The Symphonic Works of Leoš Janáček

From Folk Concepts to Original Style

by John K. Novak (Author)
Monographs 305 Pages


This book investigates the spectrum of meaning inherent in six orchestral works by Leoš Janáček. It codifies his compositional style, first through a thorough examination of its origins in folk music and speech-melody, then in discussions of the features of its melody and motivic techniques. His harmonic style and multiple organizations of tonality are examined in rich detail. The analysis section consists of the examination of each musical work’s musical elements, its affective and programmatic associations, as well as four narrative codes through which the listener discovers further meaning in the work: the hermeneutic code (which governs enigmas), the semic code of musical motives, the proairetic (formal) code, and the referential code (which draws on analogous passages from other pieces of music).

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. The Impact of Folk Music and Speech Melody
  • 3. The Transformation of Folk Models
  • 4. Harmony and Tonality
  • 5. Orchestration and Key Preference: Two Idiosyncrasies
  • 6. Music and Narrative
  • 7. The Fiddler’s Child – Šumařovo dítě
  • 8. Taras Bulba
  • 9. The Ballad of Blaník – Balada Blanícká
  • 10. Sinfonietta
  • 11. The Danube Symphony and the Violin Concerto
  • 12. Postscript
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index


I believe that theory ought to follow practice. Thus, I would like to begin by thanking those persons who taught me to play music. Francene French taught me the accordion when I was seven years old; she fascinated all in the class with her playing and teaching. Although I loved the accordion (even before it was cool!) I wanted also to play the piano. I bought my own piano at age 12 and taught myself. When I entered the University of Texas at Austin, three excellent pianists helped me to unlearn the bad habits that come with being self-taught: Betsy Parker, Betty Mallard, and A. David Renner. They instructed me lovingly in the art of the piano in a rich, historically informed and comprehensive manner. Those years of study are like gold to me.

Virtually all the piano students at University of Texas in those days were like a family: we went swimming, bowling, dancing and watched Jeopardy together. Many of these remain among my closest friends today; they were and are a great support to me in every way.

There were a great number of history and theory professors at UT from whose instruction and ideas I benefitted, especially Dorothy Payne, Douglass Green, Elliott Antokoletz, and Patrick McCreless. I frequently and happily notice aspects of their teaching in my own, and I even quote them in class. My inspiring piano pedagogy professor Amanda Vick Lethco also became my most important writing instructor.

When I began my graduate studies, I was pleased how seemingly few hours I was required to take. So, I decided to do something quite different: enroll in Czech courses in the Slavic department of the university. My parents already spoke Czech as their first language, but I knew only a few words as a child. The language, so far from English, seemed like a secret code (with missing vowels) which my professors helped me to crack. In 1984, 1986 and again in 1989, I had the great experience of studying Czech language and culture at Charles University in Prague as a guest of the Czechoslovak Foreign Institute. In 1986 and 1989, I studied with my greatest and most inspiring professor, Ivana Bozděchová. Rather against my will, Ivana placed me in the advanced class in 1986. She knew what she was doing; that challenge was just what I needed to advance towards fluency. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, I was able to return to Czechoslovakia more often, where I learned and made music, and made even more friends. The families (including spouses, children and grandchildren) of Dr. Richard Kania, Josef Zahradník and Pavel Bula, all of Ivančice, Moravia became my extended families, causing me to feel more like a Czech than ever before. With help, I had my Novák roots (from eastern Bohemia) traced carefully back to the fifteenth century!

With regards to my education in Czech and Moravian Folk Music, my leading teachers were Svatava Jakobson (Austin), Zdeněk Mišurec (Prague) and Jiří and Věra Chovanec (Bánov, Moravia). Moravian folk music was a far cry from the polka and waltz music popular in Texas, for which I already had an affinity. This older music ← 9 | 10 → was singularly beautiful and expressive. In addition, my reaction to Leoš Janáček’s music was love at first hearing. It was in 1983, with a recording of In the Mists that I heard in the Fine Arts Library at UT. Half of my Master’s recital in November 1985 comprised music of Janáček. I followed this with a thesis on his piano music.

