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John Tyrrell’s biography of the Leoš Janácek is the culmination of a life’s work in the field. It stands upon his existing documentary studies of Janácek’s operas and translations of other key sources and his examination of thousands of still unpublished letters and other documents in the Janácek archive in Brno. Altogether it provides the most detailed account of Janácek’s life in any language and offers new views of Janácek as composer, writer, thinker and human being.
Volume 1, which goes up to the outbreak of the First World War and Janácek’s sixtieth birthday in the summer of 1914, consists of chronological chapters providing a straightforward account of Janácek’s life year by year and another forty contextual chapters. Topics include on-going sequences (‘Music as autobiography I’, etc.; ‘Janácek’s knowledge of opera I’, etc.) and individual chapters on Janácek as a teacher, as a theorist, as an music ethnographer, on his speech-melody theory, his relationship to particularly influential operas (Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades, Charpentier’s Louise), on his mentors (such as Antonín Dvorák) and his bêtes noires (such as Karel Kovarovic). A particular feature are the specially commissioned chapters on Janácek’s health by Dr Stephen Lock (one of the editors of the Oxford Illustrated Companion to Medicine, OUP 1994 and 2001, editor of the British Medical Journal, 1975-91, and a Janácek enthusiast since the early postwar broadasts on the Third Programme), and on Janácek’s earnings and finances by Dr Jirí Zahrádka (curator of the Janácek archive in Brno, and editor of authentic editions of Šárka and The Excursions of Mr Broucek).
Top of my list is the first volume of John Tyrrell's life of Janacek....Something of a tour de force ... proved entirely absorbing.
In terms of Janacek studies, the best possible value. Few recent composer biographies have offered so much texture, so much circumstantial detail, or so clear an impression of the evolution of a creative life, and one wouldn't want the book in any other form. The lonely blackbird has never sung more clearly or more poignantly.'
John Tyrrell's magnificent new book. ... Inevitably, in such a detailed narrative, Tyrrell is setting down material for Janacek scholars of the next generation, so there is much detail (painstaking research, documentation and musical analysis). ... For Janacek scholars, his book will be indispensable for the detailed examination of the early works ... When (Volume 2) appears, Tyrrell will surely have realised the standard work on this uniquely individual composer in the English language. That achievement is already immense, but the sequel is awaited with barely contained impatience.
As a whole, this biography is not just indispensable to those moved by Janacek's passionate approach to music and life, but with its rich and detailed contextualisation of the biography, anyone interested in Czech music of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Tyrrell is very successful in combining his acres of documentation with an instinct to present it engagingly. An enthralling portrait of the composer and his times emerges.
A brilliant essay in the genre.
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