Here is one sweet way to start a day! No, not Bach, there’s more than one composer that makes me feel enthusiastic at sunrise. For much too long I have neglected the Czech composer Leos Janacek, but the previous post on Bohuslav Martinu’s trio and the research it required made me discover quite a few recordings of Janacek’s orchestral music that I did not know about yet. Janacek’s Suite for String Orchestra (JW VI/2) was written in 1877; thus it is one of the composer’s earlier works. He was only 23 years old, a young musician, a poor student about to finish his education at the Prague Organ School.
The work is written in six movements a and Janacek had conceived it in a Baroque mental framework and yes, his organ training and the study of the old German Baroque master had an influence on the piece – certain parts have a Baroque texture and betray the line of thought of an organist. Janacek rejected however his initial idea of naming the movements after the typical Baroque dances (Prelude, Allemande, Sarabande, Scherzo, Air and Finale), since the music of the different sections did not correspond to the dance forms. The works saw its premiere in 1877 but it wasn’t published until 1926.
It comes close to a little miracle that this work has survived. At the time he wrote it, Janacek was unsure about everything: his education, his potential jobs, his way of life, his compositions. He destroyed many a piece he wrote at that early age. However he was fully involved in the cultural life of the town he called home: Brno. He was the chairman of Czech literary society, he founded the Moravian composers society and took part in the popular sokols, public gatherings in the tradition of the German Turnverein, involving all-age gymnastics, music, lectures – and nationalist speeches. In 1874, Janacek had met Anton Dvorak, whose Serenade for Strings would serve as an inspiration for Janacek’s suite.
For a beginner’s works the Suite for String Orchestra shows a lot of internal coherence while Janacek avoids any experiments and brutal shifts as he would incorporate them in later works. The first two sections have a full-bodied, passionate sound and occasional moments of grace. The influence of his Moravian heritage and the prevalence of a Slavophile attitude in Eastern Moravia as opposed to Western Moravia looking west, to Vienna and Germany becomes apparent in the third section. The fourth movement, very dynamic, fast-paced links the first three slower movements to the last two slower movements, while the beginning of the finale has a touch of Tchaikovsky’s exuberance as the latter was able to set to music when he had a good day.
The Suite for Strings has been recorded by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra under Sir Neville Marriner.
© Charles Thibo