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Composed: 1926
Length: c. 22 minutes
Orchestration: flute (= piccolo), 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, and piano (left-hand)
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

The Capriccio was composed in 1926 for pianist Otakar Hollmann, who had lost the use of his right arm during the First World War. Not wishing to give up his career, Hollmann – like his contemporary and similarly afflicted fellow pianist, Paul Wittgenstein – commissioned composers to create for him works for left-hand alone, among them his countrymen Janácek and Bohuslav Martinuº, and the Polish pianist-composer Leopold Godowsky.

Janácek’s oddly-scored composition – piano, flute (doubling piccolo), two trumpets, three trombones and tenor tuba – is among the extraordinary flowering of Janácek’s creativity that took place after his meeting, in 1917, a woman nearly 40 years his junior (he was 63 at the time), Kamila Stösslová, who became his muse and confidante for the remainder of his days.

The decade in question, 1917-1928, saw the composition of Janácek’s great operas Kát’a Kabanová, The Cunning Little Vixen, The Makropulos Case, and From the House of the Dead, the “Glagolitic” Mass, the orchestral Sinfonietta, the song cycle Diary of One Who Disappeared, his two string quartets, the Concertino, and the present Capriccio.

In one of his letters to Kamila he said that he had considered calling the work “Defiance,” to indicate the pianist’s indomitable will to pursue his art despite his disability. But at another time he referred to the work as “a series of pranks.” The “prankishness” may be assumed in the instrumental combination: but until the final, relatively peaceful and straightforward movement, the humor seems black, the mood one of mocking grotesquerie.

The score begins with an aggressive, marchlike theme in the piano, accompanied by the trombones, before the piano comes to a dead halt and the trombones play a spooky ostinato. There is a fierce mini-cadenza for trumpet before the piano returns with is quasi-march. Movement two is dominated by a gentle (mock-gentle?), rather Schumannesque, tune in the piano which alternates with complex trombone figurations before the flute enters. The movement ends in sad resignation.

Movement three is a dark scherzo, one of its notable features being the trombones’ and the tuba’s lumpish mimicking of the flute. A degree of hope is sounded in the finale, signaled by the sweetly singing flute, but it is compromised by a brief, stormy piano cadenza, whereupon the mood again seems to become positive (it is difficult to determine when the composer is being “straight” or, again, mocking), with animated sextuplets in the trumpets leading to the final measures, in affirmative D-flat major, for piano and tenor tuba.

Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.