There is something inherent in the nature of Janáček’s The Diary of One who Disappeared and the mysterious circumstances of its composition which makes it an irresistible undertaking for a singing actor.
I have always been to drawn to Janáček and his music is the gateway currency I use to draw the most reluctant of family members into the concert hall and opera house. While other composers wrote music belonging to Knights and Faeries, Janáček remained entirely earthbound bringing us music drama as a mirror to our human condition; our communities; our desires; our loss and our fragile humanity.
In a loveless marriage and enduring the shadow cast by the death of his daughter, Janáček’s life changed in 1917 following a meeting with Kamila Stösslová. During this encounter, Janáček was beguiled by her pure spirit and dedication to her family as a mother and wife, something he clearly lacked and craved for in his own life. Despite being nearly 40 years his junior and whether feelings were wholeheartedly reciprocated, Janáček fervently cast Kamila in the role of his muse and he began to compose afresh. 'My dearest Kamila ... a new vein is beginning to grow in my work.'
Janáček kept a journal where he notated her very speaking voice and although equally inspired as he was tortured by their unconsummated relationship, this cultivated the most extraordinary Indian Summer of composition for Janáček. While much of his output at this time wore the themes of obsession, oppression and a desire for rebirth, such as Kátya Kabanová, Makropoulos Case and the Glagolitic Mass, one work governed his imagination above all: The Diary of One who Disappeared.
There has always been a real interest in the origins of Janáček’s Diary. The story was first discovered by Janáček in his local Czech newspaper Lidové Noviny having been written by a self-taught pen who went under the mysterious initials J.D. The poems were discovered by the parents of a young farmer who had disappeared mysteriously and mapped out the personal fight of his emerging sexuality and desires for Zefka, a Moravian Roma Gypsy who caught his attention as he worked in the field with his cattle. Their affair grows in intensity as the boy visits her nightly until he must say goodbye to all he knows to join Zefka as she waits for him at the edge of the wood with their son.
Janáček confessed to Kamila, 'that Gypsy Girl in my Diary ... that was especially you.' Resonating heavily with this tender tale of obsession and escape, Janáček thought this the perfect setting to live out his fantasy with Kamila. I think it’s no mistake too that Janáček found musical inspiration from a newspaper, which he believed was as close to fact as it could be for his most important subject.
For me as a performer, it’s this underpinning of truth and intent which makes The Diary so extraordinary. A quasi-cantata, these 22 short episodes were scored for tenor, mezzo, female chorus and piano and it’s quite incomparable to anything else in the genre. Sitting gingerly between the stools of song-cycle, opera and solo piano work, it doesn’t necessarily conform to constructs established by the other Lied composers as its primary purpose is story-led rather than depicting particular atmosphere and moods. Though the parallels between Janáček’s connection to the text of the ‘anonymous’ farmer and his beloved landscape of Moravia and Schubert’s decision to set Müller in his great cycles which were similarly entrenched in a pastoral setting are striking.
I think Janáček saw this folk idiom as musical truth in its most honest form
Like much of his work of this period, Janáček uses the folk idiom to web his themes together which I think is an added draw for me. Being Scottish and growing up on folk song, I think there are primal links between my Celtic heritage and the land of Moravian folksong. It’s often the same cow who escaped, the same girl in the gypsy skirt and the same misery in the misty hills. Much like the visceral response from Maori Haka or the skirl of a distant bagpipe, I think Janáček saw this folk idiom as musical truth in its most honest form which didn’t require musical translation for the listener or performer. Its poignant too for Janáček that in his letters he always daydreamed of bringing Kamila, not to the bijou Czech spa town where they met or Brno even, but to his personal idyl of Hukvaldy where many of these folksongs originated.
The staged aspect for The Diary is interesting for a performer too. Borne from his obsessions with the subject matter, Janáček was so specific with the way he’d imagined the mise-en-scène: a semi-darkened stage; a red light here; a pause there; the chorus barely audible. These almost cloying directions give an added obsessive scent to interpretation and the impression that Janáček was setting the most vivid scene for his fantasy. Janáček delivered such an honest narrative arc that this can be felt even in recording and it’s impossible to deliver what Janáček intended without embracing the staging as such.
I think what makes Janáček intrinsically accessible to us is his use of economy. You will rarely find more material than is necessary in his scores which keeps the narrative as immediate as you could hope. In The Diary, the often conflicting passages of reflection in Czech speech rhythm perfectly depict the conscience and forming desires of the farmer which offer the key to embodying the main protagonist’s character. Another of his key dramatic devices offer further collusion in his fantasy by allocating the lovers’ consummation to the piano in an Intermezzo Erotica, which leaves the farmer and us fundamentally changed.
Sadly despite Janáček’s best efforts, his relationship with Kamila never reached the heights of his imaginings set to music. For while this proved to be the obsessional work Janáček declared to Kamila as his ‘life’s work’, for us too as performers and listeners, it’s the mysterious masterpiece that won’t let go.
Nicky Spence's new recording of Janáček’s The Diary of One who Disappeared is out now on Hyperion Records.