Article | On Janacek and Obsession, by Paul Christiansen


Paul Christiansen, 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:

Madam!
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

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. 

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. 

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. 

I.

Obsession has been a common topos in much classic literature of the nineteenth century; for example, FrankensteinMoby 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 FearTaxi Driver, and the Hitchcock films VertigoNorth by NorthwestPsycho, 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.

Claude Monet, near the end of his life, made the following observation to Georges Clemenceau about an obsession of his own: “Color is my day-long obsession, joy and torment. To such an extent indeed that one day, finding myself at the deathbed of a woman who had been and still was very dear to me, I caught myself in the act of focusing on her temples and automatically analyzing the succession of appropriately graded colors which death was imposing on her motionless face.” To the extent that obsession is defined as an intensely keen and consuming fixation on one concept or idea that constantly intrudes on the subject’s attention and influences all contact the subject has with the world, the preceding quote is as good a definition of the term as any to be found in a dictionary. Nevertheless, we should define the word precisely before continuing our line of inquiry. The Oxford English Dictionary defines obsession in the following way: 

obsession [ad. L. obsession-em, n. of action f. obsidere to obsess: cf. F. obsession (1690) in Hatz-Darm.] 1. The action of besieging; investment, siege. […] 2. The hostile action of the devil of an evil spirit besetting any one; actuation by the devil or an evil spirit from without; the fact of being thus beset or actuated. […] 3. transf, a. The action of influence, notion or ‘fixed idea’, which persistently assails or vexes, esp. so as to discompose the mind. […] b. Psychol. An idea or image that repeatedly intrudes upon the mind of a person against his will and is usually distressing (in psychoanalytic theory attributed to the subconscious effect of a repressed emotion or experience) (664).

In this essay I will concern myself primarily with definitions 3a and 3b.

Authors discussing Janáček’s mature style refer to the considerable use of ostinati and repetitive motives, often using the term “obsessive” or “obsession.” In an introductory text on twentieth-century music, Eric Salzman posits the following about Janáček’s compositional profile: “An almost obsessive concern with repetition is very characteristic, with small figures of an insistent, prosaic character repeated over and over in block-like sections; the larger sections are built up in layers through the juxtaposition and contrast of these very grand and simple building blocks” [emphasis mine] (75). Salzman’s cautionary adverb “almost” does little to soften the impact of the adjective it modifies. Janáček’s tendency to repeat certain motives continuously and occasionally overlap them in rapid-fire stretto repetition can certainly seem obsessive. These passages occur most frequently at moments of great dramatic tension, such as Kostelnička’s confession scene in Jenůfa and the reappearance of the fate motive in Káťa Kabanová, after Káťa throws herself into the Volga at the end of the opera, or even at such places as the beginning of the overture of From the House of the Dead. After listening to this overture, one is left with a strong impression of the theme that is repeated incessantly. 

[Káťa Kabanová excerpt] 
[From the House of the Dead excerpt]

Of course, music that sounds obsessive is not limited to Eastern European composers, unless we consider Vienna “eastern.” Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade, op. 1, has many features that taken together form the epitome of obsession. The left hand drone fifths with the constantly repeated eighth note pairs in the tenor combine with the right hand sixteenth note figuration to produce a hypnotic and motoric effect. The left hand depicts the steady pulse of the treadle, and the right hand, the spinning wheel itself. That this accompaniment can remind one of obsession is not surprising–Gretchen is, after all, yearning for Faust and fantasizing ceaselessly about him. Her preoccupation with him so overcomes Gretchen that she stops spinning altogether in a fit of erotic reverie. Throughout the literature of Western art music, similar examples are legion. The “obstinate” ostinato is not only reminiscent of obsession, it is in fact the quintessential obsessive musical device.

[Gretchen am Spinnrade excerpt]

II.

