How my love of Janáček led to a role in the Cold War

Nicholas Till on how his love for the Czech composer led to his bringing back more than LPs from Soviet-dominated Prague

October 22, 2015
Feature illustration (22 October 2015)
Source: Alamy/Corbis

My parents were misguided enough to send me to a private boarding school that, like many such places, operated a system of institutionalised bullying. By this, I mean that not only was a blind eye turned to everyday bullying, but that the school also used legalised forms of boy-on-boy bullying to maintain order and control, and to inculcate an ethos of group (for which read class) discipline and solidarity, along with the entitlement to bully others when one’s turn came.

Frankly, the school was run through terror, of which the house fagging system was one of the most effective instruments. In addition to enjoying official fagging services such as shoe-cleaning or tea-making, house prefects were entitled at any other time to call for a junior boy to perform tasks or run errands, often trivial or humiliating, simply by bellowing “boy up”. On hearing this call, all designated fags were required to drop whatever they were doing to run to the location of the call. Last to arrive was given the task. There were severe penalties if one was found to have been in the building and not to have responded. So although we all had individual rooms, they were never places of refuge since one lived in constant dread of the holler of “boy up” – or, in our house, the bell that was installed by our housemaster as a marker of a more “progressive” regime. The only reliable option was to seek refuge in a safe place outside the house, where one couldn’t be reached.

In the music school there was a well-stocked record library with two listening booths, which became my hiding place. I have this to thank for most of my musical knowledge, for in the hours I spent there, praying that no one would find me, I of course worked my way through the records. Indeed, these furtive hours were the only real music education that I ever received, for although I now work in a university music department I have no formal musical education or training. Such was the inadvertent by-product of an institutional system designed primarily to produce army officers, City bankers and Tory cabinet ministers.

Whoever was responsible for purchasing the records in the library had catholic tastes (although not so catholic as to include popular music, of course). I listened diligently not only through the classical canon, but also through a series of Deutsche Grammophon Stockhausen recordings – something about the contrast between the rococo yellow DG crest and the space-age images on the LP covers intrigued me – and some of the earliest period-instrument recordings on the Archiv Produktion label. But Stockhausen notwithstanding, the music that, on first encounter, I found most outlandish, and that then came to fascinate me to the point of obsession, was Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta of 1926.

The record in the library, originally made in 1959 and conducted by that great champion of Janáček, Charles Mackerras, was the recording that introduced most non-Czech music lovers to the work of the then relatively unknown composer. I still recall the image on the record sleeve: Janáček’s name in bold red and yellow lettering against a black and white photograph of a phalanx of brass instruments curving around a set of kettledrums. The image evokes the brassily raucous fanfares that open the work and then return at the end to bring it to a triumphant conclusion with the addition of exuberantly swirling flourishes from the rest of the orchestra. The work was originally written for open-air performance at a patriotic gymnastic display, and for this occasion the fanfares were played by a military band. The Sinfonietta encapsulates all of Janáček’s distinctive musical attributes: folk-like melodies revolving around one or two step intervals that often mutate into choppy, obsessive ostinatos that either stop dead in full flow or are interrupted by surges of ardent lyricism, reminding us that although Janáček’s music of the 1920s sounds as fresh and contemporary as that of any of his modernist peers, the composer was born in 1854, making him much closer in age to the generation of the great Romantic nationalists such as Dvořák or Tchaikovsky than to that of canonical modernists such as Bartók or Stravinsky.

