
emblem, as the subject of motivic variation and various »local« derivatives, and
finally (again in an emblematic shape) as a musical framework for the entire sec-
tion.28 The tone of the »motif of fate«, just like that of the »motif of liberty«29 and
the recurring violin solo (the violin as the voice of the »soul«)30, is indeed very
emphatic, »meaningful« – but the existing terminological interpretation of the
motifs has the effect of being blatant and restrictive, because for the most part,
Janáček’s music has left behind the musical-rhetorical conventions reflected by
these attributions.
26 John TYRRELL, Cathartic slow waltz and other finale conventions in Janáček’s operas, Music
and Theatre. Essays in Honour of Winton Dean, ed. by Nigel Fortune (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1987): 333–52.
27 Cf. Jaroslav VOGEL, Leoš Janáček (Praha: Academia, 1997): 338–39.
28 Leoš JANÁČEK, Z mrtvého domu, piano reduction by Břetislav Bakala, ed. by Sir Charles Mac-
kerras and John Tyrrell (Vienna: Universal Edition, 1990): p. 12 (m. 1–5), 15 (from m. 3), 18 (m. 9–16),
24 (m. 23) – 25 (m. 1). The motif returns frequently in the further course of the opera: cf. p. 30, 32, 33,
40, 44, 49, 53, 111, 172, 203.
29 »Orel car lesů!« [»Eagle – Tsar of the Forests!«]; ibid., first on p. 28 (m. 11–20).
30 Ibid., first on p. 5 (from m. 7) and 18 (from m. 10; there it is linked to the »motif of fate«).
V. Zvara: Leoš Janáček and the
»Slavic Catharsis«
IRASM 43 (2012) 1: 23-34
The relationship between the two contrasting expressive registers in the or-
chestral music of From the House of the Dead, the elegiac and the picturesque, as
they already confront us in the orchestral introduction,31 is also very specific.
Here, the confrontation between the picturesque and elegiac tone does not reflect
the traditional operatic polarity between a concrete story and its metaphysical
exaltation and generalization. The romantic metaphysics of unconditional bliss
promised in the afterlife to those suffering is foreign to Janáček, as it was to Dos-
toyevsky. Nobody is promised gratuitous happiness here. The hope that this mu-
sic reveals is contingent upon man’s power to survive, his ability to get up again
and keep going. The persons on stage, who often belong to the lower classes in
terms of social stratification, are far more than picturesque, folksy characters.
They attain the universalism of tragic heroes. In their sparse, fragmentary Czech
which is interpolated with strange Russicisms, words attain an elementary power
and profundity. The snatches of folk songs and sayings that they express casually
are not mere folkloristic spice, but symbols of a very authentic plebeian outlook
on life, whose proponents have remained untouched by literature and any media
of middle-class culture. These apparently trivial quotations thus play a much
more important role for the overall structure than one might suppose. An analo-
gous case can be made for many simple, easily accessible musical motifs.
Figure 1. Leoš Janáček, Z mrtvého domu [From the House of the Dead], vocal
score by Břetislav Bakala, ed. by Sir Charles Mackerras and John Tyrrell
(Vienna: Universal Edition, 1990): 1.
To return to our topic, the four-measure phrase which opens the orchestral
introduction (see Figure 1) seems to contain a new, non-romantic form of musical
catharsis. Above the pedal point of the low strings and winds, the violins play
obsessively repeated notes, accented throughout. The measures are counted in
4/4, but in reality the meter of this phrase is irregular and additive: 4 + 5 + 2 + 2. It
proceeds in the manner of an archaic, unhurried folk dance. The melody seems to
describe a simple cadence in A-flat minor. However, the pedal point contains the
additional note of F-flat, which changes the harmonic meaning of the phrase:
31 Ibid., p. 1 (from m. 1 and from m. 16).
V. Zvara: Leoš Janáček and the
»Slavic Catharsis«
IRASM 43 (2012) 1: 23-34
thus, it is situated somewhere between the hard clarity of a classical cadenza and
the soft cloudiness of modal harmonics. The cadence, which is called »cathartic«
occasionally in traditional harmonics, is placed in a different light here: it is not
the unique act of passing into the tonic which forms the focus and represents lib-
eration from a tension, from a burden – but a rhythmic changing between differ-
ent states of tension that vary, but never quite cease.
