Otče náš (Our Father) served exactly that purpose. He wrote it not for use in a church but in response to a request from the trustees of a women’s shelter in Brno. The inspiration was a set of religious paintings by the Polish nationalist painter Józef Męcina-Krzesz (1860-1934), which showed Russian peasants in devotional attitudes suggested by the lines of the Lord’s Prayer, and which had been reprinted in an illustrated weekly. The idea was that amateur actors from the Brno theatre club ‘Tyl’ would act out a series of scenes of tableaux-vivants resembling the pictures, while Janáček’s music—scored for the available forces of piano, harmonium, mixed choir and solo tenor—served as an accompaniment. Janáček wrote the piece in little more than a month prior to the fundraising performance at the Brno Theatre on 15 June 1901. But he revised it, rescored it for organ and harp, and authorised a Prague performance in November 1906—to mixed reviews. ‘Perhaps having the pictures in the programme would have helped’ he commented.
The paintings vanished during the Second World War, but even so, this comment hardly seems necessary. This is Janáček responding to the associations and sonorities of the words before him, and speaking directly and frankly to his community. The six sections flow together, linked by instrumental interludes to allow time for the necessary rearrangements on stage. The choir intones the opening lines in a gentle canon, before the tenor’s heroic entry on ‘Thy kingdom come’ (it’s possible to read patriotic symbolism into Janáček’s vaulting lines) and the chorus’s stirring response. The tenor leads off again, on ‘Thy will be done’; Janáček repeats the verse, and a pensive interlude suddenly bursts into a boisterous choral plea ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ before, to dolcissimo chords, the tenor sings ‘And forgive us our trespasses’. The tempo leaps to energico moderato and a bustling ostinato for ‘And lead us not into temptation’, as this non-devotional devotional work by a fiercely spiritual agnostic speeds to a decisive ‘Amen’.
from notes by Richard Bratby © 2017
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