(Kopie 1)
24.06.2016 10:47

Leoš Janáček’s “The Makropulos Case” at the BBC Proms

On 19 August 2016 Leoš Janáček’s great existential masterpiece The Makropulos Case will be heard at one of the world’s most important music festivals – the BBC Proms in London. For this concert performance with the BBC Singers and the BBC Symphony Orchestra the renown Czech conductor Jiří Bělohlávek has chosen the new Urtext edition from Bärenreiter Praha, edited and performed by his colleague Tomáš Hanus, himself a distinguished Janáček specialist. The Finnish star soprano Karita Mattila will sing the role of Emilia Marty. The Makropulos Case will be broadcast life from the Royal Albert Hall on BBC Radio 3. 

Ninety years have passed since the first rehearsals of Leoš Janáček’s opera The Makropulos Case. Since then, no-one has succeeded in developing a universally valid editorial method for working with Janáček’s unusual notation. Different approaches have been used to deal with the peculiarities of the musical text with greater or lesser degrees of success, in that they explore (if not ideal), the least damaging balance between a respectful preservation of the rough notation and its adaptation to the requirements of performance practice. Bärenreiter’s new edition offers a reconstruction of the opera based closely on the sources, as might have been heard at the premiere, and which only differs from the later version in details. At the same time it suggests a series of clearly-identified interventions which Tomáš Hanus has added, based on his experience as a conductor.


The difficulty and uniqueness of this score by Janáček forces interpreters and scholars to adopt an approach which differs from the usual practice. Three challenges in particular presented themselves:

1. the unusual spontaneity of Janáček’s compositional process
2. the differences between the two authorised copies of the full score 
3. the exceptional demands on the performers

Let us begin with the special position of the autograph manuscript; as with other works by Janáček this is often not the main source in which the definitive form of the work is found. This developed step by step, often only during collaboration with the copyist of the autograph manuscript, whilst Janáček continued composing or correcting. Through this process, an authorised copy was created which acquired the status of the main source. And it was the same with The Makropulos Case, even though the autograph score written out in 1925 was already close to the final version as survives in two copies authorised by Janáček. These two copies come closest to the authentic form of the work, differing only in details. The first copy was made by Václav Sedláček for the publisher Universal Edition in Vienna, and the second by Jaroslav Kulhánek for the National Theatre in Brno, although his source was not the autograph manuscript, but Sedláček’s copy which already existed at that point.

The second copy by Kulhánek was used as the conductor’s score at the first performance of the work in the presence of the composer on 18 December 1926. Janáček’s presence during the rehearsals and his collaboration with the conductor of the first performance, František Neumann, provide significant evidence of the authenticity of the Brno copy, which is also the main source for the present edition. We should add that the final version presents the Vienna source, that is the copy by Václav Sedláček which Janáček corrected in correspondence with Universal Edition Vienna. It was used for rehearsing the work at the Prague National Theatre (first performance on 1 March 1928 in the presence of the composer). Janáček died shortly afterwards, on 12 August 1928, just twenty months after the premiere in Brno. 

It is interesting – and typical for Janáček – that the corrections for the premiere and those sent by the composer to Vienna are not identical. For today’s editors and interpreters, the existence of two different versions represents above all an enrichment, rather than just complications. Both authorised copies of The Makropulos Case developed further in collaboration with the composer; the Brno version, that is Kulhánek’s copy, draws its relevance from the composer’s close personal involvement in the premiere, which led to further corrections. 

Brno 1926: a successful premiere

The version used for the Brno premiere represents a fundamental stage in the development of the opera and presents the work in a mature form. Kulhánek’s copy also has the advantage that František Neumann (1874–1929) conducted from it, a first class conductor whom Janáček greatly trusted. From 1919, when he began conducting at the Brno Opera at the composer’s suggestion, he conducted performances of Janáček’s operas there, including the world premieres of Šárka, Katja Kabanová, The Cunning Little Vixen – and also The Makropulos Case. Janáček’s satisfaction with this last premiere is recorded in a letter of thanks which he sent to members of the orchestra on Christmas Eve 1926: “And you did such an amazing job under Neumann’s direction – and yes, I did a good job too.” 

In accordance with the tradition of Janáček interpretations and also with the particular Brno tradition, the aim of which was to “translate” Janáček’s notation into a legible, truly playable form which functioned well tonally, our new edition also contains a series of comments for conductors, adjustments to dynamics, standardization of phrasing, revisions of unplayable or illegible passages, as well as ossia suggestions. If Kulhánek’s copy were transcribed in its “raw state”, it would be difficult to comprehend, and the composer’s intentions would not emerge clearly from it, for the copy contains very few details of tempo, dynamics, phrasing and articulation, and these often even contradict each other. The copy also conceals not inconsiderable problems in the area of tonal balance and dynamics. One of the major questions also concerns the tempo transitions, which are frequently so crucial for the organic shape of the work in Janáček’s music. This all has to be weighed up in an edition, and a practical solution offered. The compilers of the new edition therefore considered a series of comments which came from František Neumann in collaboration with the composer, as well as other early interpreters. Tomáš Hanus adapted and expanded these, so that they convey as faithfully as possible a practical performing form of the work which is technically feasible and which has a legible music text. But the original form of the source can still always be distinguished visually. The places which had to be more heavily edited, because they were illegible or practically unplayable, are marked as “ossia” or are listed in the Critical Report in their original variant reading.

