Leos Janácek (1854-1928) is regarded as the greatest Czech composer of the early twentieth century. In his early works, which included the opera Sárka (1888), and numerous vocal and instrumental works, Janácek followed a traditional, Romantic idiom, typical of late nineteenth century music. Having completed Sárka, however, Janácek immersed himself in the folk music of his native Moravia, gradually developing an original compositional style. Eschewing regular metrical phrasing, Janácek developed a declamatory method of setting the voice that follows the natural rhythmic patterns of the Czech language. Characteristically, Janácek allowed these patterns to inform the music itself. In addition, Janácek's harmonies, forms and orchestration are highly idiosyncratic. His music favors repetitive patterns, often set in stark contrast to longer, more lyrical, lines, or large blocks of sound. Dramatic effects are attained with minimal thematic or contrapuntal elaboration. The result is music of great rhythmic drive, sharp contrasts, and an intricate, montage-like texture. Exemplifying Janácek's radical stylistic transformation is his tragic opera Jenufa (1904), based on a story of jealousy, murder, and innocence.
Some background before we get to the music. The Sinfonietta is among the only orchestral pieces – and it’s certainly the best of an admittedly small field – to have been composed for a “gymnastic festival”, a movement called “Sokol” that celebrated youth, sport and independent nationhood. That self-confident nationalism, of which Janâček was a lifelong proponent, is symbolised by the work’s dedication, to the “Czechoslovak Armed Forces”, and with music that he said embodied the ideals of “contemporary free man, his spiritual beauty and joy, his strength, courage and determination to fight for victory”. It might seem an uncomfortably bellicose sentiment today, but that spirit of earthy independence is a crucial part of the musical fabric of the Sinfonietta, not least in those fanfares that open the work and crown its five-movement progress 20 minutes later. This is music that Janâček wanted ideally to be played by a military band like the one he'd heard a few years prior to the composition of Sinfonietta, and whose music he wrote down in the composing notebook he took everywhere with him. If you had to perform the Sinfonietta without a military ensemble, Janâček said (as it almost always is in concert halls these days), make sure the brass players sound as rough, brash, and bright as an army band. (And given what happens when you ask a massed group of trumpeters to give it laldy, they usually do!...)
There’s another layer of association in this music, since the titles of the individual movement refer to places in Brno, the city where he grew up. (Watch Janâček’s fellow Brno-ian, conductor Jakob Hruša, here on how he hears the movements of Sinfonietta relative to the places they’re inspired by: the Castle, the Queen’s Monastery, Brno’s bustling street life and its town hall.) But in a similar alchemy to the way Janâček’s operas work, it’s the way that he manages to turn these profoundly local and personal ideas and inspirations into something universal – or at least, something that communicates as vividly to us now as it did back in 1926 in its first performance in Prague – that makes the piece so immediately powerful.
And that’s because of the way Janâček’s music moves and works in time. Yes, the fanfares are unmistakable and irresistible when you hear them for the first or the 500th time, but Janâček’s musical thinking is working on multiple layers simultaneously. On one hand, the jump-cuts and juxtapositions of Janâček’s music, the way he repeats little cells of music and then without warning moves to a new idea, means that you experience a continuous sense of surprise and suspense when you hear this piece. That kind of cinematic editing and shuffling of musical time seems to be the opposite of the conventional symphonic principle, substituting a logic of surreal colours, unpredictable textures and even less predictable timing for the development, argument, and discourse of proper symphonic behaviour. But Janâček’s music is doing something else, too, since the thematic material you hear throughout the piece is connected through a subtle web of musical family relationships, with many of the tunes closely related to the opening fanfare idea, so that its return at the end of the whole work seems not just like a glorious, riotous coda to the Sinfonietta, but the conclusion of a mysteriously compelling - and yes, "symphonic" - process.
Yet it’s the surprises I think you will remember the most if you haven’t heard this Sinfonietta before, such as the manic trombone solo in the middle of the third movement, or the wild interjections of the cellos and basses near the start of the fourth movement, which angrily dismiss yet another tattoo from a solo trumpet, or the sensual melancholy that starts the final section, with a fragment of melody in the flutes answered by a sighing consolation in the strings. And if you’ve heard the piece in the concert hall, you can’t forget the sheer, blazing thrill of that coruscating brass sound at the very end of the work. But don’t just take my word for it, ask Haruki Murakami, who used the Sinfonietta as the musical leitmotif of his novel 1Q84, after which sales of the piece shot up in Japan. Told you this piece transformed the local into the universal.
Five key recordings
All of these performances are variously dazzling and revealing; magnificent as they are, they should be upbeats for where the Sinfonietta is at its best, in live performance.
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