Some pieces make me forget time and space. Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin Concerto for instance. Franz Schubert’s song cycle “Winterreise”. Some books make me forget time and space too. Books like Reiner Stach’s biography on Franz Kafka. Three volumes and an annex, several thousand pages, a wonderful gift. Diving into Franz Kafka’s world, diving into the life in Prague at the turn of the 19th century and into the mysteries of the mind and the emotions of this enigmatic writer – what a pleasure! I discovered Kafka very late, in the summer of 2017, by now I rank him as one of those writers that fascinate me most.
In 1901 Kafka began his law studies at the Karl-Ferdinand University of Prague, and the shy, young student himself discovered a world that shared his interest in literature and philosophy. By that time, a contemporary, the Czech composer Leos Janacek, had already reached his maturity – he was composing his first opera “Jenufa” – and a late work of his came to my mind while I explored with Kafka the limits of his new intellectual freedom: Mladi (Youth), a suite for woodwind sextet, written in May 1924. 1924 was the year Kafka died from tuberculosis.
A generation separates Kafka and Janacek, yet both stand for the triumph of modernity and the gradually revealed downsides of modernity. The search for personal truth, a minimalist approach to expression… “If [Richard] Wagner explains at length his thoughts, saying everything et fearing not to be understood, Janacek presents a condensed art, with rapidly sketched, extremely evocative notes”, writes the musicologist Jérémie Rousseau. He might as well have described Kafka’s style. Kafka himself saw writing as his sole raison d’être. When he had the courage to reveal his deepest inner self by writing in true, condensed and minimalist – essential – words, only then did he feel his existence justified.
Janacek’s suite “Mladi” is scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon and bass clarinet. The first ideas took shape in the composer’s head during his visit of the festival of the International Society of Contemporary Music in Salzburg in August 1923 when he listened to a French ensemble. It was written as a reminiscence of Janacek’s youth in the old monastery of Brno and conjures an atmosphere of innocence, joy and serenity.
The contrast to Franz Kafka could not be starker. As an emphatic human being I would have wished Kafka a puerile innocence, joy and serenity in his early years. He would have been so much happier and led a much more peaceful life. As an enthusiast of his works, I know however that Kafka would have written none of his works had he been joyful and serene instead of being withdrawn, forever brooding over his fate and filled with anguish. A real life tragedy!
Kafka took little interest in music, however his friend Max Brod links him to Janacek. Brod was an amateur writer, philosopher and composer, at the same time he was literature and music agent. He encouraged both Kafka and Janacek to fulfill their artistic destiny and promoted the works of the two Czech artists. And while Kafka emphasized his inability to understand and enjoy music, he clearly understood its function as a medium to express an idea and the possibility to assimilate language and music, as he wrote to Brod when he held his friend’s translation of the “Jenufa”-libretto in his hands. Expressive excellence was Kafka’s and Janacek’s ultimate goal. They both reached it, in different realms, over different paths.
Janacek’s Suite “Mladi” has been recorded by Sebastian Bell, Janet Craxton, Antony Pay, Michael Harris, Martin Gatt, Phillip Eastop and Paul Crossley.
© Charles Thibo