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ClassicsOnline Home » JANACEK: Violin Sonata / Capriccio / Romance / Dumka
Leoš Janáček (1854 -1928)
Violin Sonata • Romance • Dumka • Allegro
Capriccio for Piano left-hand, Flute/Piccolo, Two Trumpets, Three Trombones and Tenor Tuba
Czech music in the course of the nineteenth century was left largely to three composers: Smetana (encouraged by Liszt), Dvořák (championed by Brahms), and Janáček (unknown to anyone). Janáček, a humble Moravian from Brno, began as a trail-blazing teacher and nature-loving folklorist. He ended by becoming one of the most creative and lastingly original operatic forces of the twentieth century. Discovered late (not until his sixties, with the 1916 Prague production of Jenůfa), his pioneering of "speech-melody", based on the rise and fall and rhythms of his native tongue, gave him the distinguishing musical soundprint of his lifework. "If speech-melody", he wrote in 1918, "is the flower of a water-lily, it nevertheless buds and blossoms and drinks from the roots, which wander in the waters of the mind". "I don't need to understand the words",his Brno student, the conductor Vilem Tausky, remembered him saying. "I can tell by the tempo and modulation of speech how a man feels; if he lies, or if it is just a conventional conversation. I have been collecting these speech rhythms for years, and I have an immense dictionary. These are my windows into the soul of man, and when I need to find a dramatic expression I have recourse to my library"*. "Janáček's creation was life, and to live was to create", his biographer Jaroslav Vogel has written (1962). "He composed permanently - in the streets, at the market, during his morning walks … He even composed during his classes…" The older he got the younger his art became, transcending its romantic roots through the radical economy, cellular modernity and non-conformity of its conception. The energy was unstoppable, the inventive cocktail endless.
On 15 August 1919 Janáček was in Hukvaldy, the mountain village in North Moravia where he had been born. In an essay that day, written as he sat "lost in my dreams" among the beeches and limes of the old castle, he ventured to describe the moment of inspiration, of creation. He called it Silence.
The Violin Sonata in A flat (G sharp) minor (1914-21), first performed in Brno in 1922 before being heard the following year at the second Salzburg ISCM Festival, belongs among the most radically imagined utterances ever conceivedfor such a relatively traditional medium. Following the first draft ("I wrote [it] at the beginning of the War when we were expecting the Russians in Moravia"), it went through a further two revisions before reaching its final (considerably altered) form in 1921. Comparison of the 1914 and 1921 versions shows that originally the present Adagio finale was the second movement; that the Balada (published separately in 1915 with an ending in C sharp major rather than the contrived minor guise of its sonata context) was the third; and that the finale had been quite different - a Con moto, Tempo di marcia, not only quoting cyclically from the opening movement and the Adagio but also featuring a main idea in D flat presaging that of the Knight's Theme from the symphonic poem The Ballad of Blaník (1920). Prefaced by a short unaccompanied violin improvisation, the first movement is a taut, quasi monothematic sonata design, with a formal exposition repeat. Tripartite structures underline the Balada (nocturne) and Allegretto (scherzo) - characterised in the former by a developmental rather than literal reprise; and in the latter by the contrast of a simple Kát'a Kabanová-like modal song with a harmonically richer (slower) middle section. The closing G sharp minor Adagio is another broadly monothematic structure, with only a very terse second subject in the major. Its recapitulation is striking for the way the opening chorale theme, originally given to piano, is transferred to the violin with a harmonically and texturally new background of agitated keyboard tremolos symbolic, according to the composer, of "the Russian armies entering Hungary" (26 September 1914). Janáček always had a liking for the Adagio and Balada: in them, he maintained, was "some truth".
A number of works are lost from Janáček's youth and his brief period as a student at the Leipzig Conservatory - among them an orchestral scherzo for a symphony, seventeen fugues for piano, and pairs of sonatas for piano, and violin and piano (1879-80). The Mendelssohnian E major Romance (November 1879) was originally No. 4 of a set of seven (the others have disappeared). Writing to his child sweetheart, Zdenka Schulzová, Janáček claimed that "here, at last, I have expressed my joy, my Zdenci, my happiness". The piece is in ternary form, with an introduction that comes back at the end. The Dumka (1880) and Allegro (undated) tap veins of melancholy and energy variously Slavonic in root but occasionally more widely European. This is not music without defect, but it has a place in our understanding of Janáček's strange genius. As his composition pupil, the pianist Rudolf Firkušný, reminds us, "the why was [always] more interesting to him than the what".
Contemporary with the pagan, festive Sinfonietta, the Capriccio for piano (left hand), flute/piccolo, two trumpets, three trombones and tuba (June-October 1926) was the second of Janáček's two piano chamber concertos. A gritty, challenging, demanding, quirky piece that seems to travel from darkness to light, from illusions of marches and waltzes, expanses of resigned, frozen wastes, and echoes of "gallows-humour", to a promised land of regeneration and blazing D flat hope, it was commissioned by Otakar Hollmann, who had lost the use of his right arm during the Great War.
What inspired it (or its peculiar scoring) has never been adequately explained, "You know, to write merely for the left hand would have been childishly gratuitous," Janáček told Hollmann. "More reasons were necessary - subjective and objective. When all these were present and clashed, the work came into existence." But what were those subjective reasons? How, for instance, does Defiance(the work's intended subtitle) equate with Janáček's view (in 1928) that "it is capricious, nothing but gratuitousness and puns"? And how does the fourth movement's hymn-like peroration, or the relationship of its cadenza to the "Crucifixus" organ cadenza of the Glagolitic Mass, relate to caprice? Czech scholarly reception has advanced many theories, "A protest against the senselessness and horrors of war [the piano personifying] a victim... who continues to wage an untiring struggle" (Burghauser). "An expression of peace and contentment at the time of [the composer's] affection for Kamila [Stősslová, the love of his old age, 38 years younger] and of defiance against the opinion of the rest of the world" (Štědroň). A reflection - through "the sometimes pugnacious, sometimes embittered, ironical, nostalgic... sceptical character of the first three movements [and] the brighter mood of the last" - of Janáček's "struggle as a man and a composer" (Vogel). Interesting insights, certainly, even grains of truth perhaps. But no more. The enigma remains.
* From Janáček: Leaves from his life, edited & translated by Vilem & Margaret Tausky (Kahn & Averill, London 1982), reprinted by kind permission
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JANACEK: Violin Sonata / Capriccio / Romance / Dum...