Janáček was born in Hukvaldy, Moravia, (then part of the Austrian Empire), the son of Jiří Janáček, a schoolmaster, and Amalie Janáček. In 1865 he enrolled as a ward of the foundation of the Abbey of St. Thomas in Brno, where he took part in choral singing under Pavel Křížkovský and occasionally played the organ. Janáček became the choirmaster of the Svatopluk artisan´s association in 1873. During the "Svatopluk years" (1873-76) he wrote his first vocal compositions. In 1874 he went to Prague to study music at the Prague organ school and made a living as a music teacher. He also conducted various amateur choirs.
From October 1879 to February 1880 he studied piano, organ, and composition at the Leipzig Conservatory; among his teachers there were Oskar Paul and Leo Grill. In Leipzig Janáček composed Thema con variazioni for piano in B flat subtitled Zdenka’s Variations. From April to June 1880 he studied composition at the Vienna Conservatory with Franz Krenn.
Thereafter he returned to Brno and resumed his artistic and organizational activities. On 13 July, 1881 he married his young pupil Zdenka Schulzová. He was appointed director of the organ school, a post he held until 1919, when the organ school became the Brno Conservatory. In the middle of the eighties Janáček started a more systematic compositional activity, he created the Four male-voice choruses (1886), dedicated to Antonín Dvořák, and his first opera Šárka (1887-8) among other works. At that time he also started to study and collect folk songs, dances and music. In the beginning of 1887 occurred the first conflict between Janáček and Czech composer Karel Kovařovic, whose opera The Bridegrooms Janáček sharply criticized in the Hudební listy journal. Kovařovic later, as director of the National Theatre in Prague, refused to stage Janáček´s opera Jenůfa.
In 1888 Janáček attended the performance in Prague of Tchaikovsky’s music, and he met the older composer personally. Since early 1890s Janáček headed the mainstream of folklorist activities in Moravia and Silesia. He processed his folksongs and dances into orchestral and piano arrangements. Most of his achievements in this field were published in 1899-1901. However, his interest in the folklore persisted till his death. His own compositonal work from that time was still influenced by the declamatory and dramatic style of Smetana, Dvořák, and Wagner. The cantata Amarus (1897), and the Beginning of the Romance (1891), another attempt of Janáček at writing an opera, were composed in that time. Vladimír, composer´s second child, died in 1890.
The fundamental break in Janáček´s output came with the start of the 20th century. In 1903 his daughter Olga died, too, his opera Jenůfa (dedicated to the memory of Olga) was refused by the National Theatre in Prague, and dejected, Janáček was recovering in the spa Luhačovice.
In 1905 Janáček attended a demonstration in support of a Czech university in Brno, which inspired his composition of the 1. X. 1905 piano sonata. His life situation in that time was difficult, he destroyed some of his works, many compositions remained unfinished, and he longed for artistic recognition from Prague.
In 1916 he started a long professional and personal relationship with theatre critic, dramatist and translator Max Brod. In that same year was Jenůfa, revised by Kovařovic, finally accepted by the National Theatre. The performance in Prague in 1916 was a great success, and brought Janáček his first acclaim; he was 62. Janáček started a relationship with singer Gabriela Horváthová after the Prague première which led to his wife Zdenka's suicide attempt and their informal divorce.
A year later (1917) he met Kamila Stösslová, a young married woman who was an inspiration to him for the remaining years of his life, and with whom he conducted an obsessive correspondence (nearly 730 letters) – passionate on his side at least.
He was relieved of duties as the director of the Brno Conservatory in 1920. In 1922 Janáček attended a lecture by the Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore, and composed the chorus The Wandering Madman on the text of this poem. Later that year he also encountered the microtonal works of Alois Hába.
In 1924, the year of his 70th birthday, the first biography of Janáček was published by Max Brod. The New York Times published an interview with Janáček by Olin Downes. In 1925 he retired from his functions. However, composing didn't stop. In 1926 Janáček travelled to England at the invitation of Rosa Newmarch, in London a number of his compositions were performed, e.g. his first string quartet, the wind sextet Youth, and the violin sonata. Janáček has been very successful and active in his later years, and became an international celebrity. Nevertheless, in August 1928, along with Kamila Stösslová and her son Otta, he made an excursion to Štramberk. Soon after this he became ill, and died in the sanatorium of Dr. L. Klein in Ostrava. He is buried at the Central Cemetery in Brno.
In 1874 Janáček became friends with Antonín Dvořák, and began composing in a relatively traditional romantic style, but after his opera Šárka (1881), his style began to change. He made a study of Moravian and Slovak folk music and used elements of it in his own music. He especially focused on studying and reproducing the rhythm and the pitch contour and inflections of normal Czech speech, which helped in creating the very distinctive vocal melodies in his opera Jenůfa (1904). Going much farther than Modest Mussorgsky and anticipating the later work of Béla Bartók in such styles, Janáček made this a distinguishing feature of his vocal writing. Janáček composed the majority of his output during the last decade of his life, although the fundamentals for his later works lies in the previous period of 1904-1918.
He is best known for the music he wrote from this point to the end of his life. Although many consider his output from this period to mark his mature style, he had been writing in this fashion for quite a number of years but had simply not received wide public acclaim earlier.
Much of Janáček's work display great originality and individuality. His work is tonal, although it employs a vastly expanded view of tonality. He also uses unorthodox chord spacings and structures, often making use of modality: "there is no music without key. Atonality abolishes definite key, and thus tonal modulation....Folksong knows of no atonality. He features accompaniment figures and patterns, with according to Jim Samson, "the on-going movement of his music...similarly achieved by unorthodox means—often a discourse of short, 'unfinished' phrases comprising constant repetitions of short motives which gather momentum in a cumulative manner."
