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Janáček’s piano sonata evokes an outrage poetically

On June 13, in Rockport, pianist Charlie Albright plays a program including Leos Janácek’s sonata “1.X.1905.” On Oct. 1, 1905, Czech-speaking residents of Brno — then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire — took to the streets, demanding a Czech university in the city; Brno’s German-speaking residents, wary of Czech power, staged a counter-protest. Troops were sent in; on the steps of the Besední dum (today the home of the Brno Philharmonic), František Pavlík, a 20-year-old worker, was bayoneted to death. Janácek (inset) composed his tribute soon after; the piece was premiered in 1906.

Brno finally received its university in 1919: Masaryk University — which awarded its first honorary doctorate to Janácek. It was also, in the 1930s, the academic home of the influential linguist Roman Jakobson. When Nazi Germany annexed Czechoslovakia in 1938, Jakobson escaped to America and a long career teaching at Harvard and MIT.


One of Jakobson’s most influential linguistic concepts was his idea of poetics. Any message combines, to varying degrees, six linguistic qualities; the poetic is the part of the message most concerned with the message itself, its patterns, its pure phonological sensuality, its aesthetics. For Jakobson, the main vehicle of poetic content was repetition: “[A]ny noticeable reiteration of the same grammatical concept becomes an effective poetic device.” Cataloging such reiterations would reveal “striking symmetries and antisymmetries, balanced structures, efficient accumulation of equivalent forms and salient contrast.”

Given that it, too, makes expressive use of repetition, symmetry, and balance, music was soon examined through Jakobson’s lens. Paradigmatic analysis, as it came to be called, was proposed in the 1960s by linguist and musicologist Nicolas Ruwet, who wished to critique the normative, it’s-always-been-done-this-way assumptions of traditional music theory. Janácek’s music, with its distinctive short motives and repetitive rhetoric, proves ideal for paradigmatic analysis. To hear “Smrt” (“death”), the second movement of “1.X.1905,” its main motive saturating every phrase, is to get some sense of Jakobson’s poetics: the accumulation of repetitive force, the expansion and contraction of the distance between motivic iterations, shifts from near-repetitions to exact repetitions pushing the structure inevitably forward.


“1.X.1905” was nearly lost — Janácek threw the manuscript into the Vltava River, but Ludmila Tucková, who played the premiere, saved a copy, later convincing the composer of the music’s worth. Janácek recalled his rash act in decidedly poetic terms: the score “did not want to sink,” he remembered, “the pages bulged and floated on the water like white swans.”

Pianist Charlie Albright performs Friday, June 13 at 8 p.m. at the Shailin Liu Performance Center in Rockport (tickets $31-$52; 978-546-7391; www.rockportmusic.org).

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.