University of Southern Maine1
- 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?
- 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!
Leoš Janáček (99)2
- 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
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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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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
The translation is mine;
the italics are Janáček's.
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.
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.
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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