Leos Janacek was the greatest opera composer of the 20th century, and arguably the greatest composer ever. His operas are performer-proof. Just as a poor performance of Don Giovanni or the Marriage of Figaro can still give much pleasure, it is also true that a great performance of Katya Kabanova or Jenufa is emotionally shattering, and yet a poor performance can also be transcendental, such is the power of Janacek's ability to blend story and music. His gift was to be able to take a gripping story and improve on it by homing in on the most powerful and truthful elements. Shakespeare's Othello may be a masterpiece, but Verdi's Otello is a still greater work. So Janacek's From the House of the Dead takes Dostoevsky's silver and turns it into gold.
Today, it seems almost inconceivable that it took us so long to discover Janacek, and that it is only in the past 50 years or so that his operas have been performed regularly. If it had not been for the efforts of Sir Charles Mackerras, the greatest Janacek conductor of our age, it would have taken even longer.
Reading Mirka Zemanova's biography, perhaps we should not be so surprised. It was not until 1916, when he was 61, that Janacek had anything resembling a success, with the Prague premiere of Jenufa, just two years before Czech independence. One might have thought, given the nationalist climate and the avowed and obvious Czech identity of Janacek's work, that such acclaim would have given him the recognition his music merited. Not so. Janacek had been ignored throughout his life by the Prague chattering classes as a country hick and no more than a workmanlike composer, and they were not going to change their minds after one triumph. But such was the weight of work that poured out over the next decade - Katya Kabanova, The Makropulos Affair and The Cunning Little Vixen - that eventually, they were forced, grudgingly, to acknowledge that he was more than a musical hack.
Zemanova leaves musicology to others, and concentrates on the life. What emerges most clearly is that, great composer as he was, Janacek was also a first- class shit. He seems to have had not the slightest care for the way he treated others. As a young man, he had to leave Vienna, where he had been studying, because his pieces were held to be beneath the required standard of entry to the all-important conservatoire competition. For the next 40-odd years, he eked out an existence as a provincial music teacher.
Although Zemanova wisely ignores cod psychology, Janacek's frustrations are surely one plausible reason why he behaved so badly. At 25, for instance, he fell in love with one of his music pupils, Zdenka, who was just 14. He married her two years later and then decided almost immediately that he no longer loved her; in effect, he ignored her, as well as their child, for the rest of his life. He conducted a series of affairs and made no attempt to conceal them from Zdenka. A year after his Jenufa triumph, he started sleeping with a singer 24 years his junior. Zdenka then tried to kill herself and, while she was recovering in hospital, he went on holiday, from where he wrote, suggesting that, as his mistress would be passing their home in Brno on her way to join him on holiday, she might spend a night at their house.
He then became infatuated with a 35-year-old who remained his obsession until his death in 1928. One night, he suggested to Zdenka that the three of them go to the opera together, and that she should pose as his mistress's mother "who had", as he put it charmingly, "passed on everything beautiful to her daughter".
One long-standing criticism, which can now be seen to be entirely wrong, has been that Janacek's operas are too literal, and lend themselves only to one style of interpretation - as naturalistic and text-bound as possible. Nikolaus Lehnhoff's ground- breaking (and continuing) series of productions at Glyndebourne has shown that they are works which are indeed greater than any performer is capable of demonstrating, and which can respond to any degree of "produceritis".
The great pianist Artur Schnabel described Mozart's sonatas as "too easy for beginners, and too difficult for artists". The same might apply to Janacek's operas.