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FastNotes

  • Janácek stated that his purpose in composing the Mass was patriotic, rather than religious: “I wanted to perpetuate faith in the immutable permanence of the nation. Not on a religious basis but on a rock-bottom ethical basis, which calls God to witness.”

  • The Mass is, as the composer wrote, “festive, life-affirming, pantheistic, with little of what we could call the ecclesiastical.”


Composed: 1926, rev.1928
Length: c. 40 minutes
Orchestration: 4 flutes (2nd, 3rd, 4th = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets (3rd = bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, tam-tam, triangle), 2 harps, celesta, and strings, with solo organ, solo quartet, and mixed chorus
First LA Phil performance: November 11, 1988, Simon Rattle conducting

“The ageing composer [Janáček] had a positive aversion to organized religion, even to churches. He would not go into one even to get out of the rain,” his niece wrote. “The church to me is the essence of death,” Janáček observed, “graves under the flagstones, bones on the altars, all kinds of torture and death in the paintings. The rituals, the prayers, the chants – death and death again! I won’t have anything to do with it.”

Yet after the first performance of the Glagolitic Mass in Brno (in a church), in the composer’s native Moravia, in December of 1927, a Czech newspaper critic wrote: “The aged master, a deeply devout man, has composed this Mass out of passionate conviction that his life’s work would be incomplete without an artistic expression of his relation to God.” Janáček was outraged and wrote in return a postcard with a four-word response: “Neither aged, nor devout.”

There could be no doubt that Janáček at 73 was young in spirit, being in the midst of the most creatively fecund period of his life – the fruit of his passionate, one might say worshipful, feelings for a married woman nearly 40 years his junior.

The composer stated that his purpose in composing the Mass was patriotic, rather than religious: “I wanted to perpetuate faith in the immutable permanence of the nation. Not on a religious basis but on a rock-bottom ethical basis, which calls God to witness.”

Janáček had in common with his contemporary artists and their 19th-century forebears an intense devotion to the folk traditions of music, literature, and language of the Czech nations. Thus Janáček went deeply into his land’s past to compose his Mass not to a Latin text, but to the ancient church Slavonic text, whose written characters were called “Glagolitic.”

The Mass is, as the composer wrote, “festive, life-affirming, pantheistic, with little of what we could call the ecclesiastical.” His notion of religion is expressed in a foreword:

“The fragrance of the forests around Luhačovice [the spa where he spent his holidays and where he wrote most of the Mass] was incense. The church was the giant forest canopy, the vast-arched heavens, and the misty reaches beyond. The bells of a flock of sheep rang to signify the transformation of the Host. In the tenor solo I heard a high priest, in the soprano solo a girlish angel, in the chorus our folk. The candles are tall forest firs with stars for their flames, and somewhere in the ceremony the princely vision of St. Wenceslaus and the language of the missionaries, Saints Cyril and Methodius.” (St. Wenceslaus, 10th century, is the patron saint of the Czech peoples; Cyril and Methodius the 9th-century Byzantine missionaries who, brought Christianity to the Slavs.)

— Herbert Glass