Leoš Janáček: Taras Bulba, VI/15
Antonín Dvořák: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in G minor, Op. 33, B63
Josef Suk: Ripening, Op. 34
The year was 1924 and the “Year of Czech Music” was celebrated in Brno for the first time. The year-long festival of music was opened by a ceremonial concert dedicated to the seventieth birthday of Leoš Janáček and the fiftieth birthday of Josef Suk. It was to be a great surprise for Janáček, the orchestra of the National Theatre Brno was supplemented by students of the conservatory and members of the German theatre. It was supposed to be a real tribute to both authors. The programme of the Sunday morning concert in January included Janáček’s Taras Bulba and Suk’s Ripening. But everything turned out “Brno-style”. The Municipal Theatre was festively decorated, including the Master’s box, but Janáček did not arrive. After the concert it became clear that the conductor František Neumann had forgotten to invite him. In the meantime, Janáček wanted to buy tickets, but it was already sold out, so he went for a walk instead. He described it jokingly afterwards in a letter to his friend Kamila Stösslová: “That was ‘fun’ in Brno. They were doing some sort of a celebration for me and the composer Suk. I couldn’t even get the tickets – so I didn’t go. They called, they summoned – and I was somewhere outside Brno in the snowy fields!”
The orchestral rhapsody Taras Bulba is based on the novella of the same name by Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol, which Janáček had discovered in the Russian original at a joint reading of the Brno Russian Circle in 1905. However, he did not portray the story of a Ukrainian Cossack until the beginning of WWI, in the first half of 1915. However, the police rampage against everything Russian led the composer to interrupt his work. He did not return to it until the spring of 1918, when he finished the composition as a “Slavic Rhapsody”. The premiere of this unusual composition took place in 1921, when it was staged by František Neumann with the Brno Theatre Orchestra.
It is surprising that the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in G minor by Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904) is not performed more often on concert stages, as it is a very impressive work. Dvořák composed it shortly after his acquaintance with the young Leoš Janáček, in 1876, but its present form dates from 1883, when the composer made extensive revisions. The concerto is somewhat out of the Chopin-Liszt tradition of the time, i.e. the alternation of sections of the virtuosically conceived solo part and the dominant orchestra. Dvořák replaced these contrasts with a unified musical stream of symphonic composition.
Josef Suk (1874–1935) composed his monumental symphonic poem Ripening almost at the same time as Janáček composed his Taras Bulba, in 1912–1917. Suk was inspired by Antonín Sova’s poem of the same name. The poet’s confession was close to the composer’s heart; he also felt the need to communicate his feelings and experiences through music, from the tragic ones, as we know them from his symphony Asrael, to hope and joy in life and creation. Due to Suk’s workload, especially his engagement with the Bohemian Quartet, the composition took a long time to complete and the premiere did not take place until 30 October 1918, two days after the proclamation of Czechoslovakia. Ripening was first staged by Václav Talich with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and the reception was very warm, although some listeners and critics were somewhat puzzled by the complexly conceived score. Today we see this magnificent symphonic poem as a symphonic jewel of the period.