Leoš Janáček: Sinfonietta

performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Sir Charles Mackerras

I was doing some reading about this piece a number of months ago, trying to decide whether it would take this spot in the blog or not, and one thing led to another, and that secured its spot for today’s post. The other option was something longer and more Alpine, but that will be for later. Plenty of German and Austrian stuff already.
I only became familiar with this piece when it was listed on the program for this concert a while back, with Maestro Antoni Wit conducting Eastern European pieces. I was not familiar with it until then, and I took one lone listen to it the day of the concert before I heard it live. It is a very interesting piece, and one I decided was time to share.
It’s also a break from everything German and Austrian and symphonic we’ve been doing for the past while, and it also follows the timeline of being more modern than last week’s piece, so here it is.
This piece, as you can see from the photo below, calls for lots of extra brass to support the opening and closing fanfare of the piece, made up of an extra nine trumpets, 2 bass trumpets (which apparently exist), and 3 ‘tenor tubas’ (euphoniums?).

This festive, celebratory fanfare-ish nature kind of is a bit similar to that perplexing final movement of Mahler 7 from last week, but perhaps not as rompy and boisterous. The fanfare is slightly more… solemn or serious, like that last movement of Mahler 7 with a happy helping of a ‘fanfare for the common man’ or something similar.
A little bit about the piece: it was a commission requested by the Sokol Gymnastics Festival, and was originally called Military Sinfonietta, but the ‘military’ was later dropped. It is, however, dedicated to “The Czechoslovak Armed Forces.” The composer said it was to express “contemporary free man, his spiritual beauty and joy, his strength, his courage and determination to fight for victory.” That sounds pretty heroic.
The piece is laid out in five movements, each with its own subtitle:

I. Allegretto — Allegro maestoso (Fanfare)
II. Andante — Allegretto (The Castle, Brno)
III. Moderato (The Queen’s Monastery, Brno)
IV. Allegretto (The Street Leading to the Castle)
V. Andante con moto (The Town Hall, Brno)

The strongly-represented fanfare of the opening movement, which is only for brass and
percussion, is an important motif throughout the whole piece. As it makes its way through different bodies of the orchestra, twists and changes its form, it takes on different emotions but is generally quite recognizable throughout. This is a pretty great quality, and it gives a very strong unity to the piece. Since it doesn’t really follow a typical symphonic form, this is a good method of giving the piece some structure and logic that unifies the five sections.
The first movement is fanfare, militaristic, heroic, epic in its brassiness. It’s almost overwhelming to hear live. It’s bold and strong, and the different brass voices make for a really nice chorus of similar timbres. The movement unfolds on itself and expands on that basic melody. Even though it’s one of the shorter movements, it works well to almost quite literally sear this motif into the brains of the listener.
The second movement, in strong contrast to the first, begins with woodwinds in a flurry of little tinkery melodies with pizzicato strings. The strings go arco and join in. This whole passage feels nervous at first, but settles down when a broad line in strings (cellos?) enters over the busy woodwind ostinato. This is one of the longer movements in the piece, at a little over six minutes, in this recording, so there are some contrasting passages. Brass enter toward the middle with a fanfare-ish bit, and there’s a much quieter section toward the end, but it finishes quite stormily, if that’s a word.
The third movement begins quite peacefully, with strings and things, almost kind of ethereally, and one thinks that this is quite nice. There are some quieter solo passages, and part of the magical tranquility of this opening comes from the beauty of instruments like oboe, English horn and harp. It’s interrupted briefly by a fanfare of sorts, a call and answer between low brass and flute/piccolo, which is followed almost immediately by what I find to be a mildly annoying kind of awkward, bumbling melody in the trombones, later in low strings. It’s almost circusy, but it leads into a really nice persistent repeated-note thing, and the movement ends quietly.
The Allegretto is almost the shortest movement. It’s a trumpet fanfare with strings accompanying, apparently celebrating the liberation/independence of Czechoslovakia. It’s small, simple, rather repetitive movement.
The finale is the longest movement of the piece, by far. It begins with perhaps the most beautiful passage in the whole symphony, a retrograde version of the opening theme in flutes, with strings accompanying. It’s in a minor key, tender at first, it builds more energy as the movement progresses, and there’s substantial buildup. And then… suddenly, ever so gloriously, our glorious fanfare returns out of the orchestra, with shimmering tremolo strings in the background. Woodwinds become more and more apparent, swirling around the brass theme from the very beginning, and this kind of persistence goes on for some time before the winds and strings get a bit more trilly action in, and the piece ends on a glorious tutti.
If you want to watch an excellent live performance from The Proms a few years ago, here’s one:

The piece, in places, feels folksy, as if it’s making use of traditional tunes somewhere or somehow, or it could perhaps just be the sounds the orchestra is evoking indicative of the titles of some of the movements, thinking about villages and castles and Medieval stuff. It is certainly celebratory and epic and memorable.
As I mentioned earlier, I was doing some research for this piece and I came across the references to the Murakami book 1Q84, in which this piece is mentioned and referenced with some degree of importance. I watched a TED talk a long time ago by a graphic designer talking about the concepts behind some of his more famous designs, and 1Q84 was the last example. I remembered it distinctly because of the awesome book jacket.
Fast forward like five years and I’m reading about Janáček’s Sinfonietta, and it all comes full circle. I remember hearing about the book jacket, and the piece I’m reading about to write about is mentioned in the book, and so I bought it and read it.
Well, I read the first book of three. Totaling around 900 pages, I got through book one and started to lose a bit of interest… It’s excellent writing, but it can only carry a book so far.
In any case, the original was in Japanese, and because of the Sinfonietta’s significance in the book (which was itself quite a success), sales of CDs of the piece increased significantly. I never read into why exactly this piece was chosen by the author. Perhaps it was just the right amount of familiar vs. obscure. In any case, even though I haven’t yet (at the time of this writing) finished the book, the opening of the piece still conjures up some interesting imagery and emotion that is otherwise entirely unrelated to the actual nature of the piece.
I don’t think it’s a piece I will turn to for repeated listenings of any kind, but it was a spectacle to see and hear live, and at least it’s a piece I know a lot more about.
We’ve got a lot of other Eastern European music to Czech out (sorry), but for next week, we’re back to Austria for some piano works. See you then.


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