I was lucky enough to be back on my college campus last week where I got the chance to visit my old orchestra director who I haven’t seen since graduating from college. It was a nice opportunity to a) be outside at my alma mater and wonder things like, should I go to grad school, and b) see an academic figure with whom I wasn’t particularly close but always respected and admired and c) say, “playing Pétrouchka was a very hard and bad time for me,” and for him to be like “okay and?”, and d) ask for some recommendations for this column!
The recommendation came up in a discussion of our old friend Antonín Dvořák, because my college orchestra played Symphony From The New World within the past few years. (“Without me??” I screamed.) I asked him if it was basic to think it’s the best symphony of all time, and the short answer was no. But upon hearing my love of Dvořák, my former director suggested I check out Janáček.
“Who the — ”
Leoš Janáček is another one of the more prominent Czech composers (oh, duh) after Dvořák and Smetana. His career trajectory is fairly similar to Dvořák’s as well: both men started out drawing on traditional folk music and melody, inspired by Czech history and heritage. But whereas Dvořák went and took time to go to America, Janáček instead stayed in then-Czechoslovakia where his style shifted and changed in on itself. He lived until 1928, and this week’s piece, his Sinfonietta, was written two years before his death, and greatly signifies the ways in which Romantic music became more expressionist and bizarre into the 20th century. (Think Pétrouchka, only less stressful.) It was originally composed for a “gymnastic festival,” a celebration of youth and sporting, and in turn, its sound is more militaristic than a lot of traditional symphonies.
But of course, as you start listening, you’ll realize that Sinfonietta is really not a traditional symphony at all. Its opening movement, Allegretto, begins with a fanfare of brass accompanied by timpani. It feels like a strong and athletic piece — immediately I don’t relate — but melodic as well. It’s a short burst of energy, very gymnastics-y, if you can remember the summer Olympics which were, jfc, LAST YEAR. The pride reflected in this first movement is less of a “I want to show the beauty of my country’s history and landscape,” like Smetana’s work, but rather “My country is strong.” “Our teens are athletic and lean,” we get it, Czechoslovakia.
Its second movement, the Andante, is unlike any Andante we’ve heard before. Previous Andantes have been: mournful, wistful, beautiful but in the sad way where you’re just looking at old photos. They’re not slow, but they’re often quieter. This, though. This Andante starts in a maniacal, almost mischievous way. This is someone’s theme song. It’s their “up to no good” anthem. I mean, truly, this is some Mario Brothers shit. It takes almost a full minute before the cellos (!!!!!! THERE THEY ARE) come in with the type of melody you’d be accustomed to in a slower movement. There’s no semblance of drifting into a sense of comfort in this piece; Janáček is always mixing things up and shifting focus from instrument to instrument. A write-up I read of it referred to it as “jump cuts,” which: I agree! It’s hyper-dramatic and stylized, especially in those final few seconds as it rushes to completion.
Its Moderato, as a matter of fact, has a much more traditional sound perhaps expected of a symphony’s second movement. Compared to the Andante, it’s thoughtful and paced out, not quite as scattershot. Its central theme is like breathing slowly in and out, centering oneself in the context of a larger picture, much like Janáček was doing with himself in Czech culture. Until, that is: 2:11 brings back a familiar sounding fanfare with a sense of foreboding. And then at 3:16, it returns to a whimsical melody played first in the brass and then the low strings. This particular movement feels especially cinematic to me, especially as it builds into the 4:19 (almost) mark. You get the sense that Janáček was really writing characters and protagonists and villains in his music, despite this not being a ballet or an opera or a tone poem, really, of any kind.
The next movement is another Allegretto, and like Sinfonietta’s first movement, this one also begins with a fanfare. I realized in listening to this piece that I haven’t written about many brass-heavy pieces. (“When will you write about Mahler?” ask 15–20 emails every day. “Never,” I promise.) It’s true, though, my tastes are often more inclined to discuss more percussive pieces or ones with particularly robust strings. This is more militaristic in nature than most of what I usually like, and yet, it’s so strange that I can’t help but love it. Playful and powerful in its sound. So self-assured in its expressiveness. Janáček doesn’t care if you’re keeping up; he’s beyond that.
The final movement is an Andante con moto, and begins with, of all instruments, the woodwinds. It ebbs and flows between them and the strings, like a gust of wind rustling branches on a not quite spring day. From there, it picks up into full thunderstorm. I’ll admit: this fifth movement really does remind me of Danse Macabre with its ominous undercurrent throughout. Last week’s Khachaturian had this kooky joy to it; there’s an intensity present in this Janáček piece I’ve not yet heard before. The word I can best think of is “brave.” It’s meant to represent bravery, sure, and the strength of the Czech people (doing, uh, teen gymnastics), but also for Janáček himself, whose career only grew throughout his life. This being one of his last and most prominent pieces speaks to his tenacity and determination: this is not the kind of piece a young composer writes! It requires depth and skill and age and wisdom. Its triumph — its big final note, a declaration — is a really “it’s done” if I’ve ever heard one.