Pianist Diana Fanning: I want people to know about Leoš Janáček’s piano music

Diana Fanning, photo: archive of Middlebury College

Organized by the International Dvorak Society, the American Spring music festival (April 8th to July 4th) annually brings internationally renowned soloists and music ensembles to a broad audience in the Czech Republic, with concerts and master classes taking place in dozens of towns and villages around the country. Among this year’s performers is pianist Diana Fanning from Middlebury College, Vermont whose recent piano recital featured music by the Czech composer Leoš Janáček. When she visited Radio Prague’s studio shortly after the recital we talked about her passion for a composer whose music many find hard to understand.

Diana Fanning, photo: archive of Middlebury College
“The people at the American Spring Festival especially asked me if I would play some Janáček because they had heard my CD on which I’ve recorded Leoš Janáček’s great suite for piano On an Overgrown Path. I was absolutely delighted to do that because Janáček’s piano music does not get played in the US so much and I love his music. I feel I am kind of an evangelist for Janáček, I want people to know about his music. So I built this programme around On an Overgrown Path, knowing that that would be the centerpiece. I decided to start with a beautiful piece by Mozart –his Fantasy in D minor – and I chose that because it is a little bit unusual for Mozart, it is not in the classical sonata form, it’s a fantasy which means that you almost have the feeling when you hear this piece that this is what it was like when Mozart sat down at the piano and started to improvise. It starts in a very atmospheric way, it goes in one direction, then it goes in another – full of surprises, full of drama, very unusual, kind of a romantic piece much more than a classical piece.

And I thought that this would be a very good introduction to the Janáček suite, because for most people Janáček is very unexpected music. It is very personal and, as you probably know, Janáček based his music very much on Czech speech patterns and so there is this really direct quality of communication in his music that is very beautiful. He also found a lot of inspiration in Czech folk music and you hear that in the lilting rhythms, the kind of “dancy” rhythms of the pieces and the very lyrical, kind of melancholy mood of the melodies. And so I thought that was a good combination.”

When you first became acquainted with Janáček’s music was it difficult for you to immerse yourself in it? Because some musicians find Janáček difficult to play and audiences sometimes find him hard to digest. Did you have to find out all the things that you just mentioned in order to better understand what his music is about and how it should be interpreted? Was that a problem?

Leoš Janáček
“Well, I think it is always very helpful with any composer you play to understand the cultural background of the composer, what kind of traditions he comes out of, who his influences were, who his teachers were, what inspired him, what the era was like... not just artistically, but historically, what was going on politically –all of these things feed into a composer’s music just like that of any other artist, you take in your own time and then this is what comes out – your reaction to it. I came to Janáček’s music through the opera. I first heard a Janáček opera in the early 1990’s in New York – they were doing Kata Kabanova at the Met. And I instantly felt this incredible communication from this beautiful music. It was very unusual and unlike anything I had ever heard before but it really spoke to me. And that is why I decided I really had to find out what there was for piano. It turned out that unfortunately there’s not that much – there’s three big pieces and I just learnt them all, I just dove into it and of course I did as much research as I could, listened to recordings. One of my favourite recordings is by the great Czech pianist Radoslav Kvapil whom I was lucky enough to be able to meet on this trip and that helped me to get an idea of what the tradition is and what really great Czech piano playing sounds like. “

Are your audiences abroad receptive - easily receptive – to Janáček’s works?

“Well, they are. I think it helps that I always like to talk about Janáček before I play; and in the case of On an Overgrown Path particularly, because his music in this suite is considered very autobiographical. He left behind letters indicating that the first piece in the suite had to do with his childhood, and there is a specific scene in that first piece where he remembers when he was four years old being carried out of a burning house crying bitterly. And then there is a piece called A blown away leaf which he wrote about in his letter saying this was a love song. “

So what do you envisage when you play these pieces? The blown-away leaf or the evenings? The scene where he remembers being carried out of a burning house? Is this what you see? Or colours? Do you try to tap the mood these pictures evoke?

