Leoš Janáček ‘Sinfonietta’: A Unique Form of Expression

Leoš Janáček for me is a completely underrated composer who’s music is notably expressive, individual and sought for greater realism. Born is 1854 in Hukvaldy, Moravia (a large area within the Czech Republic) Janáček was seen as a gifted child within a family that had little means. As a choir boy Janáček sung at the Abbey of St. Thomas in Brno, where he also nurtured and enhanced his skills on the organ and piano. The choirmaster of St. Thomas, Pavel Křížkovský recommended Janáček for the Prague organ school, even though he found Janáček a highly problematic student. After then enrolling at the Prague organ school, Janáček decided to study composition instead of piano performance, which led him to compose some small scale choral works. Janáček graduated with the best results in his class for his work in the disicpline of composition, and after working as a music teacher for some years he enrolled at the Leipzig conservatory to study composition, piano and organ.

Janáček achieved quite a sudden blast of fame in 1916 after the great success of his opera Jenfua, which was premiered in Prague that year. After that the composer worked tirelessly throughout the rest of his life, churning out some incredible pieces of music such as his symphonic rhapsody Taras Bulba and another fairly well-known opera The Cunning Little Vixen. In 1926, two years before his death, Janáček wrote his Sinfonietta. The piece was written for a gymnastic organisation called Sokol, which celebrates youth sport and independent nationhood. Janáček sought for realism in his music, which is why it makes him such an original composer. He used Morovian and Slovak folk-songs to inspire his works and thus his musical connection with the real word became much greater. Sinfonietta is dedicated to the ‘Czechoslovak Armed Forces’ and that is certainly a prevelant theme within the music. Independence and spirit is woven into the fabric of the Sinfonietta and the conncection to the armed forces and real people is especially emphaised.

Sinfonietta is a five-movement symphonic-like work which lasts about 25 minutes. It is orchestrated for a full orchestra, however with a slight adjustement to the amount of brass included. The reason for this is that Janáček wanted the cyclic composition to represent the armed forces, therefore he wrote for nine (yes nine!) trumpets. The first movement is one massive fanfare which is orchestrated for nine trumpets, four trombones, two Bb tubas and timpani. The opening is large, loud and incredibly brash, which is the sound that Janáček was aiming for as it would reprsent an army band much more realistically. The layering of the fanfares from the different instruments is a sign of Janáček’s musical thinking, where he divides and sub-divides tiny cells of music and creates an interlocking themes. The fanfare is a huge statement of what is to come within this piece, with the massive number of brass players all playing at forte.

The second movement (refrerred to as ‘The Castle’) interlocks some folk-dance motifs with incredible power and majestic grace. One thing I always find astonishing about this work is the sheer technical demand that is needed from every single player to create the atmospher and the rhythmic charm of the work. With some interesting time changes and no real established key, this movement is very free, though ironically incredibly complex. I really enjoy the initial oboe theme that is heard, as it provides a sweet, yet fast-paced motif that is then passed around the orchestra throughout the movement. This movement especially relies on Janáček’s musical roots as the main nuggets of themes you hear are based on folk-dances.

The third movement, marked Moderato is referred to as ‘Convent’ is a very reminiscent movement which looks back at Janáček’s family roots. The movements always give a subtle nod to the opening fanfare, so when it returns in the fifth movement its like one big musical cycle.One of my favourite musical extracts from the work is within the third movement between bars 58-75.The sheer dexterity that is required in the flute parts at this point is astonishing! Those incredibly fast and intricate semi-quaver runs (bearing in mind all three flutes are playing and so is the piccolo player) is just incredible to hear.

The fourth movement is referred to as ‘The Street’ and the opening theme, played on trumpet is probably one of the most memorable of the whole work. In a loose scherzo form it is incredibly intricate and really takes you on an exciting journey! With the incredibly handling of extrememties of instrument ranges and the colours that Janáček creates is formidable. This movement revives the initial theme and varies in a plethora of different ways, such as rhythmically, harmonically and instrumentally. This movement is a very exciting one which builds the pathway for the incredible final movement that is next to come.

The final movement (‘Town Hall’) is a representation of the change within the historical city after the war. Starting in Eb minor a retrograde of the opening melody is played and the piece acquires some pace. The rhythmic demands do not waver in this movement, with complex syncopation and time changes still a prevelant factor within the music. In the finale section the opening fanfare from the first movement reappears and is joined by swirling figures in the strings and shrill harmonies within the winds.

I have never seen this work live, but I bet that being there in person would give it much more powerful impact. The thrilling brass fanfares and interjections emphasise Janáček’s incredibly powerful writing that shouldn’t ever be dismissed. I wouldn’t call this a symphony, but a musical cycle in a loose symphonic form, and this makes it a really unique way of writing instrumental works. Janáček’s keen interest for expanding toniality (for example using unorthodox chord structures) is just one way that Janáček puts his own stamp on classical music forms.

If you’ve never listened to any of Janáček’s works I would highly recommend you do, they’re well worth your time and concentration!

Recommended recordings:

Vienna Philharmonic – Sir Charles Mackerras

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