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The Fiddler's Child
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In the years just before and during World War I, Janácek’s cantata Amarus (composed in 1897, revised in 1906) was a work which enjoyed considerably wider success than any of his early operas, and it was influential in establishing his national reputation. Amarus had its Prague premiere on 6 October 1912; following this successful performance, Vilém Zemánek, the chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra at the time, invited Janácek to compose a new orchestral work. This became The Fiddler’s Child, a ‘Ballad’ for solo violin and orchestra based on a poem by Svatopluk Cech. Janácek wasted no time getting down to work, and by the end of April 1913 the new piece was finished and sent to Zemánek – to whom the work is also dedicated. The first performance was scheduled for 15 March 1914, with Janácek himself conducting the Czech Philharmonic. The composer requested just two rehearsals and after the first of these he realized that there was too much further work to be done. As a result, he asked Zemánek to postpone the performance and despite attempts to reschedule the piece the following season, it was not until 14 November 1917 that The Fiddler’s Child finally had its premiere, with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Otakar Ostrcil. The score was published three years earlier, in 1914, by the Club of the Friends of Art in Brno – the organization which had already been responsible for issuing the first editions of Janácek’s In the Mists and, most importantly, Jenufa. Publication of The Fiddler’s Child was in celebration of Janácek’s sixtieth birthday, which fell on 3 July 1914. This, however, did little to encourage performances, and after Ostrcil’s 1917 performance it was another six years before the piece was heard again (in Prague on 14 January 1923). However, unlike most of Janácek’s works for large forces, The Fiddler’s Child was heard abroad during the composer’s lifetime: it was the first of Janácek’s orchestral works to be performed in England. On 3 May 1924 it was played at the Queen’s Hall, London, conducted by Sir Henry Wood, who was later to conduct the British premieres of Janácek’s Lachian Dances (at the 1930 Proms) and of the Glagolitic Mass (at the 1930 Norwich Festival, as the first half of a programme which concluded with the first performance anywhere of Vaughan Williams’s Job).

The tale on which the piece was loosely based is a gruesome one, and the village setting appealed to Janácek, who was himself the son of a village schoolmaster. A destitute fiddler has died and his sickly child has been entrusted to the care of an old woman, as has his fiddle. At midnight she sees an apparition of the dead fiddler at the cradle of his child – luring the infant with his music to a better world. At precisely the moment when the dead fiddler kisses the child, the old woman scares the ghoul away by making the Sign of the Cross. In the morning the all-powerful mayor of the village arrives to find the fiddle gone, and the old woman rocking the child’s lifeless body. Given Janácek’s own literary imagination, it is no surprise to find the composer making alterations to Cech’s plot. The original poem was printed in the first edition of the score, but this is misleading as Janácek’s changes are significant. The fiddler is still alive at the start of the tone-poem, the child falls mortally ill before the fiddler’s death, the old woman does not appear at all, and the mayor has a lowering musical presence throughout (a steady four-note theme first heard on cellos and double basses). There is music of great beauty in this short work, not least the fiddler’s promise of ‘wonderful dreams’ (Janácek’s phrase) which is shattered when his child dies. Janácek had already written works such as 1.X.1905 for piano, and the three choruses Kantor Halfar, Marycka Magdónova and 70,000 which left no doubt about his sympathy for the underdog, the freedom-fighter, and the free spirit. In The Fiddler’s Child he returns to the same idea: the mayor is presented very much as the oppressor, and Janácek’s message is clear – it is thanks to people like him that the fiddler and his child suffered in the first place.

from notes by Nigel Simeone © 2005

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