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Janáček discarded the set text, producing a kind of redacted “instrumental chant,” imparting the contours of sung Czech and reflecting his interest in capturing the “musical” essence of living speech.

Quick Facts

  • Composer’s life: Born July 3, 1854, Hukvaldy, Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic); died August 12, 1928, Moravská Ostrava, Moravia
  • Year completed: 1895
  • First performance: Prague, November 14, 1906, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, František Neumann conducting
  • First BSO performance: February 3, 2022, Jakub Hrůša conducting
  • Approximate duration: 6 minutes

The score of Jealousy calls for 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, glockenspiel, harp, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). Jealousy is about 6 minutes long.

By the time his opera Jenůfa received its Prague stage premiere in 1916, Leoš Janáček was approaching 62. It was the first and most important public triumph of his career—“the happiest day of his life,” Janáček’s longtime housekeeper later recalled. Janáček suddenly found himself at the center of international attention, with the Prague Jenůfa paving the way for the almost feverish outpouring of creative activity that so marked the last years of his life. Acceptance had been a long time coming. Preliminary work on Jenůfa began as early as 1894, and the finished opera was first performed ten years later in Janáček’s native Brno, where it was a moderate, if unspectacular, success. Initially, Janáček hoped Jenůfa would have its first hearing in Prague, and a year before the Brno premiere he went so far as to approach the director of the Prague National Theatre, Karel Kovařovic, about the prospect. Whether due to personal antipathy for the irascible Janáček, or his distaste for Jenůfa’s “Moravian” idiom—both explanations have been proposed—Kovařovic refused. For more than a decade, Kovařovic remained unwavering in his resistance, and so when he finally agreed to mount the opera, it was a powerful vindication of Janáček’s starkly naturalistic approach to text setting, stage drama, and musical narrative. (Even so, Kovařovic probably got the last word: he cut and reorchestrated the opera, producing a bowdlerized Jenůfa that remained the standard in opera houses for many years.)

Strictly speaking, the 1916 Prague Jenůfa was not the first time music associated with the opera had been heard in that city. Work on Jenůfa had proceeded in two principal phases. After an initial phase in the mid-1890s, Janáček broke off composition on the opera, only to return to it around 1900 or 1901. Early on during the first bout—no later than February 1895—Janáček completed a full-dress overture for Jenůfa, following 19th-century operatic conventions. At some point in advance of the Brno premiere, however, Janáček began to second-guess the overture. The intervening years had been all-important ones for the crystallization of Janáček’s musical language, and among the traits to emerge in the works of his maturity were a kind of ruthless concision and a distaste for artificial “padding.” Apparently, something of this sensibility started to color Janáček’s attitude towards some of his earlier work on Jenůfa, and as the opera comes down to us today, the overture is nowhere to be heard. (Janáček instead teases the listener with a brief, high-strung orchestral prelude before promptly launching into the action.) As the Janáček expert John Tyrrell writes, the overture is now “best regarded as a preliminary study for Jenůfa.” It was in this guise, as a freestanding orchestral “Prelude to Jenůfa,” that Prague got its earliest, albeit indirect, taste of Janáček’s opera “from Moravian peasant life,” when it was given its first performance on a November 1906 symphonic program.

The present title, Jealousy, came later, in 1917. By retitling the overture, Janáček underscored its thematic links to Jenůfa while also gesturing towards an earlier moment in his compositional development. In a magazine article published to coincide with the 1906 performance, Janáček indicated that the overture was his “introduction” to the world of Jenůfa: “The same places in mountainous Slovácko [eastern Moravia], the same people—and again that unhappy passion.” In the opera, the initial source of “unhappy passion” is a rivalry between two half-brothers, one of whom is meant to marry the young Jenůfa. The first act ends with a disturbing act of violence: the jealous brother slashes Jenůfa’s face, correctly inferring that his half-brother will break off the marriage if she is disfigured. The scene harks back to Janáček’s 1888 chorus, The Jealous Lover, a setting of a Moravian outlaw ballad. In it, a wounded bandit asks his beloved for his sword, hoping to make sure, as the text goes, that “after my death no one would have you.” (Remarkably, Janáček revisited the ballad during the year of Jenůfa’s Prague premiere, making a folksong setting of it.) Apparently, this “icy exchange” between bandit and lover was what Janáček had in mind when composing the overture.

Janáček offered some clues about Jealousy’s musical motifs. Coming immediately after the initial orchestral tattoo, a slinking cello-and-bassoon theme apparently symbolizes the thief’s obsessive jealousy. A heroic, horn-led motto cites a fragment of the original ballad melody, accompanied by upward-thrusting violins and high woodwinds—“deep and well-aimed wounds,” says Janáček. Transitional material in high tremolo strings represents the “unpeaceful buzzing of flies” attracted to the dying bandit, after which a dance-like passage gives way to a haze of woodwinds. Here solo clarinet presents a dolce melody, a sign of “devoted love,” though in characteristic Janáček fashion, it is cross-cut with psychologically conflicting materials (the ascending sword and buzzing fly motifs).

In composing Jealousy, Janáček used a technique subsequently applied by Antonín Dvořák in late symphonic poems: after “setting” portions of the ballad text at various points in the overture, Janáček discarded the text, producing a kind of redacted “instrumental chant.” This imparts the score with something of the contours of sung Czech, and while this appears to have been Janáček’s only experiment with the technique, it does reflect his abiding interest in capturing the “musical” essence of living speech.

Matthew Mendez

Matthew Mendez is a New Haven-based musicologist and critic who specializes in 20th- and 21st-century repertoire. He is a graduate of Harvard University and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Yale. Mr. Mendez was the recipient of a 2016 ASCAP Foundation Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award for outstanding music journalism.