Under the Hapsburgs, Czech political sentiments were forced to remain in the shadows, or were expressed through non-subversive seeming patriotic outlets, among them the gymnastics competitions called Sokol (“Falcon”), which trained young athletes and organized competitions which roused nationalist spirits: a foil to the Germanization promulgated by the Hapsburgs. A notable friend of the movement was the painter Alfons Mucha, whose Sokol posters are among his best-known works.
Leoš Janáček, whose native Moravia became part of greater Czechoslovakia after the First World War, made his contribution to the Sokol movement with a striking brass fanfare which would in 1926 form the basis for the alternating blazing intensity and delicate lyricism of this Sinfonietta. It is one of the masterpieces in all forms created during the composer’s vigorous old age, fueled by his love for a much younger (married) woman, Kamila Stösslová.
Janáček, like his Czech predecessors Smetana and Dvořák, based his overall style on the folk traditions of his native soil. But Moravian rather than Bohemian soil. Thus the jagged phrases of eastward-looking (to Russia) Moravian folksong and speech patterns that inform Janáček’s mature music.
The Sinfonietta, neither particularly short and certainly not for a small ensemble, as its title might imply, is in five movements. It begins and ends with the aforementioned Sokol fanfare dominated by brass and kettledrums, to which strings and woodwinds are added in the finale.
The intervening movements are more varied in instrumental color but in them, as in the opening and closing sections, the composer’s characteristic short, repetitious musical cells are prominent.
Václav Talich conducted the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in the first performance of the Sinfonietta in June of 1926.
-- Herbert Glass