Skip to page content

Composed: 1918
Length: c. 23 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bells, cymbals, small drum, triangle), harp, organ, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 19, 1967, Bernard Haitink conducting

Drawn to Russian literature throughout his career, Leos Janácek based a number of his works on stories from the East. One of these was Nicolai Gogol's story Taras Bulba, which Janácek turned into an orchestral suite in three movements. The work depicts episodes from a 1628 war between Cossacks and Poles, and the events surrounding the death of a Cossack military leader named Taras Bulba. Significantly, Janácek wrote the suite between 1915-1918, and dedicated the work to our army the armed protector of our nation.

He called the piece a rhapsody - fitting for its national characteristics, but rather strange in terms of its form (rhapsodies most often consist of just one movement). Taras Bulba does seem to flow freely, ranging greatly through many moods, colors, and tonalities.

The first movement, "The Death of Andrei," portrays the story of one of Taras' sons, who, because of his love for a Polish girl chooses to fight on the Polish side, against his own people. The English horn represents Andrei's thoughts of his beloved, while interruptions from the orchestra and the organ represent the oncoming disaster and the watching townspeople. The movement ends as Andrei is killed at the hands of his father.

The second movement, "The Death of Ostap," describes the battle leading up to the death of Taras' other son. Distracted by the death of his brother, Ostap is captured by the Poles, who break into a celebratory mazurka (a Polish dance), then torture Ostap, who cries out for his father in a wild E-flat clarinet solo reminiscent of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique and Richard Strauss' Till Eulenspiegel.

The beginning of the third movement, "The Prophecy and Death of Taras Bulba," is menacing, with strings and winds in a peculiar interplay. Taras, who has avenged his son's death, is himself captured and sentenced to death by burning. The movement proceeds through a myriad of Janácekian fragments and short sections, including moments of nostalgic love-theme, cartoon-like dance music, and the reappearance of the organ - this time extremely bright and eerie, while strings play a repeating rhythmic motive in sequences through different keys. Chimes re-enter over uneven music, and a noble coda erupts, giving voice to Taras Bulba's vision of his nation's future triumph, and ending with the words that first inspired Janácek to write the piece: "There is no fire nor suffering in the whole world which can break the strength of the Russian people."

Janácek's identification with the Russian soldiers of World War I was strong and Taras Bulba remains among his most powerful expressions. Filled with some of the most bizarrely quirky and the most poignantly beautiful tunes in all of Czech symphonic music, Taras Bulba takes its place in the sound world of Janácek overall: "The whole life of a man," he once said, "is in the folk music - body, soul, environment, everything. He who grows out of folk music makes a whole man of himself."

 Jessie Rothwell