“Well, I try to create the atmosphere so that what I feel to be the emotion behind the music communicates itself to the audience. I have thought a lot about every piece that I play. I have probably spent more time away from the piano thinking about the music than actually playing it; thinking about what this music says to me, about the emotional content of this music. And certainly it is good if you have a little story that goes with this music … I think that is actually nicer for the audience than for me because it gives them something to hold onto when they hear music that is very unusual, that they have never heard before. But for me, I am really going for what the music says to me, how it makes me feel and then trying to find a way to play it so that that feeling will be taken in by the audience, that I communicate what I feel is the essence of the piece to them.

It is hard to put words to it, but it has to do with atmosphere, it has to do with mood, it has to do with the character of the music and, of course, in really good pieces the character of the music can change very quickly. It certainly does in Janáček, he can quickly go from a very melancholy mood to a very joyful mood, kind of a “dancy” mood and you have to capture those subtleties and those nuances of character and that’s what makes it fascinating and what makes it beautiful.

Does it happen to you that after years of playing a certain composition you find new things in it?

“Absolutely, all the time. That’s one of the joys of being a musician: that the music you learn is always simmering in your subconscious and you come back to it and somehow there are all these beautiful details that you didn’t notice before. You think how is that possible? But there they are. In really great music there is just so much. And of course, everyone brings their own experience and their own personality and their own talent to a piece of music and that is why you can go to a music store and buy a hundred copies of the Waldstein sonata and all of them probably have interesting elements in them because everyone plays the same notes differently depending on what they bring to the music, what they hear in the music and that makes it endlessly fascinating.”

Has you visit to the Czech Republic and your meetings with Czech musicians –you may have heard some of them perform – been inspirational in any way?

Illustrative photo: archive of Radio Prague
“Well, I have to say that last night my husband and I and our friend Alison Stanger went to see Rusalka at the State Opera and this was one of the most beautiful artistic experiences of my life. I feel like I can never see that opera again unless I come back here to see it. Because it will never be as beautiful as they performed it last night – the singing, the staging, the dancing, the choral singing was absolutely exquisite, the orchestra had this warm sound that I think must be a Czech sound, a middle-European sound, the woodwinds had such a blended tone …there was just this sense of warmth and wonderful musicianship. The singers were fantastic, the conception of the whole thing ….of course, it is a fairy-tale and I have never seen it performed in such a way where you are caught up in a world of enchantment like it was last night. So that was a huge inspiration. And then the night before we went to hear Libuše at the National Theatre and there again we were so struck with the beauty of the orchestra -of course it is a very different opera - but what was so interesting about that was the celebration of Czech history and the pride in the Czech heroes of the past. It was really meaningful for me and I am sure it must have been for the Czech people in the audience because of course it was scheduled on May 8th which is the holiday marking the end of WWII and there were a lot of older people in the audience and here is this wonderful opera where they are celebrating Czech heroes and Czech nationalism and the Czech people will conquer all – and I just felt really overwhelmed, I just thought it was a wonderful experience to be there.”

What about the American Spring Festival itself, the way it takes place in towns and villages around the country, goes outside of Prague to bring to a wide audience these internationally renowned performers …. do you like that idea? How did you feel being a part of it?

“It is a brilliant idea and I couldn’t be more pleased and complemented to be invited to be part of it. I live in a small state in the US – we have 251 towns and all of us (musicians) who live there make an effort to go into the towns, into the schools, the Vermont Symphony Orchestra a few years ago had a plan called the 251 plan where they had chamber music or orchestra or something in every single one town in the state. So we kind of think similarly in our little state. It is so important to bring music to people, it’ s so important to open up this wonderful world of classical music to people who may never have been exposed to it. It is part of our heritage, part of our Western culture and it is important to expose children to it so that they can see this is out there. I think this is just critical and I am glad to be part of an organization that is doing this in the Czech Republic.”

Do you have any plans involving Czech music or the Czech Republic in any way for the future?

“Well, I would love to come back and play, of course, and while I was here and had a chance to meet Radislav Kvapil and his wife Jill I was able to buy copies of his recordings of all of the Czech piano music and I can hardly wait to go home and listen to this music which is largely unknown in the US and since I do love the Czech culture so much, the opera, the music I am looking forward to hearing these pieces and getting to learn new pieces by Czech composers.”