Janáček’s Sinfonietta: A Festive Flourish

The impetus for Leoš Janáček’s blazing Sinfonietta came one day in 1925 when the Moravian-born Czech composer encountered a military band performing in a park. As the story goes, Janáček was so drawn to the spirited, patriotic strains that he vowed to write his own set of military fanfares. A few months later, the perfect outlet came when Janáček received a commission from the organizers of the Sokol Gymnastic Festival.

Founded in Prague in 1862 and dedicated to the ideal of “a strong mind in a sound body,” the Sokol movement began as a covert expression of Czech nationalism in the shadow of Hapsburg rule. For the Slavic people, the falcon (or “sokol”) was a symbol of freedom. The dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, following the First World War, brought Czech independence and overt expressions of patriotism. Janáček dedicated his Sinfonietta to “The Czechoslovak Armed Forces,” and intended the piece to express the ideals of the “contemporary free man, his spiritual beauty and joy, his strength, courage and determination to fight for victory.”

Scored for a full orchestra which is augmented in the outer movements with an enormous brass section (four horns, 12 trumpets, two bass trumpets, four trombones, two euphoniums, and tuba), Janáček’s Sinfonietta is festive music of the outdoors. It is filled with the exuberant inflections of Moravian folk music. Set in five movements, it is symphonic and cyclic in nature. Ultimately, it takes the form of a triumphant, celebratory flourish.

The Sinfonietta opens with the soaring brass and percussion fanfare (Allegretto) which Janáček composed for the Sokol Festival. The movements which follow are named after scenes from the southern Moravian city of Brno, where Janáček spent his childhood. The second movement (Andante-Allegretto) takes us to Špilberk Castle, while the third (Moderato) visits the city’s monastery. Here, a boisterous interruption by the solo trombone is echoed ecstatically throughout the orchestra. The fourth movement (Allegretto) depicts the streets of central Brno at the time of Czech liberation. With the final movement (Andante con moto), which begins with a retrograde version of the opening fanfare theme, we arrive at Brno’s turreted Town Hall. Some commentators have compared this mercurial music with the cinematic jump-cut, in which one scene abruptly transitions to the next.

In its final jubilant moments, the music “rounds a corner” and returns to the celebratory space of the initial fanfare. Amid bright trills, the brass choir is now joined by the full orchestra. It is the ultimate exalted return home.

This live 2011 performance at the BBC Proms features Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra:

Here is Rafael Kubelik’s 1981 recording with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra:

Five Great Recordings

Featured Image: “Sokol Sport Festival in Prague, 1926”

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

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