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Admiration and Disdain


They were the three greatest Czech composers, and the relationship between two of them was less than friendly.

Leos Janacek, the youngest of the three, admired one of the other two. He was drawn to the earthy, sensual, popular qualities of the music written by Antonin Dvoraik. He also liked the classical basis of Dvorak’s compositions and the purely musical, rather than literary, basis of his music.

As a young man Janacek remarked that he had such an affinity for Dvorak that the older composer seemed to be taking the words from his mouth. Janacek’s Suite for String Orchestra and Idyll for String Orchestra show the influence of Dvorak. Janacek sent the first draft of his opera Sarka to Dvorak and made a revision based on Dvorak’s criticism. He dedicated the opera and two other works to Dvorak.

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While giving a lecture on Czech folk song, Janacek declared, “I am convinced that we have in Antonin Dvorak our one and only Czech composer.”

Janacek’s admiration for Dvorak had a dark side — a disdain for the other great Czech composer, Bedrich Smetana.

During the years when Janacek was director of the music school in Brno, the works of Smetana were rarely performed there. In 1882, when the school was invited to commemorate the hundredth performance of Smetana’s celebrated opera The Bartered Bride, the school committee declined. Two years later Smetana died, but another two years passed before the school in Brno got around to putting on a memorial concert, which Janacek suggested should be low key, featuring only a chorus and a string quartet by Smetana.

Strong as it was, young Janacek’s disdain for Smetana wasn’t personal. Although he later had positive things to say about Smetana, Leos Janacek simply felt that the older composer’s music dramas, comic operas and symphonic poems were too artificial — and more German than they were Czech.

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