Program Notes

Taras Bulba, Rhapsody for Orchestra

Leoš Wugen Janáček
BORN: Hochwald (Hukvaldy), Moravia, on July 3, 1854
DIED: Moravská Ostrava, Czechoslovakia, on August 12, 1928

COMPOSED: The idea of a composition based on Gogol's Taras Bulba came to him in 1905, but Janáček only completed the first version on July 2, 1915. The revised version, played at these concerts, is dated "Good Friday 1918," which was March 29 that year. Janáček dedicated Taras Bulba to "our army—the armed protector of our nation," but the dedication did not appear in the published score

WORLD PREMIERE: January 13, 1924. Franticek Neumann and the orchestra of the Brno National Theater. The concert was an early celebration of Janáček’s 70th birthday as well as of Josef Suk's 50th and Smetana's centenary. Not wanting to celebrate his big birthday before he reached it, or, as he put it, not wanting "to give away one minute of my life," Janáček left the hall at the end of the performance, and the stormily enthusiastic audience clamored for him in vain

US PREMIERE: October 1933. Bruno Walter led the New York Philharmonic

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—March 1978. Andrew Davis conducted. MOST RECENT—June 2008. David Robertson conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets and E-flat clarinet, 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, snare drum, cymbals, chimes, harp, organ, and strings

DURATION: About 23 mins

THE BACKSTORY  “Cossack” comes from the Turkic "kazak," which means "adventurer" or simply "free man." The first people identified as Cossacks back in the fifteenth century were Tatars, but soon after, Poles, Lithuanians, and Muscovites escaping from serfdom entered the picture. Common ground among Cossacks has been a passion for independence, an inclination to make their own laws, and a conspicuous disregard for humanitarian values. To some, the word spells instant terror; others can afford to think of these fiercely autonomous nomads as romantic.

The Cossack Taras Bulba was a creation of Nikolai Gogol, whose novella Taras Bulba appeared first in 1835; Gogol expanded the story into its now familiar form seven years later. Gogol's brilliantly written tale, anachronisms and all, is a powerful—if not unpleasant—piece of romanticized history rather in the vein of Sir Walter Scott, Alessandro Manzoni, James Fenimore Cooper, and Robert Louis Stevenson. The hero, an older Cossack and the father of two sons, Ostap and Andrei, is a devout believer in a few basic values. War and bloodshed are good, but peace is a tiresome bore that offers men no worthy occupation. One of those devout Christians who appears to have substituted the word “hate” wherever “love” appears in the teachings of Jesus, he is ever ready to defend the Orthodox church and to slaughter any and perceived enemies. His wife is but a mechanism for the bearing of male children, and loyalty to the tribe matters more than love of his sons. Trigger-happy machismo is all. However uncertain we are of Janáček's taste in literature, Taras Bulba inspired this eloquent individualist to invent some of his most potent music.

Part of Janáček 's excitement was political. Like most of his compatriots, he hated Austrian domination of the lands that, to his joy, were to declare independence in 1918 as the Republic of Czechoslovakia, and he was sympathetically drawn to the Russian Empire, the enemy of Austria and Germany. So, as he explained in a letter, he turned to Taras Bulba "because in the whole world there are not fires or tortures strong enough to destroy the vitality of the Russian nation. For the sake of these words, which fell into searing sparks and flames off the stake on which Taras Bulba, the famous hetman of the Cossacks, died, did I compose this rhapsody. . . ."

Janáček finished Taras Bulba in its first version on the day before his sixty-first birthday and brought the final form to completion not quite three years later. That almost makes it an early work for him, for he composed nearly all the music on which his reputation rests in his sixties and seventies. Hukvaldy, where he was born and where his father was schoolteacher and organist, is a village about 150 miles east of Prague; the nearest market town in his day was Pribor, or Freiberg, where Sigmund Freud was born just two years later. Leoš went to school in Hukvaldy until, at eleven, he was sent to the Augustinian monastery in Brno, becoming the pupil of Pavel Křížkovský, an admired composer of church music. After a year at the Prague Organ School—“organ school” being an old-fashioned term for conservatory—Janáček returned to Brno, where he began to make a name for himself as a conductor.

By 1877, Janáček was composing seriously, but, unsure of his technique, he took time for further study in Leipzig and Vienna. Home again, he founded the Brno Organ School in 1881, staying on as director until 1919. He continued to compose, but so far as he was known outside Brno at all, it was as a teacher and administrator. All this changed dramatically in 1916 when his opera Jenůfa was produced at the Prague National Theater with smashing success. Prague was a major music center, and the impact that Jenůfa made there quickly led to a production at the even more prestigious Court Opera in Vienna.