Why did Janáček’s music make such an impact on me? In contrast to Bartók, whose peasant-derived primitivisms always seem to me to be the fastidiously contrived effects of an urban sophisticate striving for modernist authenticity, Janáček’s often crude and apparently clumsy sounds can give the impression of plain provincial naivety. Indeed, Janáček spent all of his life in the Moravian capital of Brno, far from cosmopolitan Prague, and wider recognition didn’t come until he was in his sixties, with performances of his verismo rural drama Jenůfa in Prague in 1916, 12 years after its unremarked premiere in Brno. On this occasion, Janáček’s score was rewritten and re-orchestrated to make the music sound conventionally smoother and fuller. But his writing for instruments, often employing upper and lower extremes without the cushioned middle padding of standard Romantic orchestration or obscuring the main musical line with a welter of complex cross-rhythms, and his mosaic-like method of construction, cutting from one musical idea to the next without conventional transitions, was deliberate. Like the Russian composer Mussorgsky, Janáček was a musical realist, deriving his musical prosody from the rhythms and intonations of speech and their juxtapositions in everyday situations: marital reproaches at the café; tearful farewells at the rail station; vigorous haggling in the Cabbage Market in Brno. He always kept a notebook with him to notate people’s speech patterns, believing these to be the truest representation of a person’s inner state of being, even transcribing musically the faltering speech of his beloved daughter Olga as she lay dying.

Tangential to the official narratives of modernism, Janáček’s music seemed to me, an uptight English public-school boy, to be something genuinely exotic; something that, like all true exoticism, was both a little frightening in its fierce strangeness, and yet utterly compelling and seductive. Any unconfident adolescent needs a secret passion: occult knowledge guarded from the profane world of adults and peers. Janáček served that need for me. Why, most people couldn’t even pronounce his name properly. (Long “a” on the second syllable, please.)

I wanted to find out more – especially about the operas, the preludes of which were on the flip side of the Mackerras recording. But in the 1970s the only recordings of the operas were on the Czech Supraphon label, which were not easily obtainable in the UK. It was my passion for Janáček that finally led me to the Supraphon store in Prague in 1985, in unforeseeable circumstances.

In the early 1980s I was approached to contribute to a popular composer-biography series and, of course, proposed Janáček. Although he was judged too obscure for the series (I ended up writing the volume on Rossini, whom I came to love equally in the process), having made the pitch I decided that I needed to learn Czech. The only Czech evening class in London at that time was at an adult education institute in St John’s Wood, taught by a refugee from the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968, a former student leader called Jan Kavan. Jan had been studying in England when the Russians invaded, and had stayed, becoming one of the key organisers-in-exile of the opposition to the pro-Soviet regime in his homeland.

Feature illustration (22 October 2015)
Source: 
Rex/Alamy
Party like it’s 1989: Václav Havel became the president after the Velvet Revolution

Jan was a terrible teacher, but the evening class was one of his few sources of regular income, and he inspired immense loyalty from his students, many of whom became friends. One couple, stalwart members of the Workers Revolutionary Party, attended the class religiously for many years; she had nothing to learn since she was already fluent in Czech, while he, having signed the register, would sit in a corner reading a newspaper throughout the class. Attending regularly to ensure that the class didn’t close became tantamount to supporting Jan’s political outfit, the Palach Press. Named after his friend Jan Palach, the student who immolated himself to protest against the Russian invasion, Palach Press was a press agency for the dissemination of news about dissident activities in Czechoslovakia. To collect information, it relied on couriers, and Jan sometimes recruited members of the class to smuggle clandestine materials in and out of his homeland. When Jan asked me if I’d be willing, I leaped at the opportunity to visit Prague and, yes, the Supraphon store.

I arrived in Prague for the first time in icy weather just before Christmas 1985. There was little seasonal display anywhere, but on many street corners were great buckets seething with carp that people were wrapping live in newspaper and taking home to keep in the bath tub until Christmas Eve. The only other concession to the festive season seemed to be the shop windows of grocers, many of which were quite literally piled high with oranges. Visiting the elderly parents of another Czech exile friend in England, I commented on this. They explained that no one bought the oranges; they were imported from Cuba and were dry and woody inside – as they demonstrated by cutting one open. This seemed to them to encapsulate everything that was wrong with communism.

