“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Pablo Picasso
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role of passion in music-making. Here I am in my chair, thinking about how to feel. I think I am getting somewhere, though.
The issue comes up as I’ve been getting into Janacek and working on the Violin Sonata. The piece is dripping with passion; it’s impossible to play even two notes of this idiomatic music without feeling its grip. But Janacek’s particular flavor of passion is also a kind of visceral reaction to strong sensations, as if hot liquid were rushing through one’s veins and at the same time shocking the nerves.
Leos Janacek was an avant-gardist in old age; The Oxford History of Western Music dubs him “The Oldest Twentieth-Century Composer.” Not until later in life did he come into his own signature style. In his fifties and sixties he produced most of his great works – striking, original music that places him more in the company of composers such as Debussy, Bartok, and Stravinsky – a generation younger – than of those his own age. He is an anomaly, just as his music is peculiar.
I see him out in the countryside, listening to the clucking of hens and transcribing furiously and exactly their musical conversation. I see him at the side of his wife and their newborn child, whom he’s just named Vladimir because it reminds him of the country Russia and his hope for Russian liberation of the Moravian people and his love for Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and all the operas he wrote based on Russian folklore and literature. I see him writing his love-letters to Kamila Stosslova, thirty-eight years younger than him, telling her she is the Gypsy girl in his “Diary of One who disappeared,” his song cycle Zápisník zmizelého. I see his passion as both a driving force that links him to the creativity and artistry of youth, as well as the guiding spirit of his music.
Like a child, Janacek the artist experienced the world ever anew, taking as his source for inspiration any and all things from nature animate and inanimate. He also developed a musical language through linguistic input as children do: hearing a passionate dialogue, he would stop immediately to transcribe the speech into musical notation, literalizing what had just occurred. Quoted in Nejstarsí zvukové záznamy moravského a slovenského lidového zpevu (The Oldest Recordings of Moravian and Slovak Folksong), Janacek explains:
When someone spoke to me, sometimes I did not understand the words, but I did understand the intonation! I immediately knew what was inside the speaker: I could tell what he felt, whether he lied, whether he was excited, and when the person spoke to me…I could feel, I could hear that perhaps the man was weeping inside! The pitches, the intonation of human speech, of any creature’s speech, contained the deepest truth for me. And you see, that was my vital need.
Janacek’s vital need was neither for his mother, say, nor a bottle of milk, but rather for the truth of the moment. What Janacek wanted eagerly to capture was the psychological reality of the moment: he believed that by transcribing into music a passionate dialogue he could get at its truth, its inner reality. Though his music has the spirit of childhood, it is aged with the tinge of experience, with the understanding of a psychological reality that drives make-believe into the realm of truth and lie.
To a child, the world is uninhibited by reality – that is, although children tend to take things literally and on face value, the world is not only what they sense but also what they imagine. It is a combination of perceiving what is there and imagining what is not there. If children create from the invisible, then Janacek’s art is, as Milan Kundera beautifully articulates:
The search for the vanished present; the search for the melodic truth of a moment; the wish to surprise and capture this fleeting truth; the wish to plumb by that means the mystery of the immediate reality constantly deserting our lives, which thereby becomes the thing we know least about. This, I think, is the ontological import of Janacek’s studies of spoken language and, perhaps, the ontological import of all his music (“A la Recherche du Présent Perdu,” Testaments Betrayed).
It is with this view of Janacek’s art that the desperate ending of the Violin Sonata can be understood, which comes so soon after the climactic entrance of the heroic Russian army, a culmination of the nervous tension of coming war that permeates the piece. Only someone with lived, personal experience could write such an ending. Yet it still manages to leave a kind of passionate vital energy in the silence that follows, as if a living breath was shortened in air. It gives the impression of truncation after a great expansion, a development and a shortening. In this light also can be understood the interruptions and idiosyncrasies of the first and third movements, mingled with the folk-like simplicity and expansive wonder of the second movement. Janacek the mature modernist is a mixture of the child and the adult, who grows riper with age.