At sixty-two, this complex and temperamental man suddenly found himself famous. He became an important figure in the cultural life of the ill-fated republic that was founded with such optimism in 1918, and in his last years he composed with more vigor and freshness than ever.

THE MUSIC  Janáček chose three episodes from Gogol's story. First comes "The Death of Andrei." Andrei is Bulba's younger son, who falls in love with a woman belonging to the enemy nation, the Poles. After long separation, he encounters his love again when, at the Cossack siege of Dubno, he learns that she is in that city. Wishing to aid her by bringing supplies of food, he enters Dubno by stealth and ends by abandoning his own people and going over to the Poles. In battle, Taras Bulba confronts son, upbraids him in fury, and shoots him. 

As is characteristic of Janáček, the musical ideas are short, even epigrammatic, and their comings and goings are frequent and rapid. The orchestral colors, rhythms, and harmonies are no less personal. His language is that of an artist who can be unpredictable to the point of hovering on the edge of eccentricity, but whose discourse is entirely logical, lucid, and persuasive.

Then, the English horn begins a lament that is punctuated by dissonant bells. Most commentators agree that this music represents Andrei's vision of his Polish lover. The organ has a prominent solo role. An oboe melody introduces a love scene, but this is pushed aside by fierce battle music. We witness the tragic confrontation of father and son. The oboe melody returns. Andrei, facing the muzzle of Taras's pistol, "was white as linen and his lips moved slightly, forming someone's name. But it was not the name of his native land, nor his mother's name, nor the name of one of his comrades—it was the name of a beautiful Polish lady."

The second movement is "The Death of Ostap." The older son is taken prisoner by the Poles and moved to Warsaw. Taras fails in his attempt to visit Ostap but finds himself the witness of his execution: "Ostap bore the tortures like a Titan. Not a cry, not a sound escaped his lips when they started breaking the bones of his arms and legs....Taras stood in the crowd, his head lowered but, at the same time, his eyes were raised and looked with proud approval at his son: 'Good boy, you're doing well. Good, son.' But when they started the last set of tortures, it looked for a moment as if Ostap's strength were coming to an end. . . . If only someone close to him could be there as he died. . . . What he was searching for, hopelessly, with his eyes, was a strong, stern man whose calm encouragement would ease his suffering and help him to die.”

Fortissimo (playing very loudly), the violins slash hard, short notes sustained by chords of the woodwinds and the soft rustling of the harp. This alternates with violent battle music, after which the Poles dance victoriously. Against the snarling of violins and muted trumpets, the high E-flat clarinet screams Ostap's agony.

Finally, "Death and Prophecy of Taras Bulba." Avenging Ostap's death, Taras Bulba has led his Cossacks across Poland, looting, pillaging, raping, burning. Then he too is taken prisoner and sentenced to perish at the stake. These are his last words to his departing troops:

"'Farewell, comrades! Remember me sometimes and, when spring comes, come back here and have a damn good time! And you, what do you think you have gained, you Polish dogs? Do you think there's anything in the world that will frighten a Cossack? The time will come when you'll find out what the Russian Orthodox faith is like! Even today, nations far and wide are beginning to feel that a tsar will arise on Russian lands, and there'll be no power on earth that won't submit to him!' In the meantime, the flames were rising and lapping about his legs. . . ."

To this, Gogol himself adds the words that so inspired Janáček: "But are there in the world such fires, such tortures, such forces as could overcome Russian strength?"

Again the Poles dance in triumph. The Cossack warriors escape. From far away we hear fragments of fanfares. Taras Bulba is left alone, and the music, grandly sonorous with bells, full organ, and heavy brass, depicts his vision, his prophecy, his triumphant death.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

Recordings: Jakub Hrůša conducting the Jena Philharmonic Orchestra (Supraphon)  |  Karel Ančerl conducting the Czech Philharmonic (Supraphon)  |  Charles Mackerras conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (London/Decca Double Decker)

Online: You will find an excellent website devoted to Janáček at

ReadingJanáček: Years of a Life, by John Tyrrell, Volume 1, The Lonely Blackbird, covering the years 1854 to 1914; Volume 2, Tsar of the Forests, covering the years 1914 to 1928 (Faber & Faber)  |  Leoš Janáček, by Jaroslav Vogel (Norton—the 1981 edition, revised by Karel Janovicky) 

(October 2017)

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