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Janacek: Years of a Life. Volume I (1854-1914): The Lonely Blackbird.

Janacek: Years of a Life. Volume I (1854-1914): The Lonely Blackbird. By John Tyrrell. London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 2006. [xxix, 771 p. ISBN-10 0-5711-7538-4; ISBN-13 978-0-5711-7538-3. [pounds sterling]60.] Illustrations, music examples, indexes, notes, bibliography.

In this hefty volume of over 800 pages, Janacek's life is examined vis-a-vis archival sources unavailable to most readers. John Tyrrell's detailed chronological account of Janacek's life up to World War I includes chapters that familiarize the reader with events, places, people, and concepts related to the composer. Sources throughout are painstakingly documented, a great improvement over well-known standard Janacek biographies, such as that by Jaroslav Vogel's Leos Janacek: A Biography (New York: W. W. Norton, 1981).

Most readers know but one Janacek; the aged composer of operas such as Kat'a Kabanova and the Makropolous Case. This volume predates these better known works and chronicles the composer's musical development from teacher to theorist to composer as well as providing insight into his personality, his views on concepts of nation, and his adoration of women outside of his marriage. The evolution of Janacek as musician is supported by myriad primary sources as well as Tyrrell's careful unbiased interpretations. Any search in this volume for a radical rethinking of Janacek's life, works, and place in music history would be in vain; this work's value lies in its objectivity and wealth of primary evidence.

Those looking for analyses of works will be better served by Vogel's biography, since Tyrrell treats the composer's works as biography; indeed, there are but a handful of music examples to be found within this tome. Readers wishing for more detailed analyses are directed by Tyrrell to liner notes of recordings, program notes from concerts, and the like. To have included such analyses in such a monumental work would have greatly increased it length, to be sure, but one still wishes for such insights, given Tyrrell's esteem in the field of Janacek studies.

To read this book from cover to cover is a daunting task even for experts in the field; inserted between chronological chapters are contextual chapters on various topics; their placement is, at times, disorienting because these excursions disrupt the chronological sequence of surrounding narrative chapters. Tyrrell suggests that readers who wish for a straightforward chronology skip those chapters that are contextual sidebars. His is a different approach to biography and one that takes some getting used to, but, in the end, is well worth the effort. Throughout the book there are several useful tables and maps. Their contents are invaluable and richly documented; their visual lay out, however could use more attention from the publisher. Among the handful of maps provided, surprisingly none of Brno is included; this city was Janacek's home for nearly his entire life, and Tyrrell repeatedly refers to notable locations and areas of the city. A city map with key Janacek locations identified would have been very useful.

Tyrrell's approach to the art of biography is clearly hands off, something he readily admits in the book's introduction. "I believe there is ... merit in a more transparent plan that might encourage the reader to find his or her own route through Janacek's life and enable a more proactive reading of the materials offered" (p. xxi). This, no doubt, will cause difficulties for non-Czech specialists; the average listener may only know Janacek by way of the opera Jenufa, the piano suite In the Mists, or the orchestral Sinfonietta. And most would have a limited understanding of Czech and Moravian history or cultural politics. While the contextual chapters do address such topics as these in discussions of Janacek's contemporaries, the musical environment during his lifetime and the like, they are again often aimed at readers more familiar with all things Czech. Given the surge of activity in Janacek studies in the last two decades and the growing interest of audiences in his music, a biography that would readily appeal to the non-specialist would do much for Janacek's cause.

Tyrrell's self assessment of his achievement is revealing, but far too modest. "What I have written here has all the joins showing and boasts no concealing art at all and no 'poetry.' There are some readers who will prefer a more directed, opinionated narrative and wish to be swept up in the grand authorial vision of the subject" (p. xxi). Such an approach is hardly surprising, given the numerous archival and reference works Tyrrell has authored and edited in the last two decades (My Life with Leos Janacek: The Memoirs of Zdenka Janacek [London: Faber & Faber, 1988]; Janacek's Works: A Catalogue of the Music and Writings of Leos Janacek [London: Faber & Faber, 1992]). Though this volume has no overt "grand authorial vision," there is much to recommend it. Within this one volume are several books to be had; a detailed, well documented chronology of the composer's life, an exploration of the development of Janacek's compositional methods and approaches, an examination of his personality and personal relationships, and a primer on the art of source studies, among others. In addition to a straightforward chronology, one finds a number of expert insights and interpretations of Janacek's life and works. Indeed, Tyrrell's "art" does not conceal, but rather reveals the world of Janacek in multiple dimensions in a book well worth any reader's efforts.


Hartwick College
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Author:Paige, Diane M.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2007
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