Paul Christiansen
University of Southern Maine1

  1. Skimming the Western popular literature on Leoš Janáček's life and work, one often encounters references to obsession. In the public imagination, there seems to be some tacit agreement that Janáček was in one way or another obsessed, though the object of his fixation varies in different accounts. The most often recurring themes of obsession are with one of the two Kamilas that were prominent in his life, with speech melody, and with aging and death. These assertions raise many questions. Did Janáček suffer from a medical disorder? Was he truly "obsessed" with Kamila Stösslová, Kamila Urválková, the rhythms and intonational contours of the Czech language, or death; or, on the other hand, are these claims mere carelessness of speech? How do we square the sophisticated and urbane Janáček that we know with accounts of the "obsessed" composer and all the implications that loaded term carries?

  2. The obsession most often attributed to the composer is his infatuation with Kamila Stösslová. Janáček met her in the summer of 1917 in the northern Moravian spa town of Luhačovice and that chance encounter changed his life. Janáček was sixty-three years old; Kamila, not yet twenty-six. To the chagrin of his wife Zdenka, Janáček frequently wrote letters to Kamila and was seen in her company often enough to arouse speculation about the true nature of their relationship. The composer claimed to have drawn constant inspiration from her during his very prolific final decade. Kamila replied to his letters, but not nearly often enough for Janáček's taste, and he often chided her for this, as the following letter from 27 August 1922 makes apparent:

    You can remain angry for so long? Believe me, you have made my vacation a sad one. What vacation! Believe me, I need your chattering and your scribblings as the drought needs the rain, dawn needs the sun, the sky needs the star. Yes, the final comparison is the best. How can the sky be without the little star?! You are that little star that I seek in the evening. Based on love? Based on sincere friendship. That's why I was sorry that you hadn't written. You must know that otherwise I am indifferent to the world. And Luhačovice [this year] was the saddest of all years. Your leap from a moving train? Whoever is able to remain angry for two months from a friendship is able to leap from a moving train out of love! She never thinks of consequences! And that isn't frivolous? So for punishment write now during the day. So that I can constantly see your black eyes, black hair, ever-present smile, and your figure fit for a painting.

    I think that I will be in Brno around 20 September.
    Don't wrong Zdenka. We have always been happy to see you. You shouldn't wonder that she is a bit needlessly jealous. She knows that I think of you all the time. Write her about all the places you have been.

    So, dear Mrs. Kamila, make up for what you have not done!
    Your affectionate
    Leoš Janáček (99)2

  3. This letter was prompted by Kamila's letter of 25 August 1922, an excerpt of which appears below:
    First I must write to you that I was upset with you when you wrote to me that I write and speak frivolously. Anyway, we'll talk about it in person, because it's not worth writing about […] You know well why I don't want to visit you. Because I haven't forgotten about last time. Why cause someone else pain for no reason. I had thought that I would stop writing to you altogether. But there's the old proverb [Old love isn't forgotten], even though there is no love between us, only mere friendship […] I must write you the latest news, that I went to meet my husband at the station on Sunday and he didn't arrive. So I got on a train to go three stations farther to meet him. As I was leaving the station, he was arriving on another train and so I jumped off the moving train and I could have killed myself, what do you say to that […] (99)
    From Janáček's letter above and hundreds of others like it, it is easy to see why to many observers he seemed obsessed with Kamila.

  4. I am concerned here with perception of Janáček in the Western popular imagination and have therefore chosen several examples drawn from sources on the Internet: articles, reviews, and personal statements about the composer and his music. These selections provide some insight into how the composer is publicly perceived.

    Figure 1

    These are only a few illustrative examples. The claims sound convincing in some cases, but it is unclear that Janáček was as obsessed as numerous writers would have us believe.

  5. Allegations of Janáček's obsession are to be found even in travel guidebooks on the Czech Republic, as evidenced by the following quote from a section on Janáček's hometown of Hukvaldy in the sixth and most recent edition of The Rough Guide to the Czech and Slovak Republics:
    The music of this period was fired by his obsessive love for a woman called Kamila Strösslová [sic], wife of a Jewish antique dealer in Písek, who had sent him food parcels throughout World War I [emphasis mine]" (410). First-time travelers to the Czech Republic, some of whom before arriving know very little of the country's people and their history, learn that one of the most revered composers in the Czech lands was "obsessed.
    We will return to the question of whether Janáček was obsessed or not after exploring the idea of obsession in a broader context.

