“The Humble Czech Man”: Czech National Identity in Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen (Project Summary)

“My latest creative period is a new jet from my soul which has made its peace with the world and seeks only to be near the humble Czech man.”

Leoš Janáček


Composer Leoš Janáček makes a reference to the “humble Czech man,” but what man is he referring to? Is the humble Czech man himself, or is it bigger than that? What does it mean to be Czech? In this project, I studied the roles of both the Czech style and “Czechness” in the formation of the Czech national identity. The newfound independence of the Czechoslovak Republic in 1918 led to the continuation of the larger discussion of national identity, but in a 20th century context. This was during the same time when Janáček (1854-1928) was writing many of his greatest works, namely a majority of his late operas. His opera The Cunning Little Vixen (Příhody lišky Bystroušky) was composed from 1921-1923, just a few years after the Czech people gained independence. The opera, based on the story by Rudolf Těsnohlídek, follows the adventures of the Vixen (female fox) as she encounters and interacts with other animals, humans, and nature. Through discussions and analyses of the usage of various themes and influences, unique uses of language in the music, and Moravian folk settings, I demonstrate how Janáček created a work that is representative of the Czech national identity. 


Janáček and The Cunning Little Vixen


In his late operas, Janáček served as both the composer and librettist, rather than having a separate person create the libretto, as he had in his earlier works. Janáček wrote the libretto for his opera by adapting Těsnohlídek’s story. The first two acts follow the story fairly well, leaving out some details and keeping others in order to shorten the plot for the purposes of the opera. However, the third act is almost completely fabricated by Janáček. The most obvious change is the fate of the Vixen at the end. This change in the ending provided just what Janáček wanted in order to portray certain ideas of nature and realism through his work. 

Janáček’s close friend, the author and composer Max Brod, played a significant role in the creation of this opera and many others. Brod mainly provided criticisms and edits to the libretto and music. Much of this was done while he was translating the opera into German. He found what he believed to be some confusions in the libretto plot and offered suggestions to Janáček in order to make changes to fix these “incongruities.” Although they had some arguments over the opera in this way, the collaboration between Janáček and Brod was largely positive and many of Brod’s suggestions were considered and used. 

During the time of the opera, Janáček was having a largely emotional affair with a woman named Kamila Stösslová. Although they were both legally married (Janáček and his wife had negotiated an unofficial divorce years earlier) and Stösslová was much younger, the two met in 1917 and continued to correspond through letters and a few meetings until Janáček died in 1928. Stösslová served as the muse for many of Janáček’s later works and is said to be the inspiration and “regenerative force” behind many of the female lead characters in the later operas, including The Cunning Little Vixen. The idealization of the Vixen and Terynka may have been reminiscent of Janáček’s own idealization of Stösslová. Though Janáček did have a history of objectifying and sexualizing women around him, the references to the Vixen seem to consider personality and motives, hinting at a stronger connection to the influence than just the general “female aesthetic.” 


Themes in The Cunning Little Vixen 


There is a noticeable and purposeful connection between Janáček’s works and natural imagery, notably seen in The Cunning Little Vixen. He got a cottage in the Moravian countryside and lived and studied there frequently. He also sought to learn more about foxes and their life cycles in order to have accurate representations of the animals. The music in the first scene of the opera is perhaps the most noticeable representation of the enhancement of natural imagery. The fluttering 32nd notes in the first measures of the opera could reflect the fluttering wings of insects and the rustling of leaves from the wind and animals. Through this, the chaos of nature is combined with the calm in order to represent it holistically in the music. In the characters, visuals, and orchestral background, Janáček is able to represent the natural imagery of his homeland.

While the opera depicts the natural wonders of life and the surrounding environment, it is also representative of realism in the rest of Czech society. At this time, a movement was made towards the portrayal of under-represented people and ideas, notably in the arts and literature. In The Cunning Little Vixen, Janáček did this by depicting the lower classes and the region of Moravia. Part of this was inherent in the original story by Těsnohlídek. Through showing the successes of a sly “underdog” character, Těsnohlídek was able to connect with the goals of the common people. Similarly, the region of Moravia was not well-documented in the arts and literature before this time period, so the portrayal of the region, dialect, and music of Moravia allowed Janáček to showcase this area and its people. 

The main source of realism in the opera can be seen in the political and societal discontent of the characters, most likely in reference to the recent independence from the longtime rule of the Habsburgs and the chaos of establishing order. This can especially be seen in the language used by the Vixen. She is frequently shown speaking out against the injustices of the class divides. These divides are evident both between humans and animals and among the animals, themselves. By depicting this frustration, Janáček is appealing to the sense of sympathy in the Czech people due to their recent experiences. The Czech national identity is referenced with this similar distrust and strive for independence. Through the influences of people, society, and ideals, Janáček is able to represent his own beliefs and the beliefs and experiences of the Czech people. This holistic portrayal is a main factor in the creation of the Czech national identity.


Czech Language and Dialects


As the Czech language was largely revitalized during the nineteenth century, this led to the increased usage of the language in music. This increase included the use of various dialects of Czech that are typically under-represented, most notably the Moravian dialect. Janáček believed that “a true national language on the stage is one of the bridges that reaches the widest strata of the public.” He sought to increase the use of Moravian dialect in the Czech repertoire in order to enhance the language representation contributing to the Czech national identity. 

