Discovering the piano music of Leoš Janáček

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Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) lived a life of music, but it was in his mature phase that he created the most enduring of his masterpieces.

Works such as The Cunning Little Vixen, the orchestral Sinfonietta and Taras Bulba, the Glagolitic Mass, and two popular string quartets have ensured that Janáček’s reputation is now immortalised as one of the greatest ever Czech composers, and a leading figure in the narrative of European music in the early twentieth century.

Janáček composed for the piano throughout his career, from his younger days as a student in Leipzig through to Vzpomínka [Reminiscence], composed in his final year. However, his major published works date from between 1900-1912:

  • On an Overgrown Path (1900, 1908, 1911)
  • Sonata I. X. 1905 (1905) and
  • In the Mists (1912).

In this survey I will take a look at each of these works, followed by a recent compilation of Janáček’s less well-known solo piano music.


In all cases, I will be turning to the benchmark editions from Bärenreiter, which can be regarded as the authoritative performing versions.


On an Overgrown Path

The cycle we know as On an Overgrown Path comprises as set of ten pieces (Series I) published in 1901, as amended and expanded with an additional five pieces in 1908 and 1911 (Series II and Paralipomena).

Subtitled “Short Compositions for Piano”, the collection (and especially the first Series) comprises miniature character pieces inspired by memories of childhood, and includes many of his most popular piano solos:

  • Our evenings
  • A blown-away leaf
  • Come with us!
  • The Frýdek Madonna
  • They chattered like swallows
  • Words fail!
  • Good night!
  • Unutterable anguish
  • In tears
  • The barn owl has not flown away

Janáček’s style in these pieces, though earlier in composition than his most famous concert works, is distinctive in its combination of Moravian folk influences with the mainstream European musical language of the day.

The later Series II pieces, which lack subtitles, are less frequently played, but are fascinating in the glimpse the offer into the more chromatic harmonic direction the composer was exploring. In Janáček’s overall piano oeuvre, they are indispensable.

Several pieces from On an Overgrown Path have appeared in the exam syllabi at Grade 7 and 8 level. Regardless, I have introduced the composer’s music to many of my students at around Grade 7 level, and they have proven as popular as they are engaging.

Bärenreiter’s legacy edition of On an Overgrown Path was replaced in 2006 with the superb urtext edition (BA 9502) of Jarmil Burghauser, and with fingerings added by Radoslav Kvapil, reprinted from the Complete Critical Edition of the Works of Leoš Janáček.

There is a detailed Preface in Czech, English and German. The scores are beautifully and spaciously presented in this publisher’s superb house style.

On an Overgrown Path is an essential collection for any advanced pianist.


From the Street: 1. X. 1905

“The composition of 1. X. 1905, a piano work which later came to be referred to as a sonata, was inspired by a tragic event that took place in the Moravian town of Brno during demonstrations staged in connection with the founding of a second Czech university there, and during the subsequent unrest and clashes that occurred between the town’s German majority and Czech minority…”

So writes Jiří Zahrádka in the detailed Preface to Bärenreiter’s urtext edition of this, a work with surely one of the most storied histories in the whole piano repertoire. The composer had joined a demonstration on 1st October 1905, following on from which one František Pavlík, a twenty-year-old Moravian labourer, died of stab wounds.

Originally titled From the Street, the work is one of the Janáček’s darkest musical reflections, an outpouring of defiance and grief following these tragic events. Before its premiere on 27th January 1906, the composer burnt the third movement, which had been conceived as a funeral march; he later also reportedly destroyed the first two movements, throwing their original manuscripts in the river Vltava.

Resurrected in 1924, and subsequently performed and first published towards the end of that year, the version we now know has two movements subtitled The Presentiment and The Death.

Though once set for Grade 8, by today’s standards I would think that the piece can be considered diploma level, not least because of its particular rhythmic challenges and the need for interpretative maturity, which combine to make this one of the composer’s most difficult works.

