Leoš Janáček - Piano Music

Leoš Janáček - Piano Music
Tomas Dratva - Piano

In the Mists / 1.X.1905 - "Sonata"
On an Overgrown Path (Series I & II & Paralipomena)

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Please find an elaborate text about Leoš Janáček's piano music further down.
Listen to a very short sample: the last musical thoughts Janáček put on paper before his death:

mp3The Golden Ring (mp3 quality)
->Listen to more samples here!




Tomas Dratva

Leoš Janáček's Piano Music

From 1879 until his death in 1928, Leoš Janáček wrote ten compositions for piano solo, two concertos for piano and small ensemble, five chamber music works for piano with violin or violoncello and the song cycle "Zápisník zmizelého" ("The Diary of One Who Disappeared") for voice and piano. He also regularly used the piano in various arrangements and folk music transcriptions.

Janáček's earliest compositions include a Piano Sonata in E flat major (1879) and a Violin Sonata (1880). Both works are lost. The first preserved major piano work is a set of variations called "Zdenčiny variace" ("Zdenka Variations") from 1880. This composition was written during his studies in Leipzig. Janáček probably wrote this composition to show his skills to his teacher Leo Grill. The seven variations on an own theme are following a variety of models: Mendelssohn (Var.2), Tchaikovsky (Var. 3), Liszt (Var. 4), Brahms (Var. 5), "Baroque Masters" (Var. 6) and Schumann (Var. 7). In the same period Janáček wrote two compositions for violin and piano called "Romance" (1879) and "Dumka" (1880) in a music style similar to Brahms and Tchaikovsky.

Janáček's first compositions were thus marked by the prevailing traditional late-romantic style of the second half of the 19th century. This changed slowly but clearly in the 1880s and 1890s. Janáček began to study extensively the Moravian folk music. He also analysed the phonetic, melodic and rhythmic features of the Czech language. Both research topics became the main source of his unmistakable music language.

In his piano music, Janáček started to find his own creative way with the Moravian dances "Ej Danaj", "Čeladenský" and "Pilky" (1892/1904). Preparing the premiere of his opera "Její pastorkyňa" („Jenůfa“) in Brno in 1904, Janáček wrote many piano arrangements of his own opera compositions, which influenced his his music for piano solo (1) and his use of the piano in chamber music.
In the period between 1900 and 1912, Janáček composed his three major works for piano solo: the collection "Po zarostlém chodníčku" (On an Overgrown Path), the Piano Sonata “I.X.1905” and the piano cycle "V mlhách" (In the Mists). In 1908 he also wrote the composition "Pohádka" ("Fairy Tale") for violoncello and piano and a Piano Trio, which, however, became eventually Janáček's first String Quartet ("Kreutzer Sonata"). Its original piano trio version is lost. In 1990 it was reconstructed and published by Miloš Štědroň.

In the final years of his life Janáček turned to the piano again and again. He wrote the "Sonata for Violin and Piano" (1914-1915), the extensive song cycle "Zápisník zmizelého" ("Diary of One Who Disappeared ") from 1917 to 1919, and the two concertos for piano and small ensemble: the "Concertino" for piano solo and 2 violins, viola, horn, clarinet and bassoon, and the" Capriccio" for piano solo (left hand) and brass ensemble, the latter written for the one-armed pianist Otakar Hollmann.

Until his end, Janáček remained close to the piano (2) : His last completed and published composition was the short piano piece "Vzpominka" ("Reminiscence") from 1928.

On an Overgrown Path ("Po zarostlém chodníčku")

The genesis of this collection of 15 piano pieces is complex and took more than ten years. There remain no original manuscripts of the 10 compositions of the Series I. Various authorized copies by various copyists, the first 1911 edition (published by A. Píša) and, in particular, the 1925 edition (published by Umělecká Beseda, Praha) serve as today’s sources. Janáček was personally involved in both editions. Of the total of five compositions of the Series II and the subsequent "Paralipomena", only number 1 („Andante“) was published during Janáček's lifetime. Jiři Zahrádka explains the origins and sources of all 15 works in detail. (3)

In a letter to his friend and publisher Jan Branberger (dated 6 June, 1908) Janáček describes how much this poetic piano cycle meant to him. In addition to the explanations in this letter, Janáček sketches some of the musical motifs in handwritten staves:

Esteemed Friend,
I thank you for your news. The little pieces “On an Overgrown Path” contain distant reminiscences. Those reminiscences are so dear to me that I do not think they will ever vanish.