What does Janáček’s music express in these first measures? Is this an elegy
about the burdensome and torturous existence of the inmates of a Siberian penal
camp? About their longing for liberation from the »dead house«? (The original
Russian title of Dostoyevsky’s novel is less poetic than its customary translaton:
Sapiski is mertvogo doma – Notes from a Dead House.) Or is the message of Janáček’s
music mainly the belief in the goodness inherent in man, as the motto in the score
proclaims: »There is a divine spark in every creature« – including in even the last
prisoner? Could this be the contrast between outward squalor and inner invulner-
ability of an anima candida, following the model of social drama? The attentive
listener realizes that these interpretations are too short-sighted. The music reaches
deeper than the words. Listening to it, one is reminded of Susanne Langer’s
thought that this music possesses a kind of »implicit symbolism« and that it re-
flects not the feelings of man, but the »morphology of feeling«.32 Here, the category
of realism seems like a straitjacket.
From the House of the Dead is another work in which it seems more appropriate
to define the specific Janáček catharsis not primarily from the category of compas-
sion (although Janáček’s motto may make it tempting to do so), but mainly as a
kind of non-discursive insight, conveyed through music, into how we and our
world are constructed. Janáček does not bring us unambiguously good news. But
the insight he conveys brings a certain relief, uplifting and confidence. In this
sense, it seems wrong to give the term catharsis in the Enlightenment sense a
purely psychological interpretation, distinguished from the sphere of spirituality.
After all, exaltation, or, more generally, excess, is not only a characteristic of opera,
but of music per se.
Let us return, finally, to the question of Slavic identity in opera which formed
the beginning of our considerations. Let us ask a naïve rhetorical question: is the
national element in culture mainly a precious good, a blessing, as it is still re-
garded throughout our region? Or does this national element, viewed from a his-
toric perspective, perhaps mean a burden, the illness of particularism, as Friedrich
Engels unforgettably described it in his commentary on the 1848 Slavic Congress
32 Susanne K. LANGER, Philosophy in a new key: A study in the symbolism of reason, rite, and art
(New York: New American Library, 1948): 200, 206.
V. Zvara: Leoš Janáček and the
»Slavic Catharsis«
IRASM 43 (2012) 1: 23-34
in Prague?33 A difficult question. During Janáček’s lifetime, some of his colleagues
and theorists considered the operatic concept of the Moravian master »ethno-
graphic« and »naturalistic«, limited and backwards. Today, we recognize that in
fact, he was the one who solved the dilemma of the national element – by creating
artistic statements from ethnically determined material that are completely indi-
vidual and yet universally human. If we want to tell the history of Czech national
opera as a linear story, it would therefore find its glorious endpoint in Janáček’s
operatic oeuvre.34
Leoš Janáček i »slavenska katarza«
Pojam »slavenska katarza« potječe od istaknutog češkog muzikologa Vladimíra Hel-
ferta. Karakterologija slavenskih opernih likova koju je Helfert skicirao 1932. i koja se ticala
ideja češkog nacionalnog pokreta 19. stoljeća danas je zastarjela. No njegove zamisli
ostaju kao zanimljiv doprinos povijesti primjene starogrčkoga pojma u novovjekom povije-
sno-umjetničkom mišljenju. Pritom je Helfertu stalo do toga da opravda Leoša Janáčeka
kao nacionalnog skladatelja i do razumijevanja njegova glazbeno-dramskog idioma. U
Janáčekovim operama elementi »katarze« vrlo su prisutni. Helfertov pojam »katarze« – koji
se nadovezuje na prosvjetiteljsko shvaćanje »katarze« (Gotthold Ephraim Lessing) i koje
je utjecalo sve do danas na recepciju Janáčeka – ipak zahvaća nedovoljno duboko. Naime,
Janáčekovu djelu bliže je jedno novo određenje »katarze« u operi i glazbi. Za njega »katar-
za« nije u prvome redu psihološko »čišćenje«, nego je – kako on pokušava pokazati na
primjerima iz svojih opera Příhody Lišky Bystroušky i Z mrtvého domu – valja shvatiti kao
ne-diskurzivni, glazbeno posredovani uvid u dublje istine, dakle kao uvid u ono kako smo
mi i naš svijet ustrojeni.