To continue our discussion, we must also consider obsession from a medical standpoint. Obsession as a medical condition is often closely associated with its related condition, compulsion, and both together are diagnosed under the term obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Like phobias, OCD constitutes a neurotic anxiety disorder, and thus is in contrast to psychotic disorders such as paranoia or schizophrenia. People with this condition frequently suffer from a feeling of helplessness, and the disorder has a significant impact on their lives, often causing serious problems in professional and personal relationships. One of the chief differences between an anxiety disorder such as OCD and a psychotic disorder is that patients with an anxiety disorder know that they have a problem, but feel powerless to resist their urges. (Psychotics, whose perception of reality is distorted, are not necessarily aware of their condition.) In order for a person to be diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, he or she will have obsessions, compulsions, or both.6 In addition to meeting this criterion, the person’s condition must not be caused by another mental disorder and the obsessions or compulsions must cause distress to the person or have a profoundly negative influence on his or her life.7

For an exact medical definition of OCD, we turn to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which explains the disorder and its component parts this way: 

DSM-IV-TR Diagnostic Criteria
300.3 Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.A. Either obsessions or compulsions: Obsession as defined by (1), (2), (3), and (4):(1) recurrent and persistent thoughts, impulses, or images that are experienced, at some time during the disturbance, as intrusive and inappropriate and that caused marked anxiety or distress 
(2) the thoughts, impulses, or images are not simply excessive worries about real-life problems
(3) the person attempts to ignore or suppress such thoughts, impulses, or images, or to neutralize them with some other thought or action
(4) the person recognizes that the obsessional thoughts, impulses, or images are a product of his or her own mind (not imposed from without as in thought insertion)Compulsions as defined by (1) and (2):
(1) repetitive behaviors (e.g., hand washing, ordering, checking) or mental acts (e.g., praying, counting, repeating words silently) that the person feels driven to perform in response to an obsession, or according to the rules that must be applied rigidly
(2) the behaviors or mental acts are aimed at preventing or reducing distress or preventing some dreaded event or situation; however these behaviors or mental acts are not connected in a realistic way with what they are designed to neutralize or prevent or are clearly obsessive
B. At some point during the course of the disorder, the person has recognized that the obsessions or compulsions are excessive or unreasonable. Note: This does not apply to children. 
C. The obsessions or compulsions cause marked distress, are time consuming (take more than 1 hour a day), or significantly interfere with the person’s normal routine, occupational (or academic) functioning, or usual social activities or relationships.
D. If another Axis I disorder is present, the content of the obsessions or compulsions is not restricted to it (e.g., preoccupation with food in the presence of an eating disorder; hair pulling in the presence of trichotillomania; concern with appearance in the presence of body dysmorphic disorder (BDD); preoccupation with drugs in the presence of hypochondriasis; preoccupation with sexual urges or fantasies in the presence of paraphilia; or guilty ruminations in the presence of major depressive disorder).
E. The disturbance is not due to the direct psychological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, a medication) or a general medical condition. (902-3)

A person who is truly obsessed is, for example, someone who has the unwanted recurrent thought that he is contaminated by germs from strangers. Unpleasant fears of contamination or infection constantly besiege the victim, and he is unable to dispel the intrusive thoughts. The only relief is the immediate and temporary one that follows carrying out a particular compulsive action or thought. A compulsion that could accompany this obsession is the repeated and thorough washing of one’s hands many times throughout the day, leaving the hands raw and irritated. 

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a true disability as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA): “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” A person with OCD may have the habit of conducting her morning ablutions in exact order, repeating each action three times before moving on to the next (feeling compelled to start over from the beginning whenever she “makes a mistake”). Similar cases are described in the medical literature. It is not difficult to imagine how this person’s life can be “substantially limited” by his condition. People who come into contact with someone who has OCD quickly become acquainted with the abnormality and this awareness significantly affects their perception of the person. A person with obsessive-compulsive disorder is not immediately revealed as disabled or abnormal in the sense of being disfigured or deformed. It is the subject‘s behavior that stigmatizes him or her.

There is evidence that the brains of people with OCD are physiologically different from those of people without the disorder. One study suggests that in OCD patients there is abnormally high activity in the frontal lobe and in one area of the basal ganglia, which is thought to be involved in providing stimulus for worrying.8 Another cause for the disorder could be low levels of certain neurotransmitters, specifically serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. One recently concluded study recruited patients to participate in an investigation of this phenomenon.9 This research is meant to build upon earlier work along the same lines (Barr et al). Yet another possible cause is that OCD patients tend to have less white matter, which is found below the cerebral cortex and has axons that connect impulses between neurons in the cerebral cortex and other sectors of the brain (Jenike et al).