I might tell you something more definite about the ideas behind them:
The Frýdek Madonna [...] this motif is sung by a far-off procession.

[Words fail!]
Another: A group returns from an outing late in the day. Their drawn-out song is punctuated by the terse little motif of women’s chatter.

[Good Night!]
You will probably recognize the mood of parting in the piece based on this motif.
ppp espressivo to which the words „good night“ are suited.

…in the final piece [The barn owl has not flown away!] an intimate song of life is punctuated by the portentous motif of the barn owl.

Do you sense crying in the penultimate piece [V pláči (In tears)]? A foreboding of certain death. An angelic being suffering deathly anguish through hot summer nights. (4) Since those times I have ceased to take excursions into the beautiful country around Hukvaldy for the pleasure of it. (5)

Whenever I have a moment to indulge myself undisturbed in these recollections, then I find another such little piece comes to mind. It is on an overgrown path. There is a love song on the path, too. [Lístek odvanutý / A blown-away leaf].
The bitterness of disappointment is also in them [Nelze domluvit! / Words fail! – first motif)
as well as the letter filed away for good. [Pojďte s námi / Come with us! – final motif]
All in all, there is suffering beyond words contained here.
Does that suffice?
Your devoted Leoš Janáček (6)

In his operas and orchestral works, Janáček posed the big societal questions and covered topics such as social justice, emancipation of women, humanity, nature, national ideas, pan – Slavism, meaning of life and freedom. In his piano music, however, he devoted himself to the inner world of intimate feelings and memories.

1.X.1905 - "Sonata"

The only exception to this is his piano composition "1.X.1905 - Sonata" ("1.X.1905 - Sonáta"), which originated directly in response to a dramatic, political occasion: on October 1, 1905 the worker František Pavlík died in a demonstration, being was by the municipal Gendarmerie and Austrian regimental troups. At that time Brno was part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy with a majority of German speakers (63%). The demonstration took place for the founding of a Czech-speaking university in Brno. Austria and the German-speaking political parties in Bohemia and Moravia fought this political demand.

The sonata originally bore the title "Z ulice dne 1. října 1905" ("From the street on October 1, 1905") and was finished by Janáček in January 1906 with originally three movements. The pianist Ludmila Tučková received a copy and performed the work on January 27, 1906, but only in a version with two movements. During a final rehearsal Janáček had thrown Tučkovás copy of the third movement, a "marche funèbre" into the fire. Later Janáček threw his complete first manuscript into the Vltava (Moldau). The music did not withstand Janáček’s hard self-criticism after a house concert in Prague. The composer later regretted the destruction: "I threw the manuscript into the Vltava. It wouldn’t sink – but the water carried it away." (7)

Today, only the copy remains, which was left in the possession of the pianist Tučková (without the 3rd movement, which was burned in the rehearsal). In 1924, on the occasion of his 70th birthday, Tučková pointed out to Janáček the existence of this transcript. Janáček welcomed the work into his catalogue, and in the same year it was published and performed again. In this first edition, Janáček introduced the following motto:

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. (8)


In the Mists ("V mlhách")

Janáček's most famous piano cycle was premiered with success by the young pianist Marie Dvořáková both in Kroměřiž, Brno and in Olomouc at the turn of the year 1913/14 (9), but the four piano pieces went into oblivion for a few years and remained only known to connoisseurs. In 1917 Max Brod wrote to Janáček in a postcard: "Your composition “V Mlhách” is wonderful, I play it every day!"(10) In 1922 the pianist Václav Štěpán performed the four pieces in Prague in a recital at the Association for Contemporary Music (“Spolek pre soudobu hudbu”) and a few months later in Berlin. It was Štěpán who, in close collaboration with Janáček, took care of the first edition in 1924 (published by “Hudební matice”). This first edition was very much praised by the composer and still serves the toady as the most important source.