Many scholars and friends encouraged my theoretical work in Czech music. Michael Beckerman tops the list: after hearing me nervously deliver my first “real” paper on form in Dvořák’s chamber music, he told me that I had a knack for musical analysis, and suggested I consider writing an analytical dissertation. Other American Czech music scholars who gave me moral support were David Beveridge, Alan Houtchens, Derek Katz and Paul Christiansen. In the Czech Republic, many scholars and musicians were gracious and helpful with my research in Brno (Miloš Stědron, Leoš Faltus, Alena Němcová, Jarmila Procházková and František Malý) and in Prague (Mikuláš Bek and Jarmila Gabrielová). In Great Britain, Graham Melville-Mason and the Antonín Dvořák Society have helped further exposure of my work.

In 1994, the year of my Ph.D. in Music Theory, I taught a semester at Oberlin Conservatory as a replacement. The awesomely gifted students there wrote a petition to keep me. This unexpected and great honor still gives me strength whenever I doubt myself.

DeKalb and Northern Illinois University became my home in 1996. The move to DeKalb was challenging for me, but I was fortunate to be working with wonderful and witty theorists and composers who also supported me and my work: Tim Blickhan, Robert Fleisher, Ted Hatmaker, Edward Klonoski and David Maki. In DeKalb, my best friends and greatest help in all matters of living are also affiliated with the University, musicologist Brian Hart and pianist William Koehler.

Austin remains a third home for me. The sheer number of personal ties to Austin prevents me from even beginning a list of names. Suffice it to say if you’ve ever been to a party at the home of Roberto Vasquez and James Cooper, then you are indeed a person who has given me love and support. (I know this because Roberto and James insist that they only throw parties when I am in Austin!) These Austinite friends cause me to long for that hot, hilly city. Please “Keep Austin Weird” as the bumper stickers demand!

My acknowledgements would not be complete without tribute to my parents, Edmund and Božena (Bessie) Novak. Although born and bred in Texas, their desire to have children who were good musicians was true to Czech tradition. They and my siblings drove me to accordion lessons twice a week for five years. When I was studying piano, my parents helped me buy my first grand piano, and were completely obliging to let me practice or give lessons at any hour of the day with no complaints.

Janáček music research in the English language would be nearly non-existent without the many fine works of scholars such as John Tyrrell, Michael Beckerman, Jan Smaczny and Paul Wingfield. In addition to Czech and German scholars, I learned and continue to learn from their studies.

I would like to thank Elliott Antokoletz for believing in the present book, its potential for contribution the worlds of musicology and music theory, and for choos ← 10 | 11 → ing to edit it for Peter Lang. He greatly improved the present book by directing me to make it organic in orientation. Brian Hart’s careful reading was also invaluable.

Parts of this book previously appeared in articles. These include the following: “Barthes’s Narrative Codes as a Technique for the Analysis of Programmatic Music: An Analysis of Janáček’s The Fiddler’s Child,Indiana Theory Review. 18, no. 1 (Spring 1997), 25–64; “Janáček’s Nursery Rhymes as a Compendium of his Style,” College Music Symposium 39 (1999), 43–63—reprinted in Aspects of Music, Arts and Religion during the Period of Czech Modernism, (Bern: Peter Lang, 2009), 251–72; “What’s Folk About Janáček?: The Transformation of Folk Music Concepts in Janáček’s Mature Style as Evidenced in his Orchestral Works,” The International Journal of Musicology 8 (2002), 239–274; “Janáček’s Amarus: The Seeds of a Style,” Czech and Slovak Academy of Arts and Sciences Annual Congress (2005), (České Budějovice, Czech Republic: CSVU, 2006), 106–115.”Childhood Complexity and Adult Simplicity in Janáček’s Sinfonietta,” Harmonica: The Journal of the Graduate Association of Musicologists und Theorists (Special Issue: May 2013), 96–111.

DeKalb, September 2015 ← 11 | 12 → ← 12 | 13 →


“I do not love music just because it sounds.”1

Truth and Music: Janáček the Expressive

The Moravian composer Leoš Janáček (1854–1928) was a diversified man with many interests and passions. He was among the first ethnomusicologists anywhere. A prodigious essayist, he wrote on subjects as diverse as psychology, acoustics, birdcalls, folk dance and speech-melody. He conceived original theories on music and taught diverse musical subjects throughout most of his life. Acerbic with a pen, he was a candid music reviewer. Moreover, Janáček synthesized the language of his music, his greatest achievement, from his various interests, which included not only the above, but also drama, literature and nature. Although he composed most of his most distinctive music when he was past his fiftieth birthday, it is abundant in fresh ideas and is characterized by youthful vigor and passion. It stands alone in the repertoire as the product of an original and unique voice.

