Leoš Janáček: Pilky from the Lachian Dances

Photo: Supraphon

Janáček’s Lachian Dances take listeners to the composer’s home region of northern Moravia. Pilky is probably the best-loved composition from the collection.

Janáček had several sources of inspiration for the Lachian Dances: first, in the folk singers and musicians of his native region, whom he remembered from his youth and wrote about fondly; second, in the prestigious General Land Centennial Exhibition of 1891, for which he was composing his work. The exhibition, a world’s fair celebrating the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was the most important event taking place in the Czech Lands at the time. Finally, the landscape of the composer’s hometown of Hukvaldy and its surrounding area was an important influence.

Leoš Janáček in 1882,  photo: Public Domain

Another big influence was undoubtedly the work of Antonín Dvořák, Janáček’s idol and lifelong role model. While Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances must have had an impact on the Lachian Dances, the two works differ from each other in several ways. Unlike Dvořák, Janáček focused more on ethnography than on stylizing folk culture.

Janáček’s work had even more imitators than the Slavonic Dances did. But attempts at copying Janáček’s authentic style mostly did not end very well, as trying to emulate such a distinctive composer always ends up, at least to some extent, looking  like plagiarism.

One more difference is that the Lachian Dances were, first and foremost, an orchestral work written for a smaller orchestra. They were composed from 1888 to 1889 when Janáček was 34 and at the beginning of his second creative phase — which was much more innovative and personal than the first one. During this second period, Janáček got rid of the romantic influence visible in his earlier works and developed the unique style with which we associate the composer today.

Pilky is probably the best-loved composition from the Lachian Dances. It was inspired by the Moravian folk song Už ty pilky dořezaly. Its title translates to “the saws have stopped cutting. Už ty pilky dořezaly was played throughout Lachia, and, to this day, it is the most famous dance from the region.

So, when a Moravian folk band plays this song today, it might sound more authentic than Janáček’s version.

Jan Rokyta (a famed Czech actor and folk musician) and his cimbalom band, Technik, also recorded this song.

The Lachian Dances were originally only performed as separate pieces. A suite in which the songs were ordered together appeared for the first time in Brno in 1925. The first conductor to perform it was Břetislav Bakala, a celebrated former student of Janáček. Eleven years later, the Czech Philharmonic in Prague performed the complete Lachian Dances led by the Brno composer František Neumann, who was an expert on Janáček’s work.

There were also attempts to take the composition to the theatrical stage. A Lachian Dances ballet is still performed today and is received relatively well by critics. But many other theatrical productions were flops, including one meant for the Czech National Theatre.

Janáček cared about Moravian ethnography as a whole and was not focused solely on music and the Lachian region. He worked with prominent ethnographers, including František Bartoš, author of a popular almanac of Moravian folk songs, and authored several publications in the field. So, Leoš Janáček was not only a great composer but also an avid ethnographer.

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