  1. Obsession has been a common topos in much classic literature of the nineteenth century; for example, Frankenstein, Moby Dick, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. All of these novels present a picture of obsession; other examples abound. Of course, there are stories of obsession from earlier times, such as Shakespeare's Hamlet, who was obsessed with revenge, and Macbeth, obsessed with his quest for power. Macbeth presents a multi-faceted picture of obsession. After hearing of the witches' predictions that Macbeth will be granted the title of Thane of Cawdor and one day will become king, Lady Macbeth later urges her husband to kill Duncan and she grows obsessed with frightening thoughts of all the bloodshed her husband has been causing. Then, obsessed with feelings of guilt over what she and Macbeth have wrought, she compulsively washes her hands to try to remove the blood she imagines covers them. The desires in these stories become obsessions or compulsions when the character is willing to risk anything to fulfill the desire. Not surprisingly, all of these stories end tragically.

  2. Several films with the word "obsession" in the title have been made, the most famous of which are perhaps Douglas Sirk's 1954 comedy Magnificent Obsession, which was a remake of a 1935 film of the same name, and Brian de Palma's 1976 thriller Obsession.3 Notably, the latter film was scored by composer Bernard Herrmann, who wrote music for many films in which the main characters can be said to be obsessed in some way: Citizen Kane,4 Cape Fear, Taxi Driver, and the Hitchcock films Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds, where there is no music per se, but rather electronically imitated bird noises. Presumably Herrmann's compositional style appealed to directors aiming to achieve an intense psychological impression of obsession, paranoia, or psychopathy. Herrmann made use of electronic violins and bass and treble theremins in some of his scores, which lend them an eerie and unsettling quality. Another aspect of Herrmann's scores is the extensive use of ostinato, a musical representation of obsession.

  3. In twentieth-century popular culture, obsession has been a theme that captures the imagination of many artists, particularly musicians.5 Predictably, the theme of these lyrics is almost invariably a powerful infatuation for a lover. The obsession typically has a negative connotation; the subject is consumed by an overwhelming passion over which he has no control. I employ the masculine indefinite pronoun here because these lyrics are almost always written from a male point of view, the trope of an otherwise morally upright male drawn into a dangerous pattern of self-deception and self-destructive behavior by the wiles of a seductive woman of questionable moral character. It would seem that we are obsessed with obsession. Popular usage has blunted the edge of the word; "preoccupation," "passion," "enthusiasm," or even "interest" are now frequently substituted with their crazy cousin "obsession." The word seems to pack more punch than its feeble surrogates. Of course, overuse of the word contributes to the distortion of its original meaning and neutralizes the word's semantic charge. Perhaps our postmodern, ironic stance miscontrues enthusiasm or passion as obsession. This might explain why Janáček has often been described as an obsessed composer in late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century accounts.

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1 This article is a much-expanded version of a paper entitled "Was Janáček Obsessed?" that I delivered at the musicology conference of the Janáček's Brno - 2004 International Music Festival in January 2004. I am grateful to Michael Beckerman for his helpful insights and comments at the beginning of the rewriting process, and to my anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful suggestions and the important questions they raised.

2 The translation is mine; the italics are Janáček's.

3 The protagonist of the 1997 popular film As Good As It Gets is a curmudgeonly author who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. As far as I am aware, this is the only film whose main character has OCD that is only ancillary to the story. I discuss OCD later in this article.

4 The recitation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" at the beginning of Citizen Kane reinforces the picture of obsession portrayed in the film. I thank Michael Beckerman for suggesting this poem as an example of obsession.

5 The groups and artists Air, Animotion, Aventura, Great Kat, Guns 'N' Roses, Hall and Oates, Kylie Minogue, Eighteen Visions, Hades Almighty, Icehouse, L.A. Guns, Mr. Deviant, Van Morrison, the Rolling Stones, Kelly Rowland, the Scorpions, Serial Joe, Soil, Unwritten Law, and Xymox all have songs entitled "obsession" or with the word in the title. (The quality of the lyrics varies widely across the spectrum.) Blue System, Michael McDonald, and UFO have album titles containing the word. There is also a group entitled Obsession, another called Indecent Obsession, and yet another, Deep Obsession.

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