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Jenufa [audio recording] by Leoš Janáček
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Jenufa [audio recording]

by Leoš Janáček

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Jenůfa was the work that launched Janáček’s operatic career. Leos Janacek wrote his opera Jenufa between 1896 and 1903. It wasn't until the 1970s that it began to dawn on the British consciousness that the Czech composer - previously known for a handful of orchestral pieces like the Sinfonietta - was one of the 20th century's greatest operatic composers.

Jenufa can seem melodramatic. It's a classic love triangle, complicated by the interjection of a religious fanatic, the Kostelnicka. Jenufa marked the beginning of Janacek's quest for what he called "speech melody". Although he moved further way from the format of conventional opera, with arias and duets, he developed one of the most personal and subtle melodic signatures in all music. He studied the speech patterns of mental patients, the noises of animals and birds, and he listened as carefully to traditional folk music as he did to the emerging contemporary school from western Europe. He wrote: "The spirit that infuses all life can be found near at hand, in ourselves, among people perfectly familiar to us, enchanti ng and piquant, arresting melodies and amazing scenes." That's why his music speaks more directly to modern audiences than any composer of his time.

This is a story of wild passion and fatal pride, in which love and forgiveness triumph only after great suffering--Janácek deals with compassion and redemption, rather than directly with religion. However, in portraying the life of a small Moravian village in the second half of the 19th century, he does tell us something about the religion and the way in which it permeated everyday life.

Thus the Kostelnicka (or Sextoness) has earned her title on account of looking after the small local church. She is also a trusted adviser, and enjoys a high social status in the community. But her desperate wish to save her stepdaughter's honor and future prospects leads to terrible heresy: "I will deliver the boy to God," she tells herself at the end of Act II, before setting off to drown the illegitimate child. Her reasoning has been twisted by her fear of the inevitable humiliation of both Jenufa and herself, and her pride has proved stronger than her faith.

Yet the Kostelnicka's fear of disgrace was genuine: in the rural communities of 19th-century Moravia, "fallen" girls had to endure horrific public humiliation, and they frequently remained social and economic outcasts for the rest of their lives. The contemporary village mores are tellingly described by Janácek's onetime colleague and fellow folklorist Frantisek Bartos in the preface to their 1899 book, Moravian Folk-songs Newly Collected: "The sensual, sexual love, ennobled by Christianity, has acquired the character of a moral idea, and in this idealized form it is the origin of the most beautiful love songs." But, writes Bartos, the necessary condition of the longing for the beloved which inspired such folk songs was "morality, strict discipline, and chastity. And, among our people, one minded and observed these most strictly."

Thus all transgressors against the stern social order and local customs invited harsh judgment. In one region of Moravia, according to Bartos, a pregnant girl would have her long hair cut off in public by the married women of the village; around the capital of Brno, when a pregnant girl was getting married, the village youths would mockingly carry a cradle behind the wedding procession. Elsewhere in southern Moravia the local shepherd would run the "fallen" girl through the village and crack the whip above her as the local community was returning from Mass.

Life in rural Moravia was far from joyless at the time. Dances and festivals abounded and the young would make merry. Yet young men, too, would invite criticism if they played the field too often, and seducers would rarely escape punishment. In the finale of Jenufa it is the vox populi, in the person of the Shepherdess, which pronounces the judgment on the handsome, feckless Steva: "No girl would marry him now, not even an honest Gypsy."

Only Laca's love overcomes all obstacles. To him, Jenufa--her beauty spoiled and her reputation tarnished--is still the girl he has always loved, and he doesn't even care about her forthcoming trial and the inevitable public scorn. "What is the world to us," he tells her, "if we can comfort one another?" At long last he wins Jenufa's heart: "This is that greater love, the love that pleases God," she responds.

In Jenufa, Janácek draws our attention to some of humanity's highest moral ideals. Laca's love for Jenufa helps him overcome his destructive jealousy; Jenufa's compassion makes the Kostelnicka realise the extent of her pernicious pride, and her subsequent humility redeems her in Jenufa's eyes. At the time of writing his first operatic masterpiece, Janácek was no longer a believer. But compassion and redemption--essential parts of the Christian doctrine--are the cornerstones of Jenufa, and indeed of many of Janácek's subsequent stage works. It is also a story that emphasises the importance of the social background and group pressures and influences on family life and the development of intrapsychic and interpersonal conflict.
  antimuzak | Feb 17, 2007 |
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Uz se vecer chyli a Steva se nevraci
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Please use this heading only for recordings (any format) of the complete opera.
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