Bärenreiter’s revised edition of the score (based again on the complete urtext) appeared in 2005 (BA 9501), and is once more the work of the Burghauser/Kvapil team.


In the Mists

This brings us to the third and final of Janáček’s major solo piano works, and arguably the crowning achievement of his output in this medium.

Zahrádka tells us,

“In 1910 Janáček moved into a new house located in the garden of the Brno Organ School. It was there, in the spring of 1912, hidden from the eyes of the world, his self-confidence broken and his mind in a state of melancholy, that he completed the piano cycle In the Mists, the last of his more substantial solo works for the instrument.”

There were many reasons for the composer’s sense of dejection, not least the death in 1903 of his daughter Olga and the subsequent strain this put on his personal life, as well as his continued failure to achieve a professional breakthrough in Prague, and the consequent frustrations he was having making his mark as a composer.

In January 1912, Janáček heard a performance of Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau and Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum given by Maria Dvořáková, who went on to premiere In the Mists, and the influence of Debussy’s impressionistic style made a clear mark on Janáček’s cycle.

In the Mists has four untitled movements, which are generally played as a unified work, and has become one of the composer’s most performed works. The first movement has also become a regular Grade 8 choice, while the option of performing two pieces from the set has long been in diploma syllabi.

Bärenreiter’s 2005 publication of the score (BA 9500) is once again the work of Burghauser and Kvapil, completing their set of editions of Janáček’s significant piano solo works. And once again, theirs is the definitive version.


Selected Piano Works

Janáček’s big break finally came with the Prague National Theatre production of his opera Jenůfa in 1916, a popular success following which the 62-year-old composer belatedly enjoyed his moment in the sun.

It is perhaps telling that in the busier, productive season that followed, Janáček rarely returned to writing for the piano, other than a handful of smaller commissions and private pieces.

Bärenreiter decided to release a final collection including these piano works to complete their series.

Selected Piano Works (BA 11545) features Janáček’s early (and still often played) Thema con variazioni (1880), the wonderfully titled Music for Club Swinging (c.1893), two Moravian Dances (1904), and various late miniatures written for newspapers.

Also included are sketches he composed from the autograph book for Kamila Stösslová (a much younger married woman with whom he appears to have been enamoured, exchanging more than 700 letters) and the aforementioned Vzpomínka [Reminiscence] from his final year. These late works reveal Janáček’s compositional style at its most concise.

Selected Piano Works is edited by Ondřej Pivoda, the curator of the Moravian State Museum in Brno, who has taken the autograph manuscripts as his principal sources while consulting other accessible sources such as historical editions and copyist’s manuscripts.

Many pieces in this valuable collection are previously unpublished, making Bärenreiter’s the first scholarly-critical edition to offer a complete overview of Janáček’s solo piano music.

The publication is an essential purchase for those who have enjoyed Janáček’s major piano works and want to discover more, as indeed it is for all who are interested in a full overview of the composer’s oeuvre.


Concluding Thoughts

As a student, Janáček once dreamed of becoming a concert pianist, falling under the spell of Anton Rubinstein, with whom he hoped to eventually study in St Petersburg. Studying in Leipzig however, he came to recognise that a career in the concert hall was not for him, and blamed his piano teacher for what he came to regard as poor instruction.

It is fortuitous that where one door closed another opened: Janáček’s ultimately found fame as a composer and is now regarded as one of the greatest of his generation. His special relationship with the piano clearly never faded, and his solo music for the instrument has become established as core repertoire, regularly performed, learnt and enjoyed by players around the world.


A study of his career reveals that Janáček consistently turned to the piano as the instrument through which he would confide his innermost feelings.

From the emotive nostalgia of On an Overgrown Path, via the outpouring of 1. X. 1905 and the reflection of In the Mists to the intimate utterances of his late piano pieces, Janáček’s contribution to the piano repertoire is surely one of the most personal, as well as one of our greatest treasures.


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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is the author of HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC, published worldwide by Hal Leonard. He is a widely respected piano educator and published composer based on Milton Keynes UK.