Suite for Strings

Leoš Janáček

Suite for Strings

JW6/2, JWvi/2

About this work

A work from Leos Janácek's early period, the Suite for string orchestra stands out as a reflection of Victorian musical taste: genteel, lightweight, sensibly balanced. Not encountered are the large mood swings which characterize his later works. The few surprises that pop up now and then are of a more controlled and modest sort. But the work does have merit in its ability to charm, convey sincere expression, and to imply irony.

Janácek composed the Suite at the age of 23, when the young musician was developing his art, and during a time of relative poverty. Near the end of his studies at the Prague Organ School, Janácek became the conductor of the Brno Music Society in 1876. Several months later, he presented the Suite to his collegues, and on December 2, 1877, it was premiered under the composers' direction.

Originally, Janácek had thought of the movements of the work in Baroque terms, naming the six movements Prelude, Allemande, Sarabande, Scherzo, Air, and Finale, respectively. On further consideration, the composer dispensed with the Baroque references after realizing the movements did not correspond with the old dance forms.

The opening bars suceed in getting the listener's attention with a powerful unison theme carried in the low strings. The initial angst melts away with the introduction of a delicate melody played by the first violins, which seem to gently pierce through the dark clouds. The 20 or so bars that follow remind one of a more mature Janácek, with the high fluid melody rising above a stream of busy pentatonic figures in the accompaniment. The new theme presented in the second half is now a stately march, somewhat reminiscent of a school alma mater.

The cellos and contrabasses take a break in the second movement. This bit of writing shows Janácek at his most expressive and transparent as he puts the high strings in a vulnerable position. The movement appears simple and straightforward in writing, but tests the intonation of the players.

The third movement Andante is a simple, bucolic melody, possibly folk song inspired. A bit unexciting for Janácek, the movement comes across as perhaps a product of his student days.

The fourth movement Presto comes to stir up some nervous activity in D minor with a scherzo reminiscent of Beethoven. A middle section provides some calmer moments, but the fast scherzo returns in abbreviated form to end on a D major chord.

The lower strings are featured more in the fifth movement, in this slow and meditative piece. It almost seems to signal a deeply reflective time in the composer's life. The center of the piece builds modestly. The movement ends in much the way it started.

The sixth movement completes the suite cycle in a satisfying way. In two sections, the piece contrasts a melancholic B minor melody with what could be described as a fragment of a hero's theme, pulling the listener out of self-reflection. There appears to be an element of irony in Janácek's choice of materials, which adds to the tension and to the enjoyment of the Suite for string orchestra.