Only two original manuscripts are preserved (I & IV). Here, the musical ideas are sketched to small, hand-lined pages, which are so typical for Janáček. Accurate reading of these two manuscripts (the so-called “second manuscript version”) allows many insights into Janáček’s creative process. The second theme of the first movement (poco mosso) may serve as an example. In this manuscript, the main theme is accompanied by short, syncopated motives in the left hand, both in calm and in fast tempo (Fig.1). In a later version, Janáček changes this accompanying motive to continuous triplets (Fig.2). At the same time, he also expands them into the higher keyboard register thus intensifying the sound effect. He keeps the original idea of a syncopated rhythm, however, in a modified form: with the triplets’ start as syncopation. In the final version, the same passage shows an impressive pianistic grandeur without losing its original rhythmic restlessness.

Fig.1: Leoš Janáček, V mlhách ("In the MIsts"), (I. Andante) - Detail from the second manuscript version (A. 23525). Courtesy of the Janáček Archive, Department of the History of Music, Moravian Museum, Brno

Fig.2: Leoš Janáček, V mlhách, (I. Andante) - Detail from the authorised transcript, (A. 23494) with handwritten corrections added by the composer. This transcript was used for the first edition. Courtesy of the Janáček Archive, Department of the History of Music, Moravian Museum, Brno

In the fourth movement (Presto), a comparison of the final version and earlier copies proves that Janáček's adjustments are mainly focussed on rhythmic aspects. This is especially noticeable in the first main theme. In the manuscript version (fig. 3), Janáček writes the motif calmly in a straight 2/4 time signature and adds a restless element only by inserting the 1/8 time at the end of the first phrase. In a later manuscript copy (fig. 4) the distinctive rubato characteristics of this main theme start to be recognizable: accelerando and ritardando are clearly marked here in a rapid presto. In the final printed version this first measure is written in a 5/4 time signature, the last four notes of the first bar are sixteenths, an inner acceleration, which intensifies even more the accelerando molto. At the beginning, Janáček adds the term sostenuto, but erases the ritardando at the end of the first phrase. The meno mosso is thus a meno mosso subito, a sudden change of tempo without announcement. With this rhythmic modification, Janáček creates an agogically complex first phrase in a very clear way.


Fig.3: Leoš Janáček, V mlhách ("In the Mists"), (IV. Presto).  Notation in 2/4, the tempo indication is  Allegro, the short 1/8 bar is inserted as the only irregularity. Detail from the second manuscript version (A. 23525). Courtesy of the Janáček Archive, Department of the History of Music, Moravian Museum, Brno


Fig. 4: Leoš Janáček, V mlhách ("In the Mists"), (IV. Presto) - Detail from the authorised transcript, (A. 23494) with handwritten corrections added by the composer. This transcript was used for the first edition. Courtesy of the Janáček Archive, Department of the History of Music, Moravian Museum, Brno

Abb. 5 : Leoš Janáček, V mlhách, (IV. Presto): final version as known today (digital transcript © PIANOVERSAL) 

Miniatures for piano

Janáček's last piano composition is "Vzpomínka" ("Reminiscence") and was a commission by the magazine MUZIKA in Belgrade for a supplement with music from Czechoslovakia. In addition to Leoš Janáček, the journal published compositions by Vilém Petržalka, Josef Bohuslav Foerster, Karel Boleslav Jirák, Alois Hába and Emil Axman. Janáček dedicated this short and passionate composition to M. Milojevič, Beograd.

