Leoš Janáček: Sinfonietta

Born is 1854 in Hukvaldy, Moravia (a large area within the Czech Republic) Janáček was seen as a gifted child within a family that had little means. As a choir boy Janáček sung at the Abbey of St. Thomas in Brno, where he also nurtured and enhanced his skills on the organ and piano. The choirmaster of St. Thomas, Pavel Křížkovský recommended Janáček for the Prague organ school, even though he found Janáček a highly problematic student. After then enrolling at the Prague organ school, Janáček decided to study composition instead of piano performance, which led him to compose some small scale choral works. Janáček graduated with the best results in his class for his compositions, and after working as a music teacher for some years he enrolled at the Leipzig conservatory to study piano and organ performance, and composition.

Janáček achieved quite a sudden blast of fame in 1916 after the great success of his opera Jenfua, which was premiered in Prague that year. After that the composer worked tirelessly throughout the rest of his life, churning out some incredible pieces of music such as his symphonic rhapsody Taras Bulba and another opera entitled The Cunning Little Vixen. In 1926, two years before his death, Janáček wrote Sinfonietta. The piece was written for a gymnastic organisation called Sokol, which celebrates youth sport and independent nationhood. Janáček sought for realism in his music, which is why it makes him such an original composer. He used Morovian and Slovak folk-songs to inspire his works and thus his musical connection with the real word became much greater. Sinfonietta is dedicated to the ‘Czechoslovak Armed Forces’ and that is certainly a prevalent theme within the music. Independence and spirit is woven into the fabric of the Sinfonietta and the connection to the armed forces and real people is especially emphasised.

Movement I

Sinfonietta is a five-movement symphonic-like work which lasts around 25 minutes. It is written for a full orchestra however with a slight adjustment to the amount of brass included. The reason for this is that Janáček wanted the cyclic composition to represent the armed forces, therefore he wrote for nine trumpets. The first movement is a large-scale fanfare which is orchestrated for nine trumpets, four trombones, two Bb tubas and timpani. The opening is powerful, loud and brash, which symbolises the army band sound. Janáček’s creative interlocking of small cells of music sings out in this fanfare. This movement foreshadows what is to come within the rest of the work.

Movement II

The second movement (referred to as ‘The Castle’) engages with a collection of folk-dance motifs with incredible power and majestic grace. The technical demand of this work is virtuosic, and every part is important as to create the driven interlocking themes. With many time changes and no real home key, this movement is very free, with the rhythmic demands being the real driving force. The use of Czech folk dance melodies feeds into Janáček’s famous way of composing, and reveals his cultural roots. The changes between the rapid wind sections and more lyrical section creates a certain charm around this movement. 

Movement III

The third movement, marked Moderato, is referred to as ‘Convent’ and is very reminiscent of Janáček’s family roots. One of the main functions of this work is that each movement is related to the opening brass fanfare in some way. This gives a cyclical feel to the work, and there are nods to the fanfare throughout the third movement. The highly complex wind parts for this movement are certainly the focal point. The fast and intricate semiquaver runs create impressive decoration to the foundation parts.

Movement IV

The fourth movement is referred to as ‘The Street’ and the opening theme, played on trumpet, is probably one of the most memorable of the whole work. In a loose scherzo form it is incredibly intricate and takes you on an exciting musical journey. With the handling of extremities of instrument ranges and the colours that Janáček creates is formidable. This movement revives the initial theme and varies in a plethora of different ways, such as rhythmically, harmonically and instrumentally. The idea behind this movement is the celebration of the new Czechoslovakia (tying in with the army theme). This is one of the more joyous movements of the work.

Movement V

The final movement (‘Town Hall’) is a representation of the change within the historical city after the war. Starting in Eb minor a retrograde of the opening melody is played and the piece gains some pace. The rhythmic demands do not waver in this movement, with complex syncopation and time changes still a prevalent factor within the music. Janáček’s keen interest of expanding conventional tonality can be heard throughout Sinfonietta. For example his use of unorthodox chord structures and never properly establishing a home key shows his progressive thinking at the time. In the finale section, the opening fanfare from the first movement reappears and is joined by swirling figures in the strings and shrill harmonies within the winds.

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