Pianist Joan Taylor remembers Karel Janovicky

The Czech composer Karel Janovicky died in London recently at the age of 93. Karel lived in London most of his life, having fled his home country – then Czechoslovakia – in difficult political circumstances, in 1950. Karel embarked on his musical life here with energy and commitment, with the love and support of his beloved wife Sylva. He became involved with mainstream British Institutions and was a producer in the Czech department of the BBC for 10 years, in an apparently very happy working environment. As the son of an opera singer, Karel was drawn to coaching singers, which he did so adroitly in our major opera houses.

I had the privilege of working with Karel Janovicky from 1998 until 2020. I met Karel through the tenor John Upperton when we were preparing performances of The Diary of One Who Disappeared by Janacek. We both continued our contact with Karel in the preparation of his song cycle A Bed of Roses, words by Richard Robbins, which was written especially for John and premiered at The Purcell Room in 1999. Karel coached us also in the Dvorak Gypsy Songs and encouraged us to prepare the lesser known, but equally beautiful Love Songs.

In 2012 I prepared Karel’s Piano Sonata no 1 in F major with him, worked on his song cycles Rainsongs and Passages of Flight with the wonderful soprano Lesley-Jane Rogers for the CD Rainsongs and in 2020, during Covid, I performed Karel’s lively Tango for one of the first concerts allowed during the pandemic. This concert, Life Observed, featured readings from poems by Richard Robbins and George Szirtes read by Patricia Williams, and Karel’s songs from the Song Cycle Corners of my Eye 2002, and Angles of Light 2010, sung by Isabel Nisbet (contralto). Karel had made the effort, during Covid, to travel from north to south London in order to be involved in the coaching of these beautiful but challenging songs and attended the concert. Music came first even in a pandemic!

Karel was a patient coach, meticulous in detail, generous, appreciative, enthusiastic and encouraging, as well as authoritative. His profound knowledge of Czech music meant he knew how a phrase should be played to make sense to the listener. He believed they should feel the line in the music, the climaxes, and experience the meaning of the words. Karel was insistent also that the inner parts of the music, which would also have their own hierarchy in importance and tone, should be clearly differentiated.

His deep love of all that is Czech, in particular the landscape of his homeland, meant that he could with certainty say ”that’s a horn, deep in the forest, in the distance, now closer,” in one of the magical Dvorak Love Songs, and again “that is the buckwheat- swaying” in an early song in Janacek’s cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared. Karel’s joy and passion in communicating this was utterly infectious, as was his delight when he saw his insight was understood and acted upon.

His powerful and direct descriptive language meant that one began to understand how to play the music. “Yes!” he would cry or “No, no!,” ”Go! Hit it, really hit it.” Karel very much believed the performer should have pleasure performing his music. He did not want it to be merely clever, but fun. His ideas were often quirky, fragmentary, and often amusing. But he could see the whole pattern in the music and there was always a sense of logic and climax, maybe over a whole page (as indeed one finds in Janacek).

One can see fun and originality in his recorder pieces, played so intuitively by the renowned recorderist John Turner, recorded in Rainsongs. And, in contrast, the deep understated pathos in the slow movement of his F major Piano Sonata no 1. The short fragmentary motifs in the latter seem to suspend in air, repeated like echoes or extended in a subtle way, with great charm. Karel’s deep sonorous and expressive voice would demonstrate how to shape a longer phrase to give it line and variety in tone, “That’s the violas – now clarinet.” He thought orchestrally and was insistent that the lines of the music should be carefully balanced with their hierarchy understood.

Karel, with pencil in hand and in front of a large wooden board propped on the music rest (manuscript attached by bulldog clips), was often to be found in his front room writing a bassoon sonata, a quartet or a set of variations for flute on themes of Rossini. Such diversity!

He often wrote with musical colleagues from his homeland or from Britain in mind – music for friends, in the time-old tradition, exploring the techniques of their respective instruments and challenging the musicians to the full – as in the tessitura of songs in the song cycles, for example the exceptionally high notes in the tenor song cycle “Bed of Roses.”

He set the evocative poems by George Szirtes and Richard Robbins with great imagination. I remember a particularly elusive couple of bars in one of his songs in Passages of Flight. Karel elucidated … “Those two notes – low then high – just feel the space.” The musical effect was to be found beyond the black-and-white written notation, and, as in Janacek, to be discovered, felt and performed “and not interpreted” (which was a fashion he did not believe in!).

As a highly regarded composer, Karel’s work is performed frequently in his home country by prominent Czech musicians.

As for Karel himself (incidentally a student of of Matyas Seiber), who could keep up with the stride of this tall, hardworking, upright and strong man, even in his 90s, or not be affected by his twinkling demeanour and kind, very English, charm? He reminded me, with his tall, imposing stature and generosity of spirit, of another eminent musician, Marian Nowakowski, the wonderful Polish bass singer with whom I worked for some years in south London many years ago, accompanying lessons as he coached young singers.

In conclusion, how fortunate it is that for so many years British musical life has had at its centre such giant musical figures who have found a safe haven here from political and creative oppression. Karel found a welcome in Britain. He has made a huge contribution to our cultural life. We mourn his passing.