Leoš Janáček – Concertino (1925)

Emily Brontë once observed that cherishing “the delusion of being married for love by girls” is a folly of a man’s declining years. If so, such folly never benefitted the music world more than the infatuation of Leoš Janáček for Kamila Stösslová. Though Stösslová was in no way a girl when they met, a gulf of nearly forty years separated them. And while Stösslová (already married with children) seemed relatively indifferent to his attentions, he showered her with letters to an extent that today we might deem him a stalker. Many of his most-performed works came into existence due to his obsession for her.

I. Bordering on the Bizarre

The Concertino dates from this final period. Ostensibly a chamber work for piano and mixed instruments, their deployment yields one of the strangest pieces ever to appear in this blog. To begin with, the piece is unquestionably a vehicle for the piano. One may think of it as a “concertino for piano” with back-up band. But it is not quite that simple.

The first movement is a duo for horn and piano. A single didactic phrase in the piano evolves into wide-ranging variations. However, the horn is limited to continually aping the (all but one) final three notes. The music perhaps resembles the interaction of a talkative parent and a small child who can only mimic adult speech. The horn (as child) cannot keep pace. At times one senses frustration building as the horn varies its three notes in pitch-level and intensity. But ultimately Janáček withholds the palette that would let fully it express all those feels!

The second movement is a rhapsody for solo piano mocked by an e-flat clarinet. It begins with passionate heartbeats in the piano that receive only laughing trills in response. The trills eventually devolve into outright derision. Experts may debate Janáček’s level of self-awareness as he poured affection on Stösslová, but this movement could offer a glimpse into a mind at war with itself over acting on foolish impulses. The other instruments (who have waited patiently through two movements) finally relieve the situation with chords that end it.

The last two movements alternate between lyric slow passages and dance passages colored by Czech folk melodies. The musical thread is rather stream-of-consciousness (like Debussy), but the net effect is a straightforward piece for solo piano with backup band. Nevertheless, even here the instrumentation offers some surprises.

II. A Mixed Band

A peculiar feature of the piece is how uneven the parts are in terms of difficulty. Besides the solo piano part, both the clarinet and the horn parts require a fair amount of virtuosity. In addition to the above-mentioned e-flat clarinet solo, the clarinet player gets a sizable workout on b-flat clarinet in movement three. By contrast, the other parts serve mostly to keep time. Their role is to punctuate and repeat the occasional melodic fragment. Presenting this piece as chamber music may be a challenge because the two violins, viola, and bassoon are not really that engaged in it.

The horn solo in the first movement covers a great deal of territory despite never deviating from the three-note motive. We think of Janáček as a twentieth-century composer, perhaps because that is when he composed many of his most famous pieces. But in 1900 Janáček was already forty-six, and he had a nineteenth century composer’s understanding of the horn. His three notes move effortlessly from low to high as the mood dictates. They range as low as written C3 and as high as G5 but tend towards lower and darker registers than later composers customarily employ.

After the first movement, the horn sits out (almost) the entire second movement along with the other non-clarinet instruments. Upon rejoining the fray, the horn is just one of the band. Or nearly so. The last movement contains two squirrelly chromatic outbursts that require uncommon skill from the horn player. These passages show Janáček taking a much more twentieth-century approach to the instrument. It is peculiar standout moments like these that give the Concertino such captivating appeal.

III. The End is Always the Same

However aloof Stösslová was from Janáček’s embraces, in August 1928 she agreed to go on an excursion with him to the picturesque Moravian town of Štramberk, along with her twelve-year-old son. The composer was seventy-eight. There he caught a chill and a few days later died of pneumonia. She stayed with him until the end. The inspiration she provided had helped him achieve international fame and a secure place in the repertoire. Whatever her motivations for continuing to befriend him, music lovers can only be grateful that she did.

Presenting the entire Concertino may be a challenge, due to reasons stated above. The player who would most naturally push the idea is the pianist, and pianists often have many priorities. However, hornists might wish to consider excerpting the first movement as a quirky addition to a horn recital. It offers a moment in the spotlight for the collaborative pianist yet still has a meaty enough horn part to justify its place in the program.

Scans of the sheet music are available at IMSLP. A reasonably-priced printed edition of the score and parts is also available. The printed edition is attractive and highly recommended as physical media for a performance.


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