Janacek’s blood-stained flowers

Olin Downes, New York Times “Which composers have influenced you most?”

Leos Janacek “None.”


Last week, I had the good fortune and privilege to conduct a workshop of Janacek’s Taras Bulba at the Harlech Orchestral Summer School in North Wales.

Since so much of Janacek’s life’s work is bound up in his operas, there isn’t a vast amount of music by him for conductors whose life is mostly centred (at the moment) in the concert hall. Even taking into account my dual life as a cellist, there still aren’t enough pieces- the magnificent Pohadka for Cello and Piano, the two extraordinary String Quartets, the Sinfonietta and Taras Bulba- those are the mainstays that don’t involve finding soloists and choirs.

Jancek is a composer I would qualify as an “ecstatic” voice. In my nomenclature, this means a composer who has a gift for creating individual musical events that are somehow supercharged. In Janacek, again and again we find chords and melodies that in other hands would simply be memorable- in his, they become iconic and awe-inspiring.

Alongside this gift for creating music that burns off the page like the sun itself, one also has a sense that like a great religious visionary, Janecek comes from nowhere and leads to no one. There is simply no music before or after Janacek that sounds like his. His music is infinitely easy to recognize and completely impossible to replicate.

Compare this with Schoenberg- his music clearly comes from Mahler and Strauss and leads to Berg and Webern. Dvorak is often cited as an influence on Janacek, but I think he was more an inspiration than a model. Does anything in mature Janacek sound like Dvorak could have gotten there in the same way that one could imagine Mahler writing the 1st Schoenberg Chamber Symphony, Or Webern writing Pierrot Lunaire?

The composer Janacek reminds me most of is Messiaen, also an ecstatic who comes from nowhere and leads to nothing. Like Janacek, Messiaen had a gift for the magical and electric sonority.

In both cases, this gift for the billion dollar chord was hard earned. Records of Messiaen’s teaching and Janacek’s writings indicate that they both approached chords with a maniacal attention to the possibilities of detail, and had a keen forensic eye for what made a special chord special in music of other composers.

Janacek’s gift is not for inventing new chords, but is for making known chords sound new, even revelatory. He understood that a chord cannot really be reduced- a C major chord is not just a C major chord. It is how it is voiced, where it is placed and how it is orchestrated that makes the difference. Each chord in Janacek is a unique outgrowth of where it is placed in time, how it is spelled, how it is spaced and how it is scored.

Take the F# minor chord at the beginning of Taras Bulba- from the moment the chord sounds, we are in another world. The scoring seems simple- only strings. So too the context- there isn’t any. Yet the chord sounds like it is already a departure from something- the instant the piece starts, we are in another world and another time.

Janacek builds the chord with double basses on the low F# (sounding) below the staff, the cellos an octave above on the F# below middle C. Just a third above them are the violas on the third of the chord, A natural. However, after these two closely spaced notes, there is another full octave of space before the 2nd violins on the A above middle C. So- thus far, you have octave F#s, then starting a 3rd above them, octave A’s. Above the 2nds, the first violins play a minor 3rd (divided), of F# a 6th above the 2nds and the A above the staff. There’s no 5th in the chord at all, and there’s a lot of open space, but with a very small interval at the top,

The chord sounds for just a split second before the Cor anglais solo begins, characteristically on the 9th- ; it is only at the end of the bar that he finally completes the triad with the C# in the Cor.

Mahler is all about perfect fourths- if you understand what fourths meant to Mahler, you are some way to understanding him. Schubert is all about 3rds, particularly 3rd relationships between keys (he was the undisputed king of the chromatic submediant modulation- try saying that 5 times fast when you’ve had a drink). If you understand what the relationship between G major and E flat major means to Schubert, you are on your way to understanding him.

For Janacek, it is the 9th and the 13th that hold the key to his inner world. It is interesting that even most of his instrumental music is programmatic, because as well as telling the tale of the Kreutzer Sonata or Taras Bulba, all those 9ths and 13ths are telling the story of Leos Janacek- who he was, what he longed for and what he believed music was for.

Most of Janacek’s music is technically difficult to play. The Czech school of string playing has always been one of the world’s greatest, and Janacek clearly writes for players who were raised on Sevcik exercises. Violinists who would play Janacek must be free of any hint of acrophobia. What makes his music even more challenging is his distinctive rhythmic language- just as he goes to great lengths to arrange pitches to create maximum burn even in triadic and dyadic harmony (especially so!), so too, he places ideas in time to create the maximum  level of energy. His music is as super-charged rhythmicically as it is harmonically.

He loves to start rhythmic passages and ostinatos off the beat- you can see players working at Janacek counting at frantic speed “hmm two, three, hmm five six!”  or “and ah! — and ah!” over and over again.

