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The Wandering of a Little Soul (Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, reconstructed and realized by Leos Faltus and Milos Stedron)

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Leos Janácek
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Jiří Bĕlohlávek, conductor/Christian Tetzlaff, violin, performs Mozart Apr. 19 - 21, 2007
© Richard Freed
Janáček composed the material for this work in 1927-28, but instead of presenting it in concerto form then he adapted parts of it for use in his opera From the House of the Dead; the Concerto was reconstructed in its present form by Leoš Faltus and Miloš Štědroň in 1988 and was given its premiere on September 29 of that year, by the violinist Jan Stanovský with the Brno State Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský. The work enters the repertory of the National Symphony Orchestra in the present concerts.

In addition to the solo violin, the score calls for 2 piccolos, 3 flutes, alto flute, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 B-flat clarinets, 2 E-flat clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, bass trumpet, 4 trombones, tenor tuba, bass tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, rattle, celesta, harp, and strings. Duration, 12 minutes.

Janáček, one of the most remarkable figures of an altogether remarkable span of years in the history of Western music, composed in almost every known form but the two mainstays of the concert repertory: the symphony and the concerto. The famous Sinfonietta is in no sense a "little symphony," but rather a five-movement fantasy, or suite, based on a set of military fanfares. He did start on a symphony when he was in his twenties, but the single movement he completed, a scherzo composed in 1880, was lost during his lifetime and has yet to be unearthed. His two concerted works for piano actually belong to the realm of chamber music: a Capriccio for piano (left hand) and winds, a Concertino for piano six wind and string instruments. His sole for a solo instrument with orchestra, one of the products of the rich final years that gave us the Sinfonietta and the Glagolitic Mass, was not lost, but he decided on a different use for the material and the Violin Concerto as such did not materialize until a little more than eighteen years ago.

In 1926, when his international reputation was at last catching up with him, Janáček became the first Czech composer since Dvořák to be invited to England. On May 1, in London, he attended a rehearsal of his Violin Sonata and was strongly impressed by the brilliant playing of Adila Farichi (grandniece of the illustrious Joseph Joachim and sister of the more widely known violinist Jelly d'Arányi). His pleasure in Farichi's performance of his Sonata may have been the impetus for the creation of the piece he labeled a Violin Concerto, with the descriptive title Putování dušičky—"The Wandering of a Little Soul." Another guess is that the Concerto was a response to a libretto by his friend William Ritter (a French writer) called Body and Soul, which Janáček rejected as material for an opera but which may have had a productive effect on him at another level. Yet another speculation is that the Violin Concerto may have been conceived as a more elaborate overture than his original one for his final opera, From the House of the Dead, whose premiere took place nearly two years after his death. Whatever his motivation, Janáček did not take the idea of a violin concerto very far, but instead made use of the material in that opera's conclusion and at the end of its orchestral prelude.

The existence of the Concerto was not unknown, though. The conductor Břetislav Bakala, an outstanding champion of Janáček's works, revised and reorchestrated the score of From the House of the Dead for that work's premiere, which he conducted; he kept in his possession Janáček's manuscript score of that work, which included (on the back of the prelude) the sketches for the Concerto. The work, under the title Janáček himself gave it, is mentioned in the composer's various biographies, and it was only a matter of time for its eventual rescue from oblivion. As noted above, it was reconstructed and introduced in 1988, and since then has appeared in several recordings, among them one by the soloist in the present performances, Christian Tetzlaff (with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Libor Pešek, on Virgin Classics).

The Concerto is in a single movement comprising five very brief but distinct sections, a sort of symphonic poem with the violin as protagonist and narrator. It is not necessary to know or imagine the actual burden of the narrative: it is enough to sense the mood—or succession of moods—conveyed in the music. The opening (Andante: Tempo di marcia) is as imaginative as it is dramatic: an impassioned declaration by the soloist, with only drums for accompaniment. Following that, the orchestra makes itself very much a part of the proceedings. The listener familiar with Janáček's other late works will recognize familiar coloring and rhythms here and there, and even thematic fragments similar to those in the Sinfonietta, the Glagolitic Mass and, in the two final sections, the somewhat earlier symphonic poem Taras Bulba.