III.

Let us return to the question of Janáček and obsession. Was Janáček obsessive in a clinical sense? The most frequent variations on this theme involve Kamila Stösslová. There are some 700 letters extant that Janáček wrote to Kamila Stösslová, some of which she wholly or partially destroyed.10 Janáček’s correspondence with Stösslová occupied his attention usually about once a day, although in rare instances as much as several times in a day. We can speculate that he often thought about Kamila, but there is no reason to think that he saw these thoughts as “senseless” or “repugnant” or in any way tried to avoid them—as a person with obsessive thoughts does—nor does he seem to have been driven to write the letters against his will by an irresistible compulsion.11 Moreover, Janáček was quite productive in other areas of his life and this fact adduces support for the conclusion that such thoughts did not in fact constitute an obsession that dominated his life.

Janáček did indeed enjoy the company of Kamila Urválková, whose voice was like a “viola d’amore” and who sent him the red roses that began their acquaintance, but his infatuation with her never had the same character or intensity of his relationship to the “other” Kamila. If Janáček was obsessed with Kamila Stösslová, did he identify himself with Janiček in the song cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared? It is certainly possible, as he wrote to Kamila that he considered her to be the Gypsy girl of Diary, Zefka.12 It is an attractive poetic conceit that Janáček would be seduced by dark, mysterious Kamila, risking serious societal disapprobation, just as his near-namesake did in Diary. Of course reality was quite different, as Kamila did not return his feelings, at least not quite in the way he seems to have hoped.

Likewise, Janáček did not seem to see his notation of nápěvky mluvy (speech melodies) as bothersome invasions on his time and attention. On the contrary, he felt that that act of recording speech contours honed his sense of melody and rhythm of the language and that this allowed him to compose vocal lines that more precisely approximated actual intonational and prosodic patterns. There can be no doubt that he was quite interested in, even passionate about, the recording and study of speech melody, and in particular its implications for dramatic power in his music, but his interest was most probably not an obsession or compulsion per se.13 There are seventy-five folders of the composer’s notebooks at the Moravian Museum’s Janáček Archive, containing thousands of nápěvky. When one considers all the letters Janáček wrote, books he read and copiously annotated, not to mention his prolific compositional output and numerous revisions, this is indeed a considerable number.

Other explanations exist for Janáček’s prolific notation and collection of speech melodies. Changes in the limbic system and temporal lobes of the brain can cause a condition called hypergraphia, which is the term for a compelling and near-irresistible desire to write.14 It is unclear to what extent this condition is the force behind creative activities of artists, writers, and composers; it has been associated with other, more serious conditions.15 However, hypergraphia is not considered a medical disorder which requires no treatment and in any case, there is no conclusive evidence that Janáček had this condition. Another possibility is a condition known as Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD), which in common usage is frequently mistaken for OCD. People with OCPD typically do not feel compelled to perform senseless tasks such as those with obsessive-compulsive disorder; rather, they tend to be relentless perfectionists and exhibit signs of anxiety when “things aren’t right.” They prize perfectionism and order above all other things. For instance, an OCPD sufferer may incessantly adjust the knot in his tie, never feeling satisfied with the result. A composer with this disorder might spend inordinate amounts of time making sure that the note stems in her handwritten score are all straight, perpendicular to the staff, and of the same length. Most people, when speaking of someone as being “obsessive-compulsive,” usually have in mind OCPD rather than the anxiety disorder OCD (which is a more serious condition, one often necessitating treatment). There is no evidence to suggest that Janáček had OCPD, either.