At the end of “Death of Ostap” as Taras Bulba is watching his son being executed, Janacek has the orchestra playing at high speed in one beat per bar.  The last 3 bars are 3 loud tutti E-flat minor chords (amazingly scored, as always) on the beat, followed on the 2nd and 3rd subdivisions of the beat by the timpani playing Bb and Eb. In other words, in half a bar, you have a beat divided in 3 parts with everyone but the timps playing the 1 and the timps playing the 2 and 3. It would be a bit harrowing for the timp to catch this, but Janacek pushes the envelope even farther. Instead of placing the chord on the down beat of the bar, it’s on the half bar, and remember, we’re in one. That means the timpanist has to enter on the 5th and 6th subdivisions of  the bar, judging the timing exactly from the conductors beat, as there isn’t enough time to react to the tutti chord. If the timpanist waits for that chord to start their motion, the notes will always be late. But Janacek understood that having the orchestra play “FOUR! five- six!” is more intense than “ONE! two-three!”

At a moment like this, if one can get everyone playing at the same time (not easy- listen to 4 recordings and 2 or 3 will be fudged here. It took us about 5 minutes on those 3 bars with a fine timpanist last week), it’s going to sound pretty electric. However, in other passages that aren’t as obviously super difficult, one has to constantly encourage the musicians to remember that this is ecstatic, elemental, extraordinary music in which every note is alive and  white hot.

Explaining this to an orchestra can lead to some scepticism of the “oh god, Ken’s feeling a little intense today” variety. Fortunately, Janacek said it all better than I can.

“By the analysis and elimination of affects—the source from which the chord is born, whose rippling waves carry it forth, through which it is revealed, through which it shines, rings out, changes, grows and dies away—through this I learn the reason for the chord’s existence.

For me, a chord is a being come alive: a blood-stained flower of the musical art. I know when I write it that pain grips m haer; that the heart moas, wails, falls hard on the ground, crushes, is fragmented by the mist, hardens into granite. What do I care for the borrowed attributes beautiful or ugly!

In a flash of life, the chord’s essence corresponds to my being.

Even the tame look of a chick, the searching eye of a hawk, and ardent kiss, and handshake grown cool, even the dreaming, pale blue of the forget-me-not, even the burning fire of the wild poppy evoke a chord within me”

And from later in the same essay

“Within a chord, the affects are divided. The roots of its individual compenents draw upon the emotional ingredients, exalted by their passion.

“Had the mind not been burning within the chord, I would compare the chord to the floweres conjured up for us on the window pane by the frost.

“Against the expressive chord stands a chord acoustically calculated, smoothed out, ascetically refined, grown cold, a chord made glib through education.

“To choose out of these chords?

“If you reach for the latter, you are reaching for someone else’s reading made work.

“You are withdrawing fom the living source of expression; you are getting nearer the graphic rather than the expressive.

“A crossroads, indeed”

And from a later essay

“Who is so foolish as to get it into his head to stop a ray of sunlight in its course? I may deflect it, break it down into a rainbow, reflect it and yet it will run on into infinity. The same with a note. I may tie it in a chord of passions: it will dissolved and the note will roam about on its own. It may gather colours within the universe. I may tie it in a knot in my mind. But the note, the only certain thing, peters out alone; yet there is no end to chords.”

Quotations are taken from Janacek’s Uncollected Essays on Music, translated by Mirk Zemanova. It’s an extraordinary book.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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3 comments on “Janacek’s blood-stained flowers”

  1. Kenneth Woods

    I realize there is an apparent contradiction between Janacek’s disdain for “a chord acoustically calculated, smoothed out, ascetically refined, grown cold, a chord made glib through education” and my description of “a maniacal attention to the possibilities of detail, and had a keen forensic eye for what made a special chord special in music of other composers.”

    What I believe Janacek is talking about is motivation– where does the chord originate? His processes could be highly technically sophisticated, and he was more than capable of providing extraordinarily keen analysis of his own music and that of other.

    As with Messiaen, Janacek is a composer for whom the ecstatic and analytical are inseparable.

  2. Tim Paton

    Yes, in my case particularly the 9th. I know that others ‘milked’ the 9th, eg Tchaikovsky in his 6th Symphony, (and I do not say ‘milked’ as an insult but an indulgence). Janacek however seemed to give the 9th a whole new character.

    As a published composer and arranger, my two main influences have been the early music (late 1960’s early 1970’s) of the American rock band Chicago and Janacek. If anyone in the world acclaims my music, even if it is a medley of Elvis Presley or a sensitive Carol King song, (and I believe they might), there are two main ingredients. SOme of the up tempo rhythms may have come from Chicago, the musical influence however, those nuances which make it special, are not mine, they come from Janacek.

  3. Lillian

    Fantastic writing — I’m very new to Janacek but find tihs very helpful — thanks 🙂

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