Before leaving for Leipzig Janáček had already become engaged to his piano pupil Zdenka Schulzová (1865–1938), the daughter of the director of the Teachers’ Institute, Emilian Schulz. By the time he returned to Brno Janáček had been recognized by the education ministry as a ‘full teacher of music’ (May 1880) at the Teachers’ Institute and he and Zdenka were married on 13 July 1881, shortly before Zdenka’s 16th birthday. In addition to all his earlier activities Janáček began to realize his ambition of founding an organ school in Brno. A committee was established under the auspices of the Jednota pro Zvelebení Církevní Hudby na Moravě (Society for the Promotion of Church Music in Moravia) and on 7 December 1881 Janáček was appointed director; teaching began in September 1882, at first in the Teachers’ Institute until separate premises were acquired (1884). From 1886 to 1902 he also taught music at the Old Brno Gymnasium. At the Beseda he added to the repertory some of Dvořák’s major choral works as well as works by Brahms, Smetana, Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns and Liszt; he established singing and violin classes (1882), a permanent orchestra and (1888) piano classes. When the Provisional Czech Theatre opened in Brno in 1884 he founded a journal to review its activities. This was the Hudební listy, published by the Beseda, with Janáček as editor and chief contributor. The journal lasted until 1888; Janáček’s relationship with the Beseda became increasingly difficult and he resigned in 1890. His married life, too, was no easier. The tensions between a fervently patriotic Czech and very young girl from a staid German middle-class background proved unbearable and the couple separated from the autumn of 1882 (soon after the birth of their daughter Olga) until the summer of 1884. A son, Vladimír, was born in 1888 but died of meningitis in 1890.
After his return from Vienna Janáček virtually stopped composing, partly through lack of time, partly because his studies in Vienna had ended disappointingly and partly because he was unsure where his talents lay. During this period he wrote only a few choruses, notably the Mužské sbory (‘Male-Voice Choruses’) jw IV/17 and the mixed-voice Kačena divoká (‘The Wild Duck’) jw IV/18. The latter was written for a collection of school songs (1885), requested by his friend Berthold Žalud; the former was dedicated to Dvořák, who was startled by the boldness of the modulations.
In 1887, three years after the opening of the Brno Czech theatre, Janáček began to compose his first opera, Šárka (jw I/1), to a verse libretto by the well-known Czech poet Julius Zeyer. Zeyer had intended the work for Dvořák (who toyed with it) and consequently refused the unknown and inexperienced Janáček permission to use his text. By then Janáček had already written and revised the work; it remained unperformed until 1925. Janáček had already begun working with the philologist and folklorist František Bartoš (1837–1906). The two men had known each other from Czech cultural activities in Brno but Janáček’s post (from 1886) at the Czech Gymnasium in Old Brno, where Bartoš had taught since 1869, brought them together as colleagues and led to their collaboration on two important editions of Moravian folksongs: a collection of 174 songs (jw XIII/1, published 1890) and the massive definitive collection of 2057 songs and dances (jw XIII/3, published 1899–1901). Even before his work with Bartoš, Janáček had shown an interest in the folk music of his native region. Disappointed by the fate of his first opera, Janáček now immersed himself completely in a study of Moravian folk music.
In addition to the folksong editions he brought out with Bartoš he popularized his discoveries in a series of orchestral dances and dance suites such as the Valašské tance (‘Valachian Dances’) jw VI/4 and the Suite for orchestra jw VI/6. That Janáček thought he had found his true direction is signalled by the opus numbers, op.2 and op.3, which he added to these two works, the only ones to be so honoured (the putative ‘op.1’ is thought to be the early piano variations jw VIII/6). Folkdances similarly formed the basis for two stage works: Rákoš Rákoczy jw I/2, hurriedly put together for the 1891 Jubilee Exhibition in Prague, and the one-act opera Počátek románu (‘The Beginning of a Romance’) jw I/3, which consists of little more than folkdances with added voice parts. The libretto was adapted from a short story by Gabriela Preissová, who wrote the play Její pastorkyňa (‘Her Stepdaughter’). When Janáček realized the far greater possibilities of this play as the basis for an opera, also in a Moravian rural setting, he became dissatisfied with his unassuming but favourably received earlier work and withdrew it after four performances (1894).
Janáček worked on Jenůfa (as the opera has become known abroad) for two or three years, during which period he wrote the prelude, Žárlivost (‘Jealousy’), and Act 1. But then he stopped. His life was immensely busy at the time, since he was teaching at several institutions including the Teachers’ Institute (to 1902), the Old Brno Gymnasium (to 1896) and the Organ School, of which he remained director. In addition to his folksong editions with Bartoš, there were preparations for the Prague Ethnographic Exhibition in 1895 (Janáček was responsible, with Lucie Bakešová, for the Moravian contribution). Janáček’s busy life, however, may not account fully for his stopping work on Jenůfa. The rather different idiom of the later two acts suggests that he may have found his technique inadequate to the demands of the libretto and spent about five years rethinking his approach to composition and to opera in particular. This theory is supported by his writings of the period, which in analyses, introductions and music reviews examine a wide range of compositions by other composers (the process begins with his enthusiastic review (jw XV/149) of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades, which he regarded as a new sort of opera). An important catalyst was the gradual formulation of his ideas on ‘speech melody’, his habit of jotting down in musical notation scraps of overheard speech, often with notes on the circumstances, and making inferences about the emotional state of the speaker. Some indication of the new direction is given by the cantata Amarus jw III/6, written directly after Janáček’s trip to Russia (summer 1896), and the earliest work which suggests the style of the mature composer. Its deep personal resonance (the subject matter reflected in Janáček’s lonely life at the monastery) may have been a factor; it is significant that the keyboard miniatures (Po zarostlém chodníčku, ‘On the Overgrown Path’, jw VIII/17) that he began writing in 1900, shortly before he resumed work on Jenůfa, are also autobiographical.
Towards the end of 1901 there are indications that he was working on Act 2 of Jenůfa. A few months later his daughter Olga, who was now almost 21 and wanted to become a Russian-language teacher, left for Russia to stay with Janáček’s younger brother František, who had settled in St Petersburg. Within a month she caught typhoid fever and although she recovered enough to return to Moravia by the summer, her constitution, already undermined in childhood by chronic rheumatic heart disease, was fatally weakened. Her long illness cast a shadow over the composition of the rest of the opera: Janáček played it to her four days before she died, on 26 February 1903.
Jenůfa was a very different work from its predecessor. The success of its première in Brno (21 January 1904) was however probably due more to its Moravian setting than to the provincial audience’s awareness of its stature. The performances suffered from a tiny and inadequate orchestra and Janáček, moreover, made substantial alterations before the work was published (1908). He had submitted both The Beginning of a Romance and Jenůfa to the Prague National Opera before settling for Brno premières. Karel Kovařovic, chief conductor at Prague, eventually went to see Jenůfa at Brno but still declined to take it up; possibly he remembered Janáček’s scathing criticism (jw XV/70) of his own opera The Bridegrooms many years earlier (1887).