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About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Leos Janácek
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Music of Dvorák & Janácek Fri., Mar. 23, 2012, 8:00 PM
© Peter Laki

The last years of Leoš Janácek's life were also his most productive. Throughout most of his life, he had labored in relative obscurity in the regional capital of Brno, and he was past sixty when performances of his opera Jenufa in Prague, Vienna and Cologne first made his name internationally known. Between the age of 65 and his death at 74, Janácek completed four of his nine operas, the Glagolitic Mass, the Sinfonietta, the Second String Quartet, and two compositions for piano and chamber ensemble, the Concertino and the Capriccio.

This extraordinary harvest revealed to the world a composer, born before Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and Claude Debussy, whose music sounded as modern and fresh as anything composed in the 1920s. Janácek could have repeated the words Haydn had said of himself some 130 years earlier: "I was cut off from the world. There was no one to confuse or torment me, and I was forced to become original."

Like Haydn, Janácek took his first trip to England late in hife. The Czech composer's sojourn, however, was much shorter: he spent only about two weeks in London in the spring of 1926. During his stay, he attended performances of his works, met with colleagues and admirers. and was honored at special receptions. Upon his return to Czechoslovakia, he composed the present Capriccio between June and October 1926. The work exudes the confidence of a man whose individuality had been finally validated by the outside world.

The Capriccio had been commissioned by the Czech pianist Otakar Hollmann who had been wounded in World War I and could only play with his left hand. Hollmann's tragedy recalls the similar fate suffered by Paul Wittgenstein, for whom Ravel wrote his Concerto for the Left Hand in 1929/30. The Ravel work was written almost simultaneously with another piano concerto for two hands; and it is interesting that Janácek, too, wrote his two piano concertos in close succession, the Capriccio following hot on the heels of the Concertino written the previous year. But Janácek's two works are not as sharply opposed in character as the two Ravel scores are. Different in orchestration, they nevertheless have a number of structural features in common. To begin with, they are both in four movements and in both, the piano is joined by a chamber ensemble of seven players (although the instrumentation is different). Furthermore, they both exhibit one of Janácek's most original characteristics, namely his tendency to construct large-scale forms from extremely short building blocks, as in a mosaic. Many of the melodic and rhythmic patterns making up these blocks are derived from Moravian folk music, which Janácek loved dearly and studied thoroughly his entire life.

The Capriccio presented a special challenge because of the limitations of a onehanded pianist, as well as the unusual instrumentation: a single flute (doubling piccolo) has to keep balance with six brass instruments. As it happens, the flute does not play at all until the second half of the second movement. In the third, its part is limited to a single motif, repeated over and over again. Finally, in the last movement, the flute emerges as the leading instrument. This eminently lyrical instrument thus gains in importance from movement to movement; this is, perhaps, a sign of the gradual transformation of a more extroverted, fanfare-like musical character into something more intimate and cantabile ("singing").

The first-movement Allegro begins with a terse motif played by the piano and taken over by the first trumpet. The middle section is divided into two halves, one slow and languid, the other lively and excited. The two halves share the same melodic material, played by the piano in the slow part and by the brass in the "Vivace" section. The initial piano motif returns for an extended recapitulation, followed by a short and dreamy coda for piano and three trombones, one of whom plays an extremely low note to end the movement.

The second movement is like a series of short vignettes linked by a common fournote motif that runs through most of it in a more or less unchanged form. It is first heard in the tenor tuba, interrupting the slow lyrical melody of the piano. Then, as the tempo becomes faster, the tuba insists on the four-note motif while the piano begins a new dance-like tune. The flute finally enters with a warm and soaring melody that is like nothing we have heard in the piece so far. Fragments of this new flute theme alternate with the opening piano melody and with a second theme. For a short while, the flute theme completely takes over, accompanied by some openly Romantic piano harmonies. At the end, the four-note motif and the brass instruments return with the fast, and finally with the slow piano theme.

The third movement opens as a Scherzo, with the tuba playing a cheerful, folksong- like theme with virtuoso ornaments at the repeat. A more sentimental episode follows, and then-after a short recall of the opening theme-an extended section of piano figurations sets in. The cheerful opening theme sneaks back, played by the piccolo; this leads to the first full tutti sound in the piece as seven of the eight instruments participate in a restatement of the opening melody. Unexpectedly, the movement ends with a return of the sentimental episode.

Unlike most finales, the last movement of Janácek's Capriccio is not in a fast tempo. It is, despite several tempo changes, basically an Andante, dominated by variations on a single lyrical phrase played by the flute, to which Janácek added some rapid piano figurations and a constantly changing harmonic underpinning in the brass section. Later, the descending melodic line underlying the delicate flute phrase is suddenly transformed into a harsh and agitated brass statement. From here on, the tempo oscillates between fast and slow until, following a fast piano cadenza, the slow flute melody returns. One brief interruption brings back the sentimental episode from the third movement, another consists of a recall of the agitated brass theme. Returning after each of these interruptions, the flute melody becomes more and more expansive and is finally repeated in the "Grave" section that ends the piece. Incidentally, these last measures are the only ones where all eight instruments play at the same time as the music suddenly assumes a majestic character that has in no way been anticipated in the course of the composition.