If Janáček was not obsessive in a clinical sense, why have such accustations persisted? Obsession is perceived as something unnatural, strange, or uncanny. In 1973 David Rosenhan published a seminal article in the journal Science on the stigmatization of labeling in a mental institution. In the article, Rosenhan presents the results of an experiment in which twelve people with no recorded history of mental illness volunteered to submit to evaluation by psychiatrists and were subsequently diagnosed by hospital staff to have psychiatric disorders (eleven were diagnosed with schizophrenia; one with manic-depressive psychosis) and were admitted to twelve mental hospitals (258). Rosenhan concludes that even extensively trained and experienced mental health professionals often misdiagnose patients and these mistakes are commonly perpetuated and reinforced in subsequent encounters with the patients. The depersonalization by hospital staff of patients labeled with a mental disorder that Rosenhan observed is specific to the particular environment of a psychiatric facility. However, his observations about the stigma and ostracism that stubbornly follow a person being labeled with a mental disorder can have implications for our perception of Janáček as obsessed. As noted earlier, despite certain positive characteristics imputed to obsession, the usual connotations of the word are decidedly negative and imply unhealthy mental imbalance. In calling Janáček obsessed, it is as though we were affixing a scarlet letter O to his coat that colors all our perceptions of him.

One composer who we know to have suffered from OCD, in addition to having a predisposition toward occasional mind-crushing depression, was Anton Bruckner (Bourke). His condition compounded his feelings of low self-esteem, which prompted him to seek outside confirmation of his talents as an artist, in one case, by writing to various universities in pursuit of an honorary doctorate (which he finally received much later in life, from the University of Vienna). Inexplicably, the article on Bruckner in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians makes no mention of the disorder and speaks only briefly to the composer’s mental condition: “That Bruckner’s mental stability was suspect on at least one occasion is verified by his period of confinement in the sanatorium at Bad Kreuzen in 1867. Throughout his life ample confidence in his musical abilities was counterbalanced by a nervous, introverted and often obsequious disposition” (Hawkshaw and Jackson). 

We generally think of obsession as a personality defect, like a ruthless tyrant who controls the brain. These are people who deserve our compassion rather than our admiration. On the other hand, is there such a thing as a healthy obsession? Can an obsession be a boon, especially for an artist? Perhaps in some cases, a more appropriate metaphor for obsessions and compulsions is that of a coaxing coxswain, endlessly prodding a person to achieve; indeed, obsession has long been associated with creativity and artistic endeavor. Many books have been written about the connection between obsession, irrationality, madness, and genius. Recently, at the Mills Gallery of the Boston Center for the Arts, there was an exhibition of art created by patients with OCD; curator Matthew Nash, also a contributor, said that the purpose of the exhibition is to show how obsessions and compulsions can fuel creativity.16 The exhibition drew a wide and diverse crowd. Whether obsessive-compulsive behavior directly and positively contributes to creative endeavor, it appears that in many cases it does not significantly inhibit creative impulses.

Many people with OCD have been able to be productive in society, with varying degrees of success, in spite of their affliction, including paranoid recluse Howard Hughes, actor Harrison Ford, soccer player David Beckham, baseball player Nomer Garciaparra, pianist and composer Oscar Levant, lexicographer, writer, and critic Samuel Johnson (who also suffered from Tourette’s Syndrome), and Nikola Tesla, inventor of the induction motor. Some studies seem to show a correlation between mental disorders and successful creative activity. One such study showed that in a sampling of forty-seven of the most successful British authors and artists, approximately thirty-eight percent had sought professional help for mood disorders—roughly thirty times the percentage of those in the general population being treated—and one third of them admitted to having strong mood swings.17 (One presumes that the numbers would increase somewhat if all artists and writers who suffer from these symptoms actually sought treatment.)

From studies like this one we can point to a correlation between mild mood dysfunction or disorders and creativity. Another well-worn trope, Romantic at its core, is that of the artist who suffers for his art. Recent studies have investigated a possible connection between creativity and suffering or self-abuse.18 Mental problems have long been the curse of composers. Ludwig van Beethoven and Robert Schumann, for instance, had a bipolar disorder. Antonín Dvořák may have suffered from a severe panic anxiety disorder; Michael Beckerman argues that for Dvořák, composition may have been a respite from irrational fears and anxious feelings (190). For composers, writers, or other artists who have had obsessions or compulsions, the creative act is sometimes inseparable from the disorder itself.

