Leoš Janáček‘s Sinfonietta (1926) may be a great orchestral showpiece, but it’s complex and stimulating. It also links nicely to several of my themes:
- His music is another reminder of the centrifugal variety around the peripheries of European art music
- Since Janáček dedicated the piece to the “Czechoslovak Armed Forces”, this classic story from my mentor Paul Kratochvil is highly apposite
- It further illustrates the use of additive rhythms
- It makes a fine addition to the variety of posts grouped under the trumpet tag
- And the timpani part, like the snare-drum in Nielsen 5, is another that I have earmarked to be played by Li Manshan…
- See also my post on Hašek and Kundera (and for yet more, including more Švejk, the Czech tag).
This is music that Janáček 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, Janáček 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.
On one hand, the jump-cuts and juxtapositions of Janáček’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.
There’s a host of spectacular recordings of the Sinfonietta. Since Charles Mackerras was a great champion of Janáček’s music, I was going to suggest his version (not least to remind you his wonderful anagram, Slasher M. Earcrack); but for some historical depth how about this one, with Czech performers—just after the war and Communist takeover, as musicians and audiences must have been anxiously awaiting life-changing measures wrought by their new leaders:
And here’s a 1961 recording with Karel Ančerl, who had survived Terezin and Auschwitz:
The Sinfonietta makes a glorious prelude to exploring the riches of Janáček’s music—operas, chamber music, and so on.
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Please excuse me for returning to folk music, but it was a major inspiration for composers throughout central and east Europe, like Bartók. Along with pioneers like František Sušil and František Bartoš, Janáček collected Moravian folk culture keenly, long before Kundera dissected the way it was distorted under Communist rule.
As well as my overview of musical cultures of east Europe I introduced Polish folk music here; Czech and Slovak traditions are projects for another time. Many of those features that Service notes—the use of cells, jump-cuts, shuffling—must relate to Janáček’s background exploring the rhythms and textures of peasant life.
Again, the Rough Guide to world music makes a starting point, under “Czech and Slovak republics”. Janáček’s own recordings have been reissued on the CD
- The oldest recordings of folk-singing from Moravia and Slovakia, 1909–1912 (Gnosis, Brno).
- Barbara Krader, “Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia”, in Helen Myers (ed.), Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies, pp.178–85
- Magda Ferl Zelinská and Edward J.P. O’Connor, “Czech Republic and Slovakia”, in The Garland encylopedia of world music, vol.8: Europe.