33 Friedrich ENGELS, Der demokratische Panslawismus, Neue Rheinische Zeitung 222 (15th
February 1849); reprinted in: Karl MARX and Friedrich ENGELS, Werke, Vol. 6 (Berlin/DDR: Dietz,
1959): 270–86.
34 This text is a translation of an article published in German: Vladimír ZVARA, Leoš Janáček und
die »slawische Katharsis«, Studia Musicologica (Budapest), Vol. 52, 2011 (trans. Alexa Nieschlag). It was
written as part of the research project VEGA 2/0143/11.
This anthology of late 19th- and early 20th-century Czech opera arias for soprano focuses on works that lack existing scholarship, bridging the language gap through translations and pronunciation materials for English-speaking singers. Its 24 arias supplement the works of Smetana, Dvořák, and Janáček with those of contemporaneous composers Karel Bendl, Zdeněk Fibich, Josef Bohuslav Foerster, Karel Kovařovic, Vítězslav Novák, and Otakar Ostrčil. Its musicological scope provides vignettes of the musical-cultural landscape of Czech opera around the turn of the 20th century, the transformation of Czech declamation during that period, and the language knowledge needed to sing the works thereof. Chapter 2, “Czech Lyric Diction,” elucidates the methodology used in the anthology’s phonetic transcriptions and discusses the unique articulatory demands of singing in Czech. Chapter 3, “A National Voice: The Problem of Text-Setting in Late 19th-Century Czech Opera,” grounds contemporaneous discussion of Czech declamation as late 19th- and early 20th-century composers and librettists sought to shape a musical voice suited to the features of their language. The following chapter, “Janáček’s Answer: Czech Language as the Key to Czechness in Music” is a look at Janáček’s unique solution to this challenge. In Chapter 5, “Novák and Ostrčil: Portraits of the Czech Modernists Through Nejedlý’s Frame,” the relationship between criticism and composition is examined for these two faces of Czech modernism. Finally, Chapter 6, “Czech Opera Arias for Soprano,” includes new performance editions of the arias curated for the anthology. Each aria is accompanied by an idiomatic translation, an inline phonetic transcription and word-for-word translation, a brief biographical introduction of the composer, and background information contextualizing the aria and the work from which it is derived. The objective of the anthology is to facilitate a broader range of well-informed performances of Czech repertoire as well as the acquisition of Czech lyric diction for singers at various experience levels.
The motif returns frequently in the further course of the opera: cf. p. 30
  • Janáček Leoš
  • Z Domu
Leoš JANÁČEK, Z mrtvého domu, piano reduction by Břetislav Bakala, ed. by Sir Charles Mackerras and John Tyrrell (Vienna: Universal Edition, 1990): p. 12 (m. 1–5), 15 (from m. 3), 18 (m. 9–16), 24 (m. 23) – 25 (m. 1). The motif returns frequently in the further course of the opera: cf. p. 30, 32, 33, 40, 44, 49, 53, 111, 172, 203. 29 »Orel car lesů!« [»Eagle – Tsar of the Forests!«]; ibid., first on p. 28 (m. 11–20).
5 (from m. 7) and 18 (from m. 10; there it is linked to the »motif of fate«)
  • Ibid
30 Ibid., first on p. 5 (from m. 7) and 18 (from m. 10; there it is linked to the »motif of fate«).