So it is conceivable that, to some, Janáček’s “disability,” if he had one, may be no handicap at all.19 On the contrary, it might be perceived as some type of badge of honor, the source of the composer’s inspiration and invention. The question as to whether he actually had such an affliction might be beside the point. He may be seen by those who attribute obsession to him as having overcome adversity on the way to artistic success, or, on the other hand, as the bearer of a double-edged sword, which tortures him even as it endows him with uncommon abilities. (Recall Claude Monet’s characterization of his obsession with color as his “joy and torment.”) Either assumption casts a sympathetic light on the composer. We all have to deal with adversity in our lives and in a certain sense the obsessed label humanizes Janáček—his alterity lends him a certain appealing true-to-life dimension.

IV.

Perhaps there is also a nationalist dimsension to the discourse surrounding Janáček. Compositions of Austrian and German composers are often associated with words such as “controlled,” “logical,” and “masterful.” According to this rubric, non-Germanic composers by implication have had to rely on fits of obsession, seizures of creativity that overtake them completely, making them vessels for inspiration from divine or otherworldly sources. This notion has been deconstructed almost as often as it has been asserted or implied. Yet we know that such a portrayal can hardly be applied to Janáček, who had as rigorous a training regime in harmony, counterpoint, and composition as any Teutonic composer. He also had a keen sense of the dramatic, and coolly calculated his musical gestures for maximum effect. Positing that Janáček was obsessed has the effect of marginalizing the composer who, debilitated by the disorder we have ascribed to him, cannot speak to us in the way that we imagine Brahms or Mahler can—with the authority and force of a masterful, creative genius. In music history and theory courses taught in the West, the music of composers such as Skryabin and Janáček is often mentioned only fleetingly, and almost never analyzed. This omission implies that this “Oriental” music is not put together in a way that analysis would help us understand, that rather than following a logical progression, it spins its wheels in an obsessive rut.

At a time when Janáček is becoming more known in the West, it is important to scrutinize attitudes and assumptions about the man and his work. His music is performed ever more frequently in concert halls and opera houses and critics have been writing of his surprising originality and his underrated status for some time now, yet Janáček is still excluded from basic textbooks on music history and study anthologies in music departments outside of the Czech Republic.20 If included at all in a music history text, Janáček usually warrants passing mention under the heading “Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Music,” despite the fact that his chief contributions to the history of music have their origin chiefly in the following century (and again, his compositions are almost never analyzed). Some composers, exterritorial in at least one or another respect—such as Dvořák—have been “rehabilitated” or “justified” by various Western critics, like Eduard Hanslick, who aim to explain that they are somehow honorary Germans or Austrians and thus worthy of inclusion in the canon.

For some, Janáček’s music does not convince through logical argument like a Bach fugue or a Beethoven sonata—it seduces, is good in spite of a certain “irrationality.”21 Alfred Einstein, writing about three of nineteenth-century Czech Bedřich Smetana’s chamber works, asserts that while the compositions are “autobiographical” and “full of original and vigorous invention,” they are “formally underdeveloped and rhapsodic” (Einstein 299; as quoted in Beckerman, “Czechness,” 61-73). The phrase “formally underdeveloped” is clear enough: in Einstein’s estimation, Smetana’s music lacks rational control that would elevate his works into the pantheon of Western music inhabited by luminaries such as Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. The word “rhapsodic” is code for the same thing. The word rhapsody comes to us through Latin from Greek (rhapsoidia is a recitation of epic poetry excerpts, and this term comes from the verb rhaptein, meaning to stitch together, and aidein, meaning to sing). So a rhapsody is something stitched together to be sung (or played), without necessarily having any overarching unity governing it, similar to a fantasy. “Rhapsodic” can certainly have a positive valence—a rhapsodic poem—but in opposing the word here to his generally favorable assessment of the pieces, Einstein uses the word as a pejorative, as a foil to “original” and “vigorous invention.”

