Janacek’s heat, passion, and melancholy take center stage
In May of 1916, a Czech newspaper published a series of poems, purportedly written by a farmer’s son. In plain yet artful language, the poems by this anonymous “self-taught man’’ told of his seduction by “a dark gypsy girl,’’ who woos the young man away from home and family to follow his new, forbidden love.
Few believed the poems were really the work of an autodidact from the farmland. Nevertheless, they proved popular with the paper’s readers, among whom was the composer Leos Janacek. Though busy with preparations for a production of his opera “Jenufa’’ when the poems were published, he cut them out and took them along as reading material on his summer vacation the following year. Fueled not only by the story but by a sudden infatuation with a much younger, married woman, Janacek composed “The Diary of One Who Disappeared,’’ one of the century’s most original and inventive song cycles — and probably the greatest to have emerged from a newspaper.
More than 80 years after his death, Janacek remains an idiosyncratic composer, difficult to shoehorn into the century’s familiar categories. And though his stature has grown over the decades, “The Diary of One Who Disappeared,’’ like many of his works, has yet to find the audience it deserves and remains a rarity on concert programs. All the more reason to welcome next Friday’s performance of the cycle by tenor Charles Blandy at Tufts University, where he’s on the voice faculty. He’s pairing it with another 20th-century rarity: Benjamin Britten’s “The Poet’s Echo,’’ settings of six poems by Pushkin. Linda Osborn-Blaschke will be the pianist in both works.
“It’s twilight from start to finish,’’ says Blandy by phone, referring to the ambivalent, unresolved mood of the Janacek cycle, something that distinguishes it from better-known cycles like Schubert’s “Winterreise.’’ “[It’s] really sort of on the edge of something — of the field and the forest. You’re on the edge of society and you’re on the edge of moving from your culture to somebody else’s. You really do get this in-between, liminal feeling to the whole thing that’s very spooky.’’
Different, too, is the poetic language, which is earthy and disarmingly frank about just what happens when farmer boy meets gypsy girl. The 11th song alludes to a sexual encounter between the pair: “She lay on the ground/In her simple shift/And I wept for my virtue/Now to be lost,’’ reads one translation. Blandy offers an even more direct rendering of the protagonist’s words: “My virginity was weeping.’’
At that moment, he explains, “the music is so suffused with melancholy. But it’s not all negative. It’s desire and pleasure and melancholy, all mixed together. The amazing thing about this music is how complex the emotions are, and how Janacek is able to express this really heady mix of things, all happening at once.’’
Part of the reason the composer was able to channel those emotions so directly is that just before he began work on “The Diary,’’ he had met a woman named Kamila Stosslova. Though she was married and 38 years younger than he, the composer at once became infatuated with her and remained so for the last 11 years of his life. One measure of his fixation — which Stösslová never reciprocated — is the collection of 722 letters Janacek wrote to her. The gypsy girl in the songs, he wrote in one, “that was especially you. That’s why there’s such emotional heat in these works. So much heat that if it caught both of us, there’d just be ashes left.’’
For all its allure, “The Diary’’ isn’t an easy sell to singers. Czech is difficult to sing and not second nature to many singers the way German and Italian are. Janacek’s vocal rhythms are idiosyncratic. And the score requires brief parts for a mezzo-soprano and a three-voice women’s chorus.
Blandy, however, is convinced that the effort is worth it. “There’s such atmosphere here. It’s really intoxicating, and I hope that’s something that comes across.’’
David Weininger can be reached at email@example.com.