My mission for Palach Press entailed meeting Jan’s main contact when I arrived to hand over the material I had brought from England. He then needed a couple of days to gather the carbon-copied documents that I would take back with me. In the days between delivery and collection, I was left to my own devices. So on one bitterly cold day I took a bus to the former concentration camp Terezín, some 50 miles from Prague, which the Nazis used as a show-camp to reassure agencies such as the Red Cross that they were not mistreating the mainly Jewish inmates, before deporting those prisoners who didn’t die from starvation, cold or disease to Auschwitz. The Nazis encouraged artistic activity in the camp as a sign of normalcy, and since I had earlier in the year undertaken the first British production of one of the best known of these artistic products, an opera called The Emperor of Atlantis, I was keen to see where it had originally been performed.

The camp was in an Austrian fortress and garrison town, and it is now, no doubt, well presented for visitors. But on that day it was blanketed in snow and pretty much deserted. There was little to see, but there was only one bus back to Prague many hours later, so I sat eating greasy goulash and downing beers, huddled beside a huge cast-iron stove in a workers’ canteen out of a film by Béla Tarr.

On a later mission, in the summer, I took a train to Karlštejn Castle, 20 miles outside Prague. On the train I met two scruffy young Czechs who pressed me to come with them to “Mexico”. I had no idea what they were talking about, but foolhardily agreed. En route, deep in a forest, we stopped for a break and the boy pulled out a large hunting knife. I was certain I was about to be murdered for my paltry Western accoutrements (they’d already asked if they could have my jeans, which were at a premium in Eastern bloc countries). Oddly, my main concern was not for my imminent death but for the appalling mess that would be caused by my disappearance. But the knife was not intended for me, and skirting a Soviet missile base, we proceeded to Mexico, which turned out to be an abandoned quarry where the disaffected youth of Prague had created a kind of hippy commune. Back in Prague that evening, my contacts were impressed that I had actually been to Mexico since everyone had heard of the place but no one knew where it was. But they were also horrified because the quarry was regularly raided by the police, who would round up everyone they found. The fact that it was within spitting distance of the Soviet base certainly wouldn’t have helped my cause had I been caught. Jacques Derrida had been arrested and detained in Prague only a few years previously for much less.

My other mission, of course, was to the Supraphon store. The shop itself couldn’t have been less enticing. It was basically a bare office with a counter, where one perused a catalogue of typewritten pages inserted in yellowing plastic sleeves in a battered folder. Having made one’s choice, unseduced by glossy LP covers, a bored attendant went off to a back room to retrieve the desired items. Looking back, I can’t deny a little of what the Germans call Ostalgie for the quaintly bureaucratic, anti-consumerist nature of the exchange, and more generally for the black and white, Third Man atmosphere that Prague still retained in the mid-1980s. And some clandestine Cold War subterfuge only added to the undoubted frisson. My proudest claim from the various trips I made is that I was responsible for smuggling out of Czechoslovakia the video cassette (carefully concealed in the bottom layer of a chocolate box, around which the cellophane had been expertly replaced) that contained Václav Havel’s first public statement after he was released from detention for the last time before 1989’s Velvet Revolution, which was widely broadcast by news channels in the West.

Jan slipped back into Czechoslovakia as the regime started to crumble. The die-hards from his class gathered to watch the events unfolding on television. When we saw him standing with the other revolutionary leaders on the balcony in Wenceslas Square we all had tears in our eyes – perhaps not only for the rightful outcome of our friend’s long struggle, nor even because we knew it was the end of our sociable Czech classes, but also for such an ignoble demise of a noble political dream.

In 1998, after further vicissitudes that included being accused and then cleared of having been an agent of the Communist regime, Jan became foreign minister in the first Social Democratic government of the new Czech Republic. Shortly after his appointment, he arranged for his former Palach Press couriers to be invited to an official reception in the foreign ministry’s imposing Černín Palace above Prague Castle. About 10 of us were flown over for the event, attended by the prime minister and most of his government, at which we were formally thanked for our efforts. Havel, now president, of course, was unfortunately unwell, but his handwritten note of thanks (inset, left), given to us at the ceremony, is proudly framed beside my desk at home. And I have never thrown away my hard-won Supraphon LPs.

Nicholas Till is professor of opera and music theatre at the University of Sussex.

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