Foucault and other critics have shown that Western reflections of the Orient are inextricably intertwined with constructions of power, which derive from the domination of Eastern peoples by Westerners. The Orient in this context can occupy areas east or southeast of Germany and Austria and can include Eastern Europe, northern Africa, and essentially all of Asia. With regard to music per se, this point of view is posited in Edward Said’s highly influential book Orientalism;22 Bart Moore-Gilbert has noted a dichotomy in perceptions of the East as silent, sensual, feminine, tyrannical, irrational, and backward, and the West, on the other hand, as dynamic, moral, masculine, democratic, rational, and progressive (39). Of course, certain societies can fall on both sides of this rubric: Eastern Europeans can see Asian or Arab cultures in the same terms. This dichotomy is clearly apparent for instance in Janáček’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared, between Western Janíček and Eastern Zefka. Sometimes the implication is made more subtly: one author of an encyclopedia of twentieth-century music writes of Janáček’s works that “convey highly charged feeling through ostinatos and vivid eccentricity” [emphasis mine] (Griffiths 100).

Standing on the shoulders of the previously mentioned criticism, as well as other scholarship, some authors have called for a reassessment of long-held prejudices. Derek Sayer’s 1998 book The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History is an attempt to explain to Western audiences the often misunderstood place of the Czech lands in the history of Europe and to re-situate Bohemia and Moravia in the heart of Europe rather than at its fringes. Similar histories have recently been written about other Eastern European countries.23 We are only just starting to question misleading representations and negotiate new, illuminating histories of peoples and cultures that have been thus far little understood in the West. As is often the case, musicology in this regard lags behind other fields of inquiry, but is steadily gaining ground.

Theodor Adorno had something to say about this topic, and over a century ago. He distinguishes between what he calls “exterritorial music,” in which tonal material can be used “without embarrassment,” and traditional, nationalist, and conservative Blut- und Bodenmusik (41-42). As an example of exterritorial music, Adorno mentions music in agricultural regions of southern Europe and then proceeds to single out Janáček and Bartók for praise as exterritorial composers. He attributes a power of alienation to this music, which he associates with the avant-garde, and holds that it is among the most progressive art music in Europe.24 An exclusionary term like “exterritorial” serves to identify the author with one group by stating its polar opposite. Although the term “exterritorial” can be understood in numerous contexts, it also has a specific geographical import, even if it is difficult to delimit precisely which areas are exterritorial. Certainly composers from Slavic or Finno-Ugric linguistic regions are included in the term, although some composers, such as Tchaikovsky or Stravinsky, are often seen as creators of a universal music that somehow transcends their territorial origins. Indeed, Tchaikovsky met with the opprobrium of the Mighty Handful for his close identification with the St. Petersburg Conservatory and his “conservative formalism.”

Scholars in the West who do not specialize in the work of an “exterritorial” composer at times confuse some composers east of the Danube with others. A short anecdote should serve to illustrate my point. A colleague and I recently received an acceptance to read a joint paper on Janáček’s theory of speech melody at an international interdisciplinary musicology conference in Austria. The acceptance included comments from anonymous referees regarding our abstract. One of the reports included the following statement: “Interesting comparison between music transcription and Kodály’s own transcriptions of language. I am curious to hear findings of intonational analysis.”25 Zoltán Kodály’s name appears twice more in the referee’s report. Although there was no mention anywhere in our proposal of Kodály, the reader still coadunated two Eastern European composers.26 In the Western imagination, the East is a fantastical landscape, where Hungarian equals Czech and Kodály can easily substitute for Janáček.

Czech musicologists never write of Janáček as an obsessed composer. Of course that would not necessarily mean that he did not have such a disorder, merely that Czechs were reluctant to admit the eventuality. Czech musicology is of a decidedly conservative cast and it would be truly surprising if Janáček were labeled “obsessed” by one of his own countrymen; on the contrary, many Czechs have objected strenuously whenever it has been suggested that one of their pantheon of composers may have suffered from a mental disorder.27 Nevertheless, as no evidence has been yet advanced that Janáček was actually in any meaningful way obsessed, there must be other reasons why the composer is associated with the disorder, presumably dependent on the agendas of individual writers.

