Work: On the overgrown path
About This Work
On the Overgrown Path is a very private musical statement that emerged at the same time Janácek was writing two highly public works, the operas Osud (Fate) and Jenufa. He was recovering from the death of his daughter, Olga, and the 15 pieces
in this piano suite serve as a sort of emotional diary. The music, typically of Janácek's mature works, bears the strong influence of Moravian folk songs and dances, although Janácek employs folk elements in so personal a manner that the pieces cannot be said to be in "folk style." Melodies occur in short, sometimes gasping breaths, often with simple, repetitive left-hand accompaniment, as in songs. However, the music's erratic, improvisational nature sometimes allows the accompaniment material to break away and take control of a few measures. The rhythms and phrase lengths are irregular, as in Moravian folk music, and the frequent use of tremolo derives from the sound of the cimbalom. The pieces are brief (two to four minutes long), intimate, often brooding or melancholy, and occasionally disturbing. Janácek had ten pieces published as Book I in 1911, and appended titles to make them more commercially appealing; as evocative as they are, the titles were inspired by the music, rather than vice versa. Five more pieces constitute Book II; only the first two are complete, and all of these lack titles. Book I begins with the nostalgic "Our Evenings," which is followed by the mercurial and brighter "A Blown-Away Leaf." "Come With Us" is a tender polka; "The Madonna of Frydek" alludes to pilgrims visiting a shrine in that village, but is dominated by a simple tune that becomes more assertive upon each repetition. "They Chattered Like Swallows" depicts talkative girls with a quick, repeated figure that constantly veers into the minor mode. "Words Fail," with its frequent interruptions and changes of mood, has been interpreted both as a parody of a stutterer and an imitation of sobbing; the downcast mood suggests the latter. The tender "Good Night!" combines elements of lullaby and love song. "Unutterable Anguish" is how Janácek described the long period of his daughter's illness; the short, repeated figures initially imply distraction and nervousness, sometimes rising to small climaxes. Janácek described "In Tears" as "crying with a smile," and the childlike tune takes some unexpectedly fretful harmonic turns. "The Barn Owl Has Not Flown Away" alludes to the superstition that when someone is about to die, a barn owl lurks at the house; fluttering arpeggios alternate and eventually overlap with a resigned chordal melody. Book II consists of an unsettled, questioning Andante, a bereft Allegretto, a quietly obsessive Più mosso, a dramatic and agitated Allegro propelled by constant tremolos, and a jagged and folkish Vivo.
-- James Reel
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