The Cunning Little Vixen Suite
Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration (TBC): 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances
Although the music of his country had tremendous effect on Janácek, his wide-ranging education - both musically and beyond - also accounts for his compositional style. It took Janácek a long time to develop his musical voice, but once he did, it was a wholly original one. Among the remarkable series of operas Janácek wrote in the enormously productive final decade of his career, the tragicomedy The Cunning Little Vixen ("The Adventures of Vixen SharpEars" in Czech) is a highlight. The story came from a serialized novella written by Rudolf Tesnohlídek and published in the Lidové noviny newspaper. Janácek adapted the story into his own libretto. Like much of his mature work, the opera is concise and tightly strung. It should not come as a surprise that the orchestral Suite performed tonight is similarly short and pithy, each of the two movements only about nine minutes. The Cunning Little Vixen works well as a suite, in part due to its several symphonic pantomime sections.
Ostensibly about a forest gamekeeper who captures and attempts to domesticate a young fox, the themes of the opera include the natural cycle of life and death, a return to simplicity, freedom, love, and motherhood. The opera reflects the composer's long experience of life, and his love for the much younger, married Kamila Stösslov; in fact it is a fairly risqué piece, given the time and place it was written.
As in his other operas, Janácek followed his practice of building music on the sounds and rhythms of spoken language, making the human voice and the inflections of his language sound utterly unique. Characters in the opera are given motifs, often rhythmically driven. There is very little in The Cunning Little Vixen in the way of extended melodic lines. The closest approximations to standard Romantic arias are the declaration of love between the Fox and the Vixen, and the final epiphany of the Forester. With its jagged, uneven rhythms, the music is folksier than Janácek's other operas, and the singing more conversational than in typical late-Romantic opera.
While written in a poetic manner reminiscent of fairy tales, Janácek's libretto contains some of his most experimental operatic concepts, including ballet, mime, and orchestral interludes. The score is laden with lush harmonies, all part of the pastorale, a reflection on nature and our condition as humans within it. At the end, the Forester becomes reconciled to the natural life cycle, as the Vixen dies, and he watches the Vixen's young child playing in the woods. The opera, which moves almost seamlessly between the animal and the human worlds, is at once eerie, tender, and farcical. The Suite on this program, the version most commonly performed, is a slightly condensed rendering of Act One without the voices. The renowned Czech conductor Vaclav Talich orchestrated this suite, which has a slightly more smoothed-out sound than Janácek's ferocious, inventive orchestration.
- Jessie Rothwell is the Publications Coordinator for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She also writes music, plays oboe, and sings Bulgarian folk music.