Few alterations – many interpretations

The analysis and evaluation of Kulhánek’s copy of the full score, written in black ink and containing the composer’s autograph corrections, also resulted in several audible changes compared with the well-known form of The Makropulos Case. One such example is the pitches at the tension-laden moment before figure 94 in the first act: as the protagonists interrupt each other, the two whole-tone scales also interrupt each other, resulting in a clearly dissonant, but nevertheless harmonically logical musical structure. In the second act, the riposte usually attributed to Krista is given to her suitor Janek – it is he who answers Krista’s question in accordance with Čapek’s comedy about whether Marty loves someone, with the words: “But certainly”. 

Kulhánek’s score was used in the Brno Theatre for decades, and thus it contains a large number of later layers of revisions which are difficult to distinguish from each other. It was therefore important to reveal the original layer (including the autograph corrections) in order to be able to go back to this. The later additions were removed or, where the correction of mistakes was concerned, listed in the Critical Report. The composer’s corrections with red ink sometimes contradict each other and remained incomplete, therefore it was not always possible to incorporate these in the main music text. Many additions to the instrumentation from later dates were simply eliminated. One particular exception is the expansion of the two-part writing for the trombones to three parts, carried out in the source with pencil; this very audible alteration appears in square brackets, thereby offering a possible choice. 

A great advantage of the new edition is its practicability. The editors have developed an editorial layout which makes it possible to see interventions in the main source  straight away on the relevant page. Apart from the usual square brackets and the dotted lines, footnotes have often been used, particularly with regard to dynamics, which had to be reconciled in many places where the singers are being accompanied. The original dynamics from Kulhánek’s copy are always listed in a note on the page itself. Interventions in the rhythmic progression, required for reasons of playability in some places, have always been commented on directly on the relevant page, in order to draw a comparison with the original notation. An example of this is the motif of the short fanfare in the first scene, initially notated as a quaver triplet and later corrected by Kulhánek as demisemiquavers, changed to a semiquaver triplet, as a practical “translation” of notating an intended tightening of the rhythm. These interventions, based on Tomáš Hanus’s extensive experience with the work, should not be imposed as the sole, objectively correct solution; they are simply meant to serve as practical solutions. A special case are the rhythmic ossia passages which serve to improve the comprehensibility of the text, and are in the interest of a faithful rendition of the work. This applies particularly, for example, to Emilia Marty’s riposte from the first act. A few practical recommendations in certain passages are similarly motivated by the fact that they are difficult to articulate. 

In line with the original manuscript parts from the premiere, which in principle correspond with the basic state of Kulhánek’s copy, the editors offer a solution with one player on third clarinet and bass clarinet – even though the score provided for two musicians in places. These passages are also marked “ossia”. The editors also offer the orchestra the possibility to breathe in suitable places (again, of course, in square brackets) in the form of apostrophes and fermata.

Conflict with Max Brod

In adapting the libretto, Janáček consistently stayed close to Karel Čapek’s well-known play. It is fascinating how, through simply cutting or rearranging the ripostes, Janáček was able to transform the conversational comedy into an existential drama. 

By contrast, in making the German translation of Janáček’s opera, Max Brod worked somewhat arbitrarily, even if he was driven by the good intention of helping matters. He even forced Janáček to alter a riposte in the Czech original. As the correspondence between the two men and Universal Edition reveals, Janáček could never come to terms with this alteration and did not authorise it. It concerns a place in the third act, when Elina Makropulos returns from the bedroom after coming round from fainting. “It was wonderful how death softly touched me. And did I fear it before?” – with these words Brod supposedly wanted to account for the turn in events at the end, when Elina renounces her claim to the magic spell. However, Janáček did not have the impression that death could be pleasant in any way, and protested repeatedly against this alteration. The edition therefore returns to Janáček and Čapek’s original version, in which Elina unsentimentally and prosaically refers to a headache: “Excuse me for briefly disappearing from here. It’s been like this for two hundred years.” 

“I who bow before sound when a breath of wind moves the grass” – with these words Janáček gave his reasons in a letter to Brod in November 1926 about how important it was to keep the libretto as he conceived it. Brod’s interventions in the libretto would have, in fact, demanded a reaction in the music. For the new Urtext edition, therefore, a new German translation, faithful to the original text, has been made. This is by Kerstin Lücker, and received its premiere on 13 February 2016 in the Tiroler Landestheater in Innsbruck.

The new edition is a typical Urtext edition in the strict sense of the word – an edition based on one chosen source, that is Kulhánek’s copy of the full score, but taking other sources into consideration and with the correction of obvious mistakes. As well as the manuscript parts, the copy of the vocal score with production and stage instructions by Ota Zítek, the first director of the opera, was also an important source. Thanks to practical performing experience, clearly expressed in the interpretative notes, the new edition of the Brno premiere version offers an enriching alternative to historic and modern editions. It is worth remembering that when it received its first German performance on 14 February 1929 in Frankfurt, The Makropulos Case gripped the young Theodor W. Adorno and led to comparisons with Franz Kafka. The work is now regarded as one of the treasures of the international operatic repertoire. 

Jonáš Hájek / Tomáš Hanus / Annette Thein(translation: Elizabeth Robinson)(from [t]akte 1/2016)