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The libretto Janácek concocted from the newspaper pieces and subsequent book stressed the comic-tragic rather than the sentimental implications of Nature's eternal cycles by changing the last act, and having the Vixen shot by a Poacher -- by definition a Fallen Man. We open with an orchestral prelude presenting the natural world in what seems to be Edenic bliss. The main theme rotates around four repeated quavers that then droop chromatically through a haze of murmurously buzzing insects, scored for woodwind. This prelude is magically played -- as is the entire score -- by the Opera North orchestra under its conductor Stephen Sloane; and it does not escape us that the sappy sonority of the initial orchestral music centres around the 'deathly' tonality of A flat minor. This idyllic sonority evokes the dense forest in midsummer, being life-in-death and a dying-into-life; for Janácek's music of the natural world is not radically distinct from his music for human beings, which springs from spoken words and corporeal movements. The chatter of insects, the twitter of birds, and the babble of beasts are, along with us, intrinsic to God's creation.

In Cunning Little Vixen two technical features, pervasive in all Janácek's music, are even more than normally prominent. One is the pentatonicism of the melodic lines, since the pentatonic formulae of folk song and children's runes are those that spring most spontaneously from nature's promises. The other is that both melodic and harmonic elements are riddled with whole-tone figurations that, given their tritonal tendencies, do not progress. In creating 'gestures' of insects, birds, and beasts in collusion and contrast with the gestures of human love and longing, Janácek borrowed something from the 'primitive' Russian nationalist Moussorgsky, and rather more from the hypercivilised Frenchman, Debussy, thereby creating short but 'pregnant' motives that do not, in the manner of Western traditions, 'develop', but simply are. Nor, though tonality is free, is there much conventional modulation, as distinct from a reiteration of motives at different pitches -- moments, that, like life itself, are consecutive without being consequential.

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Copyright © 27 September 2001 Wilfrid Mellers, York, UK




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