Janáček belongs to a wave of 20th century composers who were seeking greater realism and greater connection with everyday life, combined with a more all-encompassing use of musical resources. His operas in particular demonstrate the use of "speech"-derived melodic lines, folk and traditional material, and complex modal musical argument. Janáček's works are still regularly performed around the world, and are generally considered popular with audiences. He would also inspire later composers in his homeland, as well as music theorists, among them Jaroslav Volek, to place modal development alongside of harmony in importance in music.
The operas of his mature period Jenůfa (1904), Káťa Kabanová (1921), The Cunning Little Vixen (1924), The Makropulos Affair (1926) and From the House of the Dead (after a novel by Dostoevsky, premiered posthumously in 1930) are considered as his finest works. The conductor Sir Charles Mackerras has become particularly closely associated with them.
His chamber music, while not especially voluminous, includes works which are generally considered to be "in the standard repertory" as 20th century classics, particularly his two string quartets: Quartet No. 1, "The Kreutzer Sonata" inspired by the Tolstoy novel, and the Quartet No. 2, "Intimate Letters".
At the Frankfurt am Main Festival of Modern Music in 1926 Ilona Štěpánová-Kurzová performed the world premiere of Janáček's lyrical Concertino for piano, two violins, viola, clarinet, French horn and bassoon; the Czech premiere took place in Brno on February 16, 1926. A comparable chamber work for an even more unusual set of instruments, the Capriccio for piano left hand, flute, two trumpets, three trombones and tenor tuba, was written for pianist Otakar Hollmann, who lost his right hand during World War I. After its premiere in Prague on March 2, 1928, it gained considerable acclaim in the musical world.
Other well known pieces by Janáček include the Sinfonietta, the Glagolitic Mass (the text written in Old Church Slavonic), and the rhapsody Taras Bulba. These pieces and the above mentioned five late operas were all written in the last decade of Janáček's life.
Both Janáček's style and thematic inspiration make use of several fundamental sources.
Janáček was deeply influenced by folklore, and by folk music in particular. His interest was not of the idealized romantic vision of folklore in the 19th century, but rather oriented to the realistic, descriptive and analytic approach. Janáček partly composed the original piano accompaniments to more than 150 folk songs, with respect for their original function and context, and partly used folklore inspiration in his own works, especially in his mature compositions. Even though he didn't intentionally imitate the style of any folklore area with which he was acquainted, it is apparent that the basis of his style is to a large degree influenced by folk music. Janáček's systematic practice of writing down folk songs formed an exceptional feeling for melody and rhythm of human speech which helped him to compile a list of distinctive segments that he would term "speech tunes". He later transformated those extracts of spoken language in his vocal and instrumental works. The roots of his style, marked by the lilt of human speech, grow from the universe of folk music.
Janáček's deep affection for Russia represents another important element of his musical inspiration. This state of mind accompanied him throughout his life. Its artistic expression is apparent especially in the chamber, symphonic and operatic output of his mature years. He showed a genuine interest in Russian culture and closely followed developments in Russian music from his early years. In 1896, following his first visit of Russia, he founded a Russian Circle in Brno. Janáček read Russian authors in their original language. Russian literature offered him an enormous source of inspiration to which he turned on many occasions. His views of Russia, however, were not only romantic; he also saw the evils of Russian society. He was twenty-two years old when he wrote his first composition based on a Russian theme: a melodrama "Death" to the words of Lermontov's poem. In his later output, he often used literary models with sharply contoured plots. In 1910 Zhukovsky's Tale of Tsar Berendei inspired him to write the Fairy Tale for Cello and Piano. He composed the rhapsody Taras Bulba to the Gogol's short story in 1918, and five years later, in 1923, completed the first string quartet, inspired by Tolstoy´s Kreutzer Sonata. Likewise two of his later operas were written to the Russian themes: Káťa Kabanová, composed in 1921 to Ostrovsky's play, The Storm, and his last work, From the House of the Dead, transforming Dostoyevsky's vision of the world into an exciting collective drama.
Janáček created his music theory works, essays and articles in a period of fifty years, from 1877 to 1927. He contributed to many specialised music journals, such as Cecílie, Hlídka and Dalibor, but first of all he wrote and edited the Hudební listy journal. He also wrote several more extensive studies, as Úplná nauka o harmonii (The Complete Harmony Theory), O skladbě souzvukův a jejich spojův (On the Construction of Chords and Their Connections) and Základy hudebního sčasování (Basics of Music "sčasování"). In his essays and books Janáček examined various musical topics, forms, melody and harmony theories, dyad and triad chords, counterpoint (he used the word "opora" - support - instead of counterpoint), devoted himself also to the studying of the mental compositional work. Particularly important in his theoretical works is the Czech term "sčasování", Janáček´s specific word for rhythm. The term bears a relation to time ("time" = "čas" in Czech language) and handling with time in a music composition. He distinguished several types of rhythm (sčasovka): "znící" (sounding) - meaning any rhythm, "čítací" (counting) - smaller units measuring the course of rhythm, and "scelovací" (summing) - a long value comprising the whole length of a rytmical unit. Janáček used the combinations of their mutual action widely in his own works.
Leoš Janáček´s literary legacy represents an important illustration of his life, public work and art between 1875 and 1928. He contributed not only to music journals, he wrote essays, reports, reviews, feuilletons, articles and books. His output in that area counts around 380 individual items. His writing changed over time, and appeared in many genres. Nevertheless, the critical and theoretical sphere remained the main area of his interest.