ClassicsOnline Home » JANACEK, L.: Taras Bulba / Lachian Dances / Moravian Dances (Warsaw Philharmonic, Wit)
Leoš Janáček was an authority on his native folk-music, and the Lachian and Moravian Dances preserve and celebrate culture and traditions which were vanishing even in his own lifetime. Based on Gogol’s historical novel, Janáček’s inspired orchestral rhapsody on Taras Bulba depicts three moving and dramatic episodes in the violent life of the Cossack leader, climaxing in his stirring and triumphant prophecy of liberation. This release follows Antoni Wit’s acclaimed Warsaw recording of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass and Sinfonietta (8.572639).
By John Warrack
Leoš Janáček (1854–1928)
Taras Bulba • Lachian Dances • Moravian Dances
Janáček was born in 1854 in the northern part of Moravia, near the Polish frontier, a region that enjoys both linguistic and musical individuality. He was educated at the Augustinian school in Brno, the capital of Moravia, eventually succeeding to the position of organist that had been occupied by his teacher. Between 1874 and 1875 he studied at the Prague Organ School, where Dvořák had been a pupil sixteen years earlier, returning to Brno as conductor of the local Philharmonic Society. His lack of confidence in his own ability as a composer took him to Leipzig in 1878 for a further year of study, followed by similar activity in Vienna.
In 1881 Janáček opened a music school in Brno, and in the following years continued to write music, in 1886 dedicating a set of choral works to Dvořák, but in general enjoying only a very local reputation. His first opera, Šárka, met with difficulties, since permission for the use of the poem on which it was based had not been granted by the author. Subsequent operas had a better fate, at least in Brno, but it was not until 1916 that the attention of the Prague National Theatre was drawn to his work, leading, largely by a series of lucky chances, to the performance there of the opera known as Jenůfa, that had first been staged in Brno in 1904. The last twelve years of Janáček’s life brought him fame in Czechoslovakia and elicited from him a series of five further operas, each as original in choice of libretto as in musical content.
The music of Janáček is dominated by his preoccupation with Moravian folk-song, the spirit of which informs his work. He had a particular interest in the musical inflections of speech and the melodic shape of natural sounds, while his theories of harmony were original, particularly in his sudden shifts of key. As a composer he only started work in middle age and always appeared as a musician of startling originality, in part through geographical isolation, at a distance from Vienna and even from Prague.
The Rhapsody Taras Bulba is based on Gogol. It was written in 1918. Typically the composer chose a romantic historical novel by a Russian writer as the frame-work for his creation. His interests were Pan-Slav, embracing the unity of the Slav peoples, and under similar impetus he had turned to Ostrovsky’s play The Storm for his opera Kátya Kabanová and to Dostoyevsky for his last opera, From the House of the Dead. His attempt to make an opera of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, with a Russian libretto of his own devising, remained unfinished.
For Taras Bulba Janáček takes three episodes in the violent life of the Cossack leader Taras Bulba in his struggle against the Poles in 1682. In the first the son of Taras Bulba, Andrij, is put to death by his father for the disloyalty that his love has brought about. The Cossacks had laid siege to the town of Dubno, where Andrij’s beloved is among those besieged. The young man enters the town by a secret passage and joins with the Poles in the subsequent battle with his own people. The second episode shows the death of his second son Ostap, tortured and put to death by the victorious Poles, an event witnessed by the disguised Taras Bulba, mingling with the crowd. The third movement, with its organ part, depicts the prophecy and death of Taras Bulba himself, nailed to a tree and condemned to be burned to death. As he dies, he foretells the future liberation of the Cossacks.
Janáček’s Lachian Dances were originally to have been Valachian, but were transposed geographically by the composer’s own alteration of the title. Written in 1889 and 1890, the six dances are scored for a large orchestra. The first, Starodávný, opens with a melody derived from the tragic song “Matthew has been killed”, with which the following melodies provide contrast. The nature of the dances that follow is apparent from their titles. For the composer, towards the end of his life, they recalled a past that had vanished and a countryside and way of life with which he had been familiar.
Janáček had a fundamental interest in the folk-music of his native Moravia, on which he was considered a major authority. His interest manifested itself in editions of Moravian folk-music and in a number of arrangements of songs and dances. The five dances, opening with a Kožich, a fur-coat dance, are characteristic in melodic contour and rhythm of the music of East Moravia.