The majority of characters in the opera speak in the Moravian dialect, however one character — Lapák, the dog — speaks in the standard Czech dialect. Janáček may have added this change because the dog speaks of being more cultured in the arts, therefore he is more formal. Since every other character in the opera speaks in the Moravian dialect, that means that the humans and the animals have an extra connection portrayed in the text. This shows their innate connection, relating back to natural imagery in the opera. This dialect relationship is finally manifested through the mutual understanding between the frog and the Forester at the end of Act III. This understanding signifies the acceptance, on the part of the Forester, of the wisdom and beauty of life and nature, relating him closer to Moravia and his country.


Janáček and Speech Melody


Janáček collected what he called “speech melodies” for about 30 years of his life by notating, in musical notation, random utterances he heard around him. By possessing this combination of an insider and outsider perspective towards the language, he was able to access the language in the way of an ethnographer, linguist, and musicologist, creating as comprehensive a notational representation as possible. Perhaps obviously, Janáček’s speech melodies should be considered more his “interpretations” of speech than literal transcriptions. He believed in the natural tendency of language to imitate the speed and intonation when recalling another’s speech. Therefore, speech melody was Janáček’s way of understanding the world and the emotions of the people around him. Through his collection of speech melodies, Janáček was able to gain an insight into the ideas of the Czech identity in the people, animals, and nature, notably in preparation for The Cunning Little Vixen.

There is considerable debate in the academic community on the application of Janáček’s speech melodies to his vocal works. There is not any evidence of Janáček using speech melodies directly in his operas and, in fact, the composer even claimed that this would undermine their purpose. The academic debate comes with the possibility that his speech melodies inspired Janáček’s compositional style. In this project, I have taken the position of the argument that speech melodies did influence his style, though I do recognize the continuing and ongoing conversation on this topic. Janáček’s later operas are largely written in prose, rather than verse, allowing for the natural language patterns of Czech to be present in the music. The Cunning Little Vixen is one of these late operas that provides many examples of the influence of speech melodies and Czech speech on its vocal lines. By making reference to these speech melodies in this opera, whether or not there was intent, Janáček is able to reflect the thoughts and emotions present in the speech of the Czech people that he studied, therefore further representing the Czech national identity. 


Moravian Folk Settings


In addition to (and somewhat in conjunction with) his study of speech melody, Janáček also had a strong research background in Moravian folk music. Along with composer and musicologist František Bartoš, Janáček worked to create multiple collections of folk songs from the region of Moravia. Janáček later began to incorporate folk songs into his compositions. In the early stages of this incorporation, he would use direct folk song quotations and put characters in traditional folk style dress, as he does in his opera Jenůfa. However, in his later works he added elements, themes, and characteristics of folk songs rather than direct quotations. This adaptation and subtle undertone of folk settings, as with speech melody, is what is seen represented in The Cunning Little Vixen. 

The three main themes that are most prevalent throughout Moravian folk songs, and subsequently in Janáček’s compositions, are nature imagery, nostalgia, and national identity. These themes are largely universal in folk songs across cultures. Nature imagery is prevalent mainly in the texts of the folk songs. These textual themes are incorporated into the opera libretto and the visual cues. Similarly, folk songs employ elements of nostalgia, with the aim of reminiscing on simple times. The theme of nostalgia, generally in 20th century texts, also serves to make the listener and reader question the past and work to improve the present and future. National identity through folk songs is evident in the preservation of Czech language and culture. By using Czech language, especially the Moravian dialect, Moravian folk songs are largely representative of the diverse history and people of the region. 

Moravian folk songs are rich in scales/modes and modulations, mainly in reference to Lydian, Mixolydian, and Romani scales and modes. Similarly to the use and study of speech melodies, the melodies and rhythms of folk songs are derived from the natural cadences of the texts. By employing natural rhythms, melodies, and feelings in the operatic text, Janáček increases the expressive diversity in his opera, not only through metric freedom, but also through the use of regional dialect. Perhaps most notably, Janáček applied the folk setting tradition of melodic and rhythmic motives to The Cunning Little Vixen. Many of the folk settings that Janáček studied featured the repetition of “sčasovka” motives, which roughly translates to short, rhythmic motives. He believed that the motives could summarize the songs, themselves, and show the emotional messages behind them. Multiple instances of this sčasovka motive can be viewed in The Cunning Little Vixen, particularly in the parts of the score marked as representative of the “Blue Dragonfly.” 


Czech National Identity in The Cunning Little Vixen


Through analyzing the various themes, influences, speech melodies, and Moravian folk settings that are present in Leoš Janáček’s life and in The Cunning Little Vixen, we are able to gain a better idea of how Janáček understood the Czech national identity. By including the influence of various important figures in his life and major themes of nature and realism, he portrays both his own life and the lives of the Czech people. In his life’s study of speech melody and its subsequent implementation in his later works, Janáček provides a musical model of the Czech language and culture. Finally, in his adaptation and quotation of Moravian folk settings, he illustrates the nature, nostalgia, nationalism, and national identity that define the Czech experience at the time. 

Due to the ongoing debate on the influence of speech melody on Janacek’s compositions, more research can be done on this subject in order to continue and further the conversation. Additionally, one could look more into a comparison of the various methods of imitating speech patterns in music over time, possibly considering the procedures, purposes, and effects of each approach. Is every instance of musical speech pattern able to be representative of the identity of the region? 

Revisiting Janáček’s words, we are able to have a better sense of what he meant by the “humble Czech man.” The “humble Czech man” is representative of the soul of the Czech people, behind any facades of nationalism, war, politics, etc. The humble Czech man is the sense of the collective individual — the Czech national identity. Though this may be partly applicable to other nations, it is also uniquely Czech. The people are what define the nation, so the representation of individual identities forms the makeup of the Czech national identity.