Length: c. 22 minutes
Orchestration: 4 flutes (4th = piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets (2nd = E-flat clarinet), bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 Wagner tubas, 12 trumpets, 4 trombones, 2 bass trumpets, tuba, timpani, percussion (chimes, cymbals, glockenspiel, suspended cymbal), harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 23, 1974, Charles Mackerras conducting
About this Piece
The last and most beloved of Janáček's orchestral works, his majestic and vigorous Sinfonietta grew from a memory of brass fanfares played outdoors by a military band in Písek, in southern Bohemia. With him on that occasion was the great (adulterous) love of his later life, Kamila Stösslová, which perhaps helps to explain the work's rapturous intensity. The project so inspired Janáček (then 72 years old) that it took him only a month to complete its five movements, writing, as he told conductor Václav Talich, with a "hot pen."
The Sinfonietta was a commission for the Eighth National Sokol Rally, held in Prague. A Czech gymnastics association, Sokol promoted physical fitness and Czech nationalism at a time when the Czech nation was struggling to assert its cultural and political identity within the Austrian Hapsburg empire. Janáček joined Sokol himself in 1876, and shared its nationalistic sentiments. From the start, he envisioned the Sinfonietta as a quasi-military composition, and dedicated it to the Czechoslovak Armed Forces. During his lifetime, he preferred to call it "my Military Symfonietta" (Vojenská Symfonieta), although this descriptive title was later dropped.
What gives the piece military flavor are the noble, shimmering fanfares in the opening measures. They move in stately parallel fifths, scored for brass choir (nine trumpets in C, two tenor tubas and two bass trumpets), underpinned by a pounding two-measure phrase in the timpani. The short melodic "mirror" phrases form palindromes that create the effect of an unending circle of resplendent golden sound. This is music for a festive procession--which is how the "Fanfares" movement was used at a performance in Prague's Old Town Square on July 6, 1926, as part of the Sokol Rally attended by 80,000 participants.
Janáček intended the Sinfonietta as a tribute not only to the Czech military, but also to his adopted home city of Brno, in Moravia. Freed in 1918 from centuries of foreign domination, Brno was Janáček's home for most of his life. The premieres of the opera Jenůfa and other important works took place there. For the Sinfonietta's Prague premiere, he bestowed descriptive titles connected with places in Brno on each movement ("Fanfares," "The Castle," "The Queen's Monastery," "The Street," "The Town Hall").
Commentators have long debated how to describe the Sinfonietta's form. It does not follow the sonata-allegro procedures of a symphony or its smaller cousin, the sinfonietta. Some have called it a suite, but perhaps "a modern symphonic fresco" (as one annotator put it) is more fitting. Throughout, Janáček deploys brief melodic/rhythmic cells that are repeated (hammered, even) with rapidly changing harmonic and rhythmic shifts; the fourth movement's main theme recurs fourteen times. Rustic dance motifs (some with a folksy modal character) familiar from the composer's operas surface here and there, especially in the second movement. A sweet lyrical theme appears in the third movement, a shadowy nocturne, but a restless syncopated figure in brass and woodwinds soon sweeps it away.
The final movement provides an ecstatic climax. An opening episode features the woodwinds squealing a wistful tune in their highest register, then the texture gradually thickens to prepare the entrance of the chiming brass choir of 13 instruments, sounding a refrain of the opening fanfares. A short coda adds the violins, repeating a delirious trilled four-note phrase as the cascading modal harmonies slowly shift into place, like tectonic plates settling after an earthquake. — Harlow Robinson