On an Overgrown Path [orch. David Matthews]

Programme note

Leoš Janáček (1854-1928)
On an Overgrown Path
(1901-11) [arr. David Matthews] 

1. Our evenings
2. A blown-away leaf
3. Come with us!
4. The Madonna of Frýdek
5. They chattered like swallows
6. Words fail!
7. Good night!
8. Unutterable anguish
9. In tears
10. The owl has not flown away.

The first five pieces of the two sets that Janáček called On an Overgrown Path were composed around 1900, for harmonium. The first set was completed as ten piano pieces in 1908, and Janáček then gave them their present titles. The overall title refers to a Moravian wedding song in which the bride laments that "the path to my mother's has become overgrown with clover", and the pieces, as Janáček wrote in 1908 in an explanatory letter to the musicologist Jan Branberger who was interested in publishing them, "contain distant reminiscences. Those reminiscences are so dear to me that I do not think they will ever vanish." Some of these memories are apparently happy, others intensely sad. In 1903 there occurred the central tragedy of Janáček's life: the death of his daughter Olga from typhoid fever at the age of twenty-one. The last three pieces of Set 1 certainly refer to Olga's death: in Czech folklore the owl, sýcek, is a bird of ill-omen (the English title in the published edition is 'The barn owl has not flown away' but Janáček gives a very accurate representation of the tawny owl's cry, whereas the barn owl screeches).

Janáček's own orchestration is highly individual and instantly recognizable. I have stayed more or less within his sound world, though my orchestrations are often more elaborate than his. I used an orchestra of double wind, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones (essential, and often used in their lowest register, as Janácek does, notably in the Sinfonietta), timpani (again often the high notes beloved of Janácek), percussion (including the xylophone that Janácek used so memorably at the start of Jenufa), harp and strings. I have occasionally added extra counterpoint, and in a few places an extra bar or two.

Our evenings has a theme rather similar to the 'Promenade' from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, appropriately enough in a piece acting as an introduction. In his letter to Branberger, Janáček describes A blown-away leaf as "a love song" and Come with us! as – enigmatically – a "letter filed away for good". The Madonna of Frýdek (a town in Moravia near Janáček's birthplace of Hukvaldy) contains solemn organ-like chords and a repeated motif "sung by a far-off procession". They chattered like swallows is precisely named inasmuch as the women's chattering referred to is also a close imitation of the song of the swallow. Words fail! expresses "the bitterness of disappointment"; Good night! (scored for woodwind, brass and xylophone, with just two notes from the double basses) is about "the mood of parting". Unutterable anguish, the strangest of all the pieces, and one where I have tried to get as close as possible to Janácek's late orchestral style, is sufficiently explained by its title. "Do you sense crying in the penultimate piece?", Janáček writes of In tears – the best-known of these pieces, which I have scored just for strings and harp. "A foreboding of certain death. An angelic being lay in deathly anguish through hot summer nights." In the last piece, The owl has not flown away, the tawny owl's relentless cry alternates with a chordal motif that Janáček calls "an intimate song of life". I was hearing our local tawny owl calling at the time I was working on this piece, and it was very hard to decide how I should score the owl's haunting sound: in the end I decided on a bassoon, partly doubled by a solo viola, with a piccolo two octaves above. The owl – fate – has the last word. As Janáček wrote: "All in all, there is suffering beyond words contained here."

© David Matthews