In his late years, Janáček regularly wrote sketches and miniatures for piano solo. These compositions were mostly diary entries in the so-called „Intimate Diary“ (11) or musical contributions to the daily newspaper Lidové Noviny. A collection of these miniatures was published 1994, with the title "Klavierminiaturen - Heft 1 - Intime Skizzen" ("Miniatures - Volume1 - Intimate Sketches"). (12)

The composition "Malostranský palác" was published in Lidové Noviny on January 16, 1927, with an additional subtitle "Walks on the 5th, 6th, 7th January 1927". The short sketch "Melody" was also published in 1923 as a manuscript facsimile in Lidové Noviny. "Jen slepý osud?" ("Only blind fate?") is a diary entry, dated "Písek, 11.12.1927". The manuscript most difficult to decipher in this group of small pieces is an unedited sketch, which is recorded here as "Untitled". This sketch can neither be dated nor unambiguously read. "Zlatý kroužek" ("The Golden Ring") is Janáček's very last music writing, he wrote the two lines in his diary on August 7 and 8, 1928, only four days before his death. These euphoric seven bars are Janáček's last preserved musical ideas.
"Ukolébavka" ("Lullaby") was published in Brno in the book "Kníha Komenského" ("The Book of Comenius") in the chapter "Informatorium školy matěrské" ("Informatorium der Mutterschul") with a text of the Moravian theologian and educator Jan Amos Komenský (called Comenius) (1592-1670). "Narodil se Kristus Pán" ("Born is Lord Jesus Christ") was published in Lidové Noviny on December 24, 1909. It is an adaptation of one of the most famous Bohemian Christmas songs.


Janáček's grand piano, an Ehrbar concert model from 1876, is still in his old residence in Brno. The Janáček Archive holds the most important parts of Janáček’s estate. The archive is located next to the Janáček Museum and is a part of the Department of the History of Music of the Moravian Museum, Brno. All in all, it is an ideal place to prepare for a recording of Janáček’s piano music….

Tomas Dratva

Tomas Dratva would like to thank the staff at the Janáček Archive, Department of History of Music, Moravian Museum Brno for their kind support.

Fig. 6: Janáček's Home in Brno - Today it is a Museum 


Fig. 7: Tomas Dratva studying Janáček's oroginal documents. Brno, 29 September 2016
Janáček Archive, Department of the History of Music

Abb. 8: Tomas Dratva playing on Janáček's Concert Piano made by the Company Ehrbar in 1876.


1 „Ej Danaj“ for example is directly related to the recruits’ scene in the opera „Její pastorkyňa“ („Jenůfa“)
2 The organ player and choirmaster Janáček used to compose at the piano. This instrument was familiar to him in all aspects, and served him all his life as a creative source of inspiration.
3 Jiři Zahrádka, preface to the edition„Po zarostlém chodníčku“ (On an Overgrown Path), Bärenreiter Praha, 2006
4 Janáček thinks of his daughter Olga, who died on February 26, 1903
5 In his birthplace Hukvaldy in Eastern Moravia, Janáček owned a house, which he regularly visited. Today it is a small Janáček museum.
6 With minor changes cited according to Jiři Zahrádka, preface, Urtext Edition „Po zarostlém chodníčku“ (On an Overgrown Path), Bärenreiter Praha, 2006
7 This is a quote by Max Brod. Janáček is quoted in a newspaper article of October 2, 1924, saying: "And the manuscript swam on the water like white swans." Jiři Zahrádka, preface to the Urtext Edition, „I.X.1905“, Bärenreiter, 2005
8 With minor changes cited according to Jiři Zahrádka, preface, Urtext Edition „I.X.1905“, Bärenreiter, 2005
9 ... an additional premiere in Prague was cancelled.
10 Jiři Zahrádka, Urtext Edition V mlhách („In the Mists“), preface, Bärenreiter, 2005
11 Leoš Janáček / Album für Kamila Stösslova („Album for Kamila Stösslova“), ed. by Jarmila Procházková, Brno, 1994
12 „Klavírní Miniatury - Sešit I - Intimní skici“ („Piano miniatures – Volume I – Intimate Sketches“). Edition Moravia/Universal Edition UE 30191, Brno 1994, Ed. Jaromír Dlouhý und Reinhold Kubik






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