The published score of The Excursions of Mr Broucek
includes a dedication ‘To the Liberator of the Czech Nation, Dr T G Masaryk’. The Ballad of Blaník
– composed during 1919 – is similarly inscribed to Masaryk, the founding President of Czechoslovakia, though this dedication did not appear on the first edition (1958) of the music. The work was inspired by Janácek’s patriotism and a desire to celebrate the new-found independence (linguistic as well as political) of his country. The programme of the work is drawn from a poem of the same title by Jaroslav Vrchlický, but as Jaroslav Vogel has observed, the epic subject matter of the poem is perhaps rather too expansive to be encompassed in an orchestral work lasting less than ten minutes. Vrchlický writes of Jíra, a young man, taking a walk on Blaník Hill one Good Friday and recalling the legend of St Václav (Wenceslas) and the Knights of Blaník lying asleep but ready to rise up to defend the Czech nation in times of peril. The side of the hill suddenly opens, Jíra is amazed by the heroic sight which confronts him and the rock crashes shut behind him (a moment of considerable dramatic potential which – as Vogel points out – Janácek seems to ignore entirely). Jíra falls asleep and wakes to see the same figures, but miraculously their swords have been turned into ploughshares: the weapons of war have been transformed into implements of peace. Jíra leaves this scene; on the way home he catches his own reflection while drinking from a stream and sees that he has become an old man. He returns to his village unrecognized by anyone save the skylark which sings above him.
It is easy to see the appeal for Janácek of this poem (first published in 1885), with its clear relevance to national reawakening following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and of peaceful regeneration after the Great War. The first performance was in Brno on 21 March 1920 when the piece was given with the title The Knights of Blaník. It was conducted by Frantisek Neumann who went on to give the premieres of most of Janácek’s late operas, but the performance was not a success and the work received only three more outings during the composer’s lifetime. It was Janácek’s pupil Bretislav Bakala who revived the work for its first publication, thirty years after Janácek’s death.
from notes by Nigel Simeone © 2005