The scope of Janáček’s interests influenced both the way he perceived music and the way he composed it. It is, therefore, not surprising that he was not a musical absolutist. Janáček composed that which he believed had objective meaning. He was persuaded that music, especially vocal music, was a means by which the human race encounters what he called the “truth.”

Song is not only something of beauty and delight, but something from which we are to learn the truth of life.2

For me, music emanating from instruments, whether in the works of Beethoven or of any other composer, contains little real truth.3

What is this truth that music can impart? Janáček suggests the possibilities in his writings. The truth may manifest itself as the veracity of nature or the sagacity of tradition or legend. Sometimes it appears as the profound truths that exist within the human psyche. Most often, however, the “truth” is purely the fullness of emotion and sensation. For this reason, Janáček has been called “the ultimate composer of ← 13 | 14 → Affekt.”4 To Janáček, everything in music contained emotion: a chord, a key—even an individual note! However, the emotive element in Janáček’s music is seldom an end in itself. He wrote: “I maintain that a pure musical note means nothing unless it is pinned down in life, blood, locale. Otherwise it is a worthless toy.”5

Just as his music frequently suggests emotion, so does his prose.6 His essays, articles and feuilletons contain many digressions filled with metaphorical imagery. In fact, Janáček frequently abandons the initial theme of an essay altogether for some poetic sidetrack that occurs to him. The following passage comes from his essay “Crossroads,” which he wrote for the Brno music journal Listy hudební matice [Letters of the Musical Foundation], and in which he deals with the subject of musical expression. In it, Janáček uses a deluge of metaphors to emphasize the role of emotion in music. Through sensational and symbolic prose, Janáček ties the perception and the experience of music at once to emotion and to metaphor.

I recognized in the chord the expression of several affects coming into contact with one another: an expression clinging to life, erupting of life itself rather than out of pure sounds.

It is an expression like, for instance, an involuntary movement of the hands. We wring our hands in pain, join them in prayer, use them to embrace someone lovingly. We raise them up to the sun; we threaten severely with them; we defend ourselves mercilessly with our hands.

It is an expression like a faint or bright look; the eyes fixed or roaming about; or the terrific sight of their whites in death.

By the analysis and elimination of affects—the source from which the chord is born, whose rippling waves it carries forth, through which it is revealed, through which it shines, rings out changes, grows and dies away—through this I learn the reason for the chord’s existence.

For me, a chord is a being come alive: a bloodstained flower of the musical art. I know when I write it that pain grips my heart: that the heart moans, wails, falls hard on the ground, crushes, is fragmented by the mist, hardens into granite. What do I care for the borrowed attributes beautiful or ugly!

In a flash of life, the chord’s essence corresponds to my being.7 ← 14 | 15 →

What is important here is Janáček’s emphasis on affect. His reasoning with respect to its generation is found in his complex and unusual theory of chord connection. In it, the fundamental tone of the second chord of a progression sounds simultaneously not only with all the tones of its chord, but also with the “illusion” of all tones of the previous chord. The illusion takes place, according to Helmholtz, because the ear retains sounds for a tenth of a second after they have ceased. The mixture of illusion and new tones is the “twine”. The freeing of the second chord from each of the illusion tones of the first gives a composite of affects or characteristics. This composite contains from one to all of the following affects: conciliation, disturbance, change and amplification. Certain affects are then “eliminated” because others are more prominent. Like this central theory, many of Janáček’s theories are based on dubious and unscientific precepts. Although I will not use them as a foundation for the present method of analysis, I refer to them when they emphasize aspects of Janáček’s musical thought.8

Later in the essay, he writes:

When the sound, the sheen of color, the phenomena of space and touch have the same rhythmical bedrock within the stretto of consciousness, it is no surprise that this base is moved from one into another by the fluctuation of content within consciousness.9

From Janáček’s words, we can deduce that for him music needs to express meaning. Expression and emotion are at the core of music’s purpose; without them there is no music.

Music Alone


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (February)
Semiology Moravian Folk Barthes Narrative Speech Melody
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 305 pp., 9 b/w ill., 8 tables

Biographical notes

John K. Novak (Author)

John K. Novak is a music theorist and performer whose research concerns Western music in the first quarter of the twentieth century. His principal interest is the Czech composer Leoš Janáček. Novak teaches at Northern Illinois University. His other music interests include Czech song in the state of Texas.


Title: The Symphonic Works of Leoš Janáček