Monday, January 30, 2012

Janacek's 1.X.1905 Piano Sonata


One of my favorite keyboard works is the opus 1.X.1905 1 Piano Sonata, by Leos Janáček[1854-1928]. Janacek was a Czech, better known perhaps for his operatic works, which established his fame later in his life. The 1905 Sonata is a stirring work, by turns stridently militant and suavely lyrical. It's impossible not to hear in it an undercurrent of longing, resignation and remorse. It's been interpreted as a reaction to the death of a young Czech during a university demonstration in 1905, so presumably it has a clear political context. Janáček's major piano works were written during a time of political and emotional strife. It was a decade filled with political suppression, multiple deaths, and a search for artistic validation. Sonata 1. X. 1905 is a musical representation of Janacek's staunch political views, connoting his frustrations as a provincial composer.

Usually, works inspired by political feeling fail aesthetically, since they're formally compromised by the desire to summon martial sentiments or simplistic partisan pretexts. National anthems or fighting songs may be inspiring to those who subscribe to the intended, preferred sentimental purpose. But serious classical works based on national or folk causes may fair better. Beethoven, or (especially) Chopin come to mind. In central or northern Europe there are the examples of Bartok, Kodaly, and Smetana.

The precise meaning to be assigned to any moving piece of "pure music" is difficult to establish conclusively. Many of the pieces written by Russian composers during the Soviet Era have ambiguous significance--either because they are felt to be superfluous to their initial impetus--or because they may be trivialized by the association. Prokofiev and Shostakovich both suffered at the alter of political correctness.

Janáček intended this composition to be a tribute to a worker named František Pavlík (1885–1905), who, on the date indicated by the title (1 October 1905), had been bayoneted during demonstrations calling for support for a Czech university in Brno. In the work, Janáček expresses his disapproval with the violent death of the young carpenter. He started to compose it immediately after the incident occurred and finished its composition in January 1906. The première took place on 27 January 1906 in Brno (Friends of the Arts Club), with Ludmila Tučková at the piano. Janáček also wrote a third movement, a funeral march, which he cut out and burned shortly before the first public performance of the piece in 1906.

Janáček was not satisfied with the rest of the composition either and later tossed out the manuscript of the two remaining movements into the river Vltava. He later commented with regret about his impulsive action: "And it floated along on the water that day, like white swans"--certainly a mournfully romantic image!

The composition remained lost until 1924 (the year of Janáček’s seventieth birthday), when Tučková announced that she owned a copy. The renewed premiere took place on 23 November 1924 in Prague, under the title 1. X. 1905. Janáček later accompanied the work with the following inscription: "The white marble of the steps of the Besední dům in Brno. The ordinary labourer František Pavlík falls, stained with blood. He came merely to champion higher learning and has been slain by cruel murderers." The first authorized printed edition of the work was published in 1924 by the Hudební matice in Prague. The Dutch composer Theo Verbey made an orchestral version of 1.X.1905, which received its premiere on 9 May 2008 in Utrecht, the Netherlands, with the Dutch Radio Filharmonisch Orkest.

The two movements of the sonata are Foreboding (con moto), and Death (adagio). 2 The first movement is filled with halting, staccato gestures which have a kind of adolescent, indignant passion about them, with an intermittent sostenuto figure going in the left hand, the theme emerging over and over in the right. The second movement is exquisitely lyrical, continuing the passionate figure of the first, but with meditative pauses and rhetorical questionings. As thematic material, it could as easily have served as a love song--which raises the issue of programmatic material versus "pure" musical content. Clearly, there are certain kinds of music which could not be easily mistaken for a "wrong" underlying meaning. A sprightly dance by Grieg could never be taken as a funeral march for a fallen comrade. But in the political context, there is usually an ambiguity.

1.X.1905 is definitely a young man's music (albeit when the composer was in his forties), filled with over-arching conviction and a fatal longing. But how do we splice the meanings inherent in the music? The fervency we associate with nativist or revolutionary political inspiration could as well stand for the intensity of immature sexual passion. When I was 19, I was as ready to be swept up in an all-encompassing cause as I was likely to be seduced by an attractive mate. These kinds of feelings are common to youth. The purposes to which such feelings may be put may be more about opportunity than clear distinction. Young revolutionaries may be coldly rational, or passionately affectionate. But Janáček's Sonata is about his indignation and protest for an innocent, not a soldier or a fully committed partisan.

And then there's the romantic acting-out of his depressive act to destroy the work, only to have it resurface a decade later. We love these kinds of romantic gestures, later imperiously rejected, but then saved from oblivion by fickle fate. The Sonata has a spontaneous quality which, for me, transcends questions about its ultimate instigation. Music like this may suggest many kinds of emotion--but it's the quality of the feeling, as Pound said, which is most convincing. We were all young once, subject to intensities of commitment, sudden shifts of engagement. In later age, our early convictions may be tempered, but the memory of those early passions doesn't evaporate. The desire to experience romantic longing may be as genuine and authentic as the longing itself. The Romantics are often accused of being in love with remorse and impossible commitments, since these facilitated the fashionable mournfulness they loved. Perhaps Janáček's initial despondency to reject the work has a symbolic theatricality about it. Nevertheless, it rings true--it's all in the quality of the work itself. For those susceptible to its charm, this will always be a sufficient pretext to appreciation.


1. Performance, on YouTube, of the first movement ("From the Street").
2. Performance, on YouTube, of the second movement ("Death").

1 comment:

Sunny West said...

Incredibly powerful and beautiful at the same time. Thank you for sharing. Curtis, do you play this piece on the piano? It is very complex and very moving.