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Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: 4 flutes (4th = piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets (2nd = E-flat clarinet), bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 12 trumpets, 6 trombones, 2 tenor tubas, tuba, timpani, chimes, cymbals, harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 23, 1974, Charles Mackerras conducting
Janácek could hardly have been called a modernist; he was definitely “pre-postmodernist,” if you will. In fact, it is difficult to attach any kind of convenient label to his music, particularly to this work. Known now chiefly for his vocal music and operas, Janácek nevertheless penned several works that have joined the standard orchestral repertoire, including the Sinfonietta and Taras Bulba.
He was a strange bird, Leos, carrying on a dozen-year correspondence with a young woman he met while on holiday in his 60s, the Mme. Kamila Stösslová. His many eccentric, obsessive letters to her (some 700 or so) and her halting, very infrequent replies were kept under wraps for years. The fall of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s made their publication possible. His obsession is our gain, for many of his late works, including the Sinfonietta, were apparently inspired by this oddball love affair.
His music is equally singular and obsessive. Take the opening of the Sinfonietta, for example. An obstreperous and repetitive brass fanfare, vaguely jazz-sounding (though it is unclear if Janácek ever heard or even knew of jazz music), and a steady timpani motive punctuate the whole of the Allegretto (“Fanfares”). The idea was sparked by a band concert he and Mme. Stösslová had attended in Písek in 1925 (he even originally asked the musicians to play standing). In fact, the Sinfonietta was dedicated to “the Czechoslovakian Armed forces” and was originally entitled the Military Sinfonietta.
Janácek was a man of his country, too, an expert in the folk music of Moravia. (He spent some 30 years in the field collecting folk tunes before the better-known enthnomusicologist/composer Béla Bartók made his field studies.) The main theme in the Andante (“The Castle”), for example, is a folksy, raucous dance-hall tune, first heard in the oboes and then in the trombones. The title of the movement makes reference to an ominous castle that overlooked the town of Brno, Czechoslovakia. The lyrical beginning of the third movement, the Moderato (“The Queen’s Monastery,” where Janácek had been a chorister), is also vaguely folk-inspired. The military sound returns in the middle of the Moderato, the brass reminding us of the martial nature of the work; remembrances of the lyrical melody that started off this movement end it quietly.
The second Allegretto (“The Street”) returns us to the whimsical music of the fanfare and the dance hall. His obsessiveness is clear: an oft-repeated single melody (14 times to be exact!) permeates the entire movement. Its different permutations also reveal his sly sense of humor, almost like an inside joke in which he defies us to imagine how long he can keep this up!
The fanfare of the first movement is recalled in the opening strains of the final movement, marked Allegro (“The Town Hall”), though the theme is now in the flutes. Calm at first, the agitation and anxiety build through the movement as the brass and timpani fanfare returns to frame the entire work and underscore its patriotic, and rousing, purpose.
— Composer Dave Kopplin, who holds a Ph.D. from UCLA, is on the faculty at Cal Poly Pomona.