Staying Up Late with Janacek

The light of a candle hasn't lost its magic and mirrors the magic of Janacek's music. © Charles Thibo
The light of a candle hasn’t lost its magic and mirrors the magic of Janacek’s music. © Charles Thibo

Cherchez la femme! A woman is leading again our way on this journey through the world of classical music. Today, it is the Luxembourg pianist Cathy Krier. She has recorded in 2013 a wonderful album with the piano cycle “On an Overgrown Path”, composed between 1902 and 1908 by the Czech composer Leos Janacek.

A difficult start

Janacek, born in 1854, studied music and composition in Prague, Leipzig and Vienna, but was noticed for his auto-didactic talent. His first works, like the opera “Sarka”, followed the romantic tradition; Bedrich Smetana was one of Janacek’s paragons, along with the French composer Claude Debussy whom he deeply admired. With a later opera called “Jenufa” and written in 1904 he started to follow a new path and overcame the traditional composition rule that dominated in the 19th century. Needless to say that the opera initially met little success; the opera house in Prague repeatedly refused to perform it, until he had accepted major “corrections”.

Janacek developed a very personal style, inspired by nature like Smetana, but in a much more exalted, even mystifying way, not unlike Debussy if we consider the “impressionist” elements of his works. Janacek’s compositions were to be a testimony of his fierce nationalism and his attachment to the beauty of his homeland.

Chill-out music ahead of its time

What makes the piece “On an Overgrown Path” so special for me? It is one of those pieces that I have labelled “Late-night-pieces”. From time to time, I like to stay up really late, like until 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, to read and to listen to music. The house is quiet, everybody is sound asleep and “On an Overgrown Path” with its calm melodies perfectly fits that atmosphere. The word “chill-out” has been coined in our times, but Janacek knew how to write “chill-out music” nevertheless, much like Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt.

The title “On an Overgrown Path” is derived from a Moravian wedding song, and the different parts apparently reflect distant positive and negative memories of Janacek. The piece comes in two parts: The ten miniatures of Series I have titles like “Words Fail” or “Come with us” and in letters to his publisher Jan Bramberger, Janacek explains the different meanings. Six out of these first ten parts were initially composed for the harmonium; Janacek published the complete Series I later as works for piano. The five parts of Series II have no specific titles, and Janacek just indicates their respective tempo.

Tiina Vainiomäki, a student from Finland, has published a study of Janacek’s composing style in 2012 while Laura Hrivnak, student at the University of Kansas, wrote in 2013 an essay on Series I for those interested in specific details. Cathy Krier’s recording is available on Spotify. For the concert season 2015/16 Cathy Krier has been named Rising Star by the European Concert Hall Organization.

© Charles Thibo

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5 thoughts on “Staying Up Late with Janacek”

    1. I am glad that I helped you discover new pieces. And equally glad to promote the recordings of one of Luxembourg’s finest (and youngest) pianists!

        1. I didn’t check that, but I would be surprised if Spotify would have only “extracts”. I provide the link to Spotify to give readers the chance to hear what the music is like. On the album the tracks of “On an overgrown path” are 2 to 3 minutes long.

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