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Leos Janacek (1854 - 1928)


Suite: The Cunning Little Vixen
arranged by Sir Charles Mackerras

The Czech composer Leos Janacek (1854 – 1928) was a fascinating man. He really only came into his own musically when he was 50, when his opera Jenufa was first performed in his home town Brno, the capital of Moravia and part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Before then his music was imitative of Dvorak and Smetana, attractive and pleasant but nothing special. What he discovered was how to transfer language directly into music – the sounds and patterns of speech of the Czech language. What he also discovered was a real sense of Moravia as his spiritual home (as Britten found in the Suffolk coast). And lastly he discovered in a married woman, Kamila Stosslova, a muse for his soul. Though never fully lovers, their relationship was very deep indeed, and over 700 letters from Janacek survive to illuminate it.

So it was in his last years that all his greatest works were composed – the series of operas including The Cunning Little Vixen and Katya Kabanova , the splendid Glagolitic Mass , and his most famous work the Sinfonietta , with its brass section of 25 players that includes 14 trumpets.

The Cunning Little Vixen was composed in 1922-23, and first performed in Brno in 1924. The plot is a fairy-tale mix of humans and animals, with the Forester the “hero” and the vixen the “heroine” of the work. The Vixen is just a bit too cunning for her own good and eventually is killed, while the Forester accepts his age with dignity, and is rewarded with a vision of the underlying unity of all nature – a very tender and moving close to the opera.

Sir Charles Mackerras writes of this suite “The Suite is based entirely on music from Act One. This Act is largely balletic; one can almost see all the animals and insects, as well as the capture of the Vixen by the Forester and her escape. Up until now the Suite has always been played in an orchestration by Vaclav Talich, who, much as I revered him, did rather odd things with it. Talich's re-orchestration of the Suite has become standard but, beautiful as it sounds, it rather emasculates the very acid sounds produced for the insects and the contrasts that Janacek achieves with his orchestration, which is strange but certainly not amateurish. Talich's and my Suite contain the same music, simply being Act One played from beginning to end with certain small cuts. The difference is that I follow Janacek's original orchestration.”

So what happens in this music? The badger dozes in the heat of the afternoon, pestered by flies. The Dragonfly dances. The Forester pauses for a nap on his way home. While he sleeps, the Cricket and the Caterpillar give a concert. A young Vixen is exploring the forest for the first time. The Forester wakes, seizes the cub and takes her to his home. The Vixen endures the morose sexual advances of the Dog, and defends herself vigorously against the baiting of the Forester's children. She is tied up for her pains. The Vixens dreams of her sexual awakening and liberation. Outraged by the economic and sexual slavery of the Hens, she wants to liberate them. But their conservatism is too much for her, and she kills them instead. She confronts the Forester, and escapes.

We are indebted to Sir Charles Mackerras for allowing us to use his arrangement, and to Tim Murray for organising it for us.

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