The Love That Pleases God

Classic Arts Features   The Love That Pleases God
Mirka Zemanovš explores the religious background of Janšcek's first great opera.

Do you know the Czech words for Salve regina?" Leos Janácek asked his maidservant Marie Trkanová when he was composing the heart-rending prayer in Act Two of Jenufa. "'Hail, Mary' I still remember, but Salve regina I have forgotten."

As a young boy Janácek would certainly have known the Czech version of Salve regina, with its sonorous opening, "Zdrávas královno, matko milosrdenstvì." But by the time he was at work on Jenufa, the composer had not only forgotten the words, he had also lost his faith.

Yet Janácek had grown up in a community steeped in religious atmosphere: by 1854, when he was born, church and school had long been the twin pillars of the education system throughout his native province of Moravia. Church was also the center of musical life, especially in small rural communities, and Janácek's early grounding in music was profoundly influenced by Catholicism. Choral singing in particular was an important element of the Catholic ritual: the daily Mass, the religious processions, the early morning Advent services and Christmas carols all constituted a cycle of musical events without which everyday life would have been unimaginable. Winter trips to matins and pilgrimages were among Janácek's earliest memories, and from an early age he and his brothers and sisters sang Mass daily at the village church where their father was organist.

At the age of 11 Janácek became chorister at the Augustinian "Queen's" Monastery in the Moravian capital of Brno, and he soon developed into the best alto there. A mere seven years later he became deputy choirmaster at the Monastery, and conducted sacred music by Joseph and Michael Haydn, as well as by Czech composers. At the church of St. Michal, where the Czech community of Brno worshipped, he also conducted works by Palestrina and Vittoria, among other music. Later, during his time as choirmaster and conductor of the Beseda Choral Society in Brno, the highlights of the society's program included performances of Mendelssohn's Psalm 95, Mozart's Requiem, and Beethoven's Missa Solemnis‹all before Janácek was 25. Later still, he added to his repertoire sacred music works by Dvorák (Stabat Mater and the oratorio St. Ludmila) and Liszt. Janácek composed his own "merry Mass" in 1926: the Glagolitic Mass is written to a liturgical text in the earliest Slavonic language, Old Slavonic, and it is an ecstatic celebration of life‹the Czech writer Milan Kundera, in his book Testaments Betrayed, thinks the work more an orgy than a mass.

Yet, in spite of his lifelong involvement with sacred music, Janácek lost his faith quite early; eventually, he would not "step into a church even to shelter from the rain," as his niece recalled in a 1940 newspaper article. "A church is concentrated death," he told her. "Tombs under the floor, bones on the altar, pictures full of torture and dying. Rituals, prayers, chants‹death and nothing but death. I do not want to have anything to do with it.' He never abandoned his agnosticism ("Only when they convince me," he often remarked wryly toward the end of his life), but he demanded that his children say their prayers, he had lifelong friends among the clergy, and his attitude to Catholicism was not hostile. "Why should I secede from the Catholic church?" he remarked in 1924 to his maidservant. "The Catholic church has done me no harm." Thus Janácek's overall attitude to religion was not at all straightforward.

In Jenufa, a story of wild passion and fatal pride, in which love and forgiveness triumph only after great suffering‹Janácek deals with compassion and redemption, rather than directly with religion. However, in portraying the life of a small Moravian village in the second half of the 19th century, he does tell us something about the religion and the way in which it permeated everyday life.

Thus the Kostelnicka (or Sextoness) has earned her title on account of looking after the small local church. She is also a trusted adviser, and enjoys a high social status in the community. But her desperate wish to save her stepdaughter's honor and future prospects leads to terrible heresy: "I will deliver the boy to God," she tells herself at the end of Act II, before setting off to drown the illegitimate child. Her reasoning has been twisted by her fear of the inevitable humiliation of both Jenufa and herself, and her pride has proved stronger than her faith.

Yet the Kostelnicka's fear of disgrace was genuine: in the rural communities of 19th-century Moravia, "fallen" girls had to endure horrific public humiliation, and they frequently remained social and economic outcasts for the rest of their lives. The contemporary village mores are tellingly described by Janácek's onetime colleague and fellow folklorist Frantisek Bartos in the preface to their 1899 book, Moravian Folk-songs Newly Collected: "The sensual, sexual love, ennobled by Christianity, has acquired the character of a moral idea, and in this idealized form it is the origin of the most beautiful love songs." But, writes Bartos, the necessary condition of the longing for the beloved which inspired such folk songs was "morality, strict discipline, and chastity. And, among our people, one minded and observed these most strictly."

Thus all transgressors against the stern social order and local customs invited harsh judgment. In one region of Moravia, according to Bartos, a pregnant girl would have her long hair cut off in public by the married women of the village; around the capital of Brno, when a pregnant girl was getting married, the village youths would mockingly carry a cradle behind the wedding procession. Elsewhere in southern Moravia the local shepherd would run the "fallen" girl through the village and crack the whip above her as the local community was returning from Mass.

Life in rural Moravia was far from joyless at the time. Dances and festivals abounded and the young would make merry. Yet young men, too, would invite criticism if they played the field too often, and seducers would rarely escape punishment. In the finale of Jenufa it is the vox populi, in the person of the Shepherdess, which pronounces the judgment on the handsome, feckless Steva: "No girl would marry him now, not even an honest Gypsy."

Only Laca's love overcomes all obstacles. To him, Jenufa‹her beauty spoiled and her reputation tarnished‹is still the girl he has always loved, and he doesn't even care about her forthcoming trial and the inevitable public scorn. "What is the world to us," he tells her, "if we can comfort one another?" At long last he wins Jenufa's heart: "This is that greater love, the love that pleases God," she responds.

In Jenufa, Janácek draws our attention to some of humanity's highest moral ideals. Laca's love for Jenufa helps him overcome his destructive jealousy; Jenufa's compassion makes the Kostelnicka realize the extent of her pernicious pride, and her subsequent humility redeems her in Jenufa's eyes. At the time of writing his first operatic masterpiece, Janácek was no longer a believer. But compassion and redemption‹essential parts of the Christian doctrine‹are the cornerstones of Jenufa, and indeed of many of Janácek's subsequent stage works.

Mirka Zemanová writes frequently about the arts.

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