Although much has been made of the psychological import of Janáček’s operas (and even instrumental works with ostensible programs such as his string quartets), so far there have been no studies of Janáček’s state of mental health (either contemporary to the composer or based on recent analysis of extant information) that would provide support for contentions about obsession. Loose references to obsession obscure our perception of the man and his work, and maybe it is time to re-evaluate these assumptions. Labeling Janáček as “obsessed” needlessly marginalizes the composer and distorts our understanding of his position both in his milieu and in current Rezeptionsgeschichte.

  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.
  6. Some authors contest the necessity of separate definitions for obsession and compulsion and consider the distinction to be arbitrary; see, for example, Reed.
  7. Some mental disorders are related and they have an accretive effect on each other. For example, people who exhibit symptoms of OCD or some form of obsessive-compulsive behavior are often also afflicted by Tourette’s Syndrome. Other OCD patients battle with bouts of depression or recurring conditions such as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
  8. Two studies that have investigated this question are Szeszko et al, and Zald and Kim.
  9. The unpublished results of “PET Imaging of Monoamine Transporters in OCD-Related Disorders” are available online at: http://clinicaltrials.gov/ct/show/NCT00082550?order=1.
  10. They are contained in Tyrrell.
  11. In Janáček’s native language, the word obsession is posedlost. The root of the word is sed-, which forms the basis for the verb sedět(sednout – perfective form), meaning “to sit.” The word for saddle, sedlo, has the same root. Of the word posedlost, one has the mental image of a person saddled with (and ridden by?) the object of his obsession. This metaphor can be understood as a poetic representation of the medical definition of obsession discussed above.
  12. Janáček, in a letter to Kamila dated 24 July 1924 (Pribanova).
  13. However, recording the speech melodies of his daughter as she lay dying might strike some as evidence of the composer’s obsession. For a discussion of this incident and its significance, see Christiansen 2004.
  14. Neurologist Alice Weaver Flaherty addresses the issue in a thoughtful article for the Chronicle of Higher Education.
  15. A 1974 article showed a connection between temporal lobe epilepsy and hypergraphia: See Waxman and Geschwind.
  16. For the related story, see Payne.
  17. See Jamison 1989. Writers were the most stricken group, with poets suffering most. Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, herself suffers from manic depression and has written a memoir of living with the disorder entitled An Unquiet Mind.
  18. See Holkeboer. Another study in the same vein include Richards and Kinney. Attempting to draw a connection between creativity and severe psychological disorders is Prentky.
  19. Joseph N. Straus has considered the topic of disability in relation to music in his “Normalizing the Abnormal: Disability in Music and Music Theory.”
  20. Examples that do not discuss in detail, let alone analyze, Janáček’s music include history texts such as Kamien. Kerman, Racice, and Grout et al, as well as anthologies and analysis texts such as Morgan, Burkhart, and Lester. This omission seems particularly glaring in books on twentieth-century music analysis. A notable exception is Arnold Whittall’s recent Exploring Twentieth-Century Music: Tradition and Innovation, where Janáček’s music is analyzed and discussed on a level with other great composers of the twentieth-century such as Debussy, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, and Bartók. I do not mean to suggest that neglect of his music in these anthologies, histories, and theory texts is directly attributable to Janáček’s exterritoriality, I am merely searching for an explanation for the lacunae. It is indeed curious that one of the most original voices of twentieth-century Western art music is virtually silent in instructive texts on music. There need not be any causal or correlative relationship between the two circumstances, but neither are they mutually exclusive.
  21. For a stimulating discussion of irrationality and akrasia, see Nele.
  22. Said has elaborated and refined this position over the years; see his Culture and Imperialism.
  23. Paul Lendvai’s The Hungarians: A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeatand Lucian Boia’s Romania: Borderland of Europe are examples.
  24. In a recent article, a Czech scholar also considers the term in relation to another 20th-century composer; see Spurn´y.
  25. The conference to which I allude to was the Conference on Interdisciplinary Musicology 2004, sponsored by the European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music and the Dept. of Musicology, University of Graz in April 2004. My collaborator on this paper was Jonathan Pearl.
  26. Both composers conducted ethnographic research in the late nineteenth century, although this still does not completely explain the referee’s confusion.
  27. This happened for instance at a conference in the Czech Republic in 1997 when Michael Beckerman presented the research on Dvořák and anxiety mentioned above.
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