Janáček: Taras Bulba

Leoš Janáček (1854-1928)
Taras Bulba

1. The Death of Andrei
2. The Death of Ostap
3. The Prophecy and Death of Taras Bulba

Nikolai Gogol’s novel Taras Bulba tells the story of a Ukrainian Cossack and his two sons. Ostep is the more adventurous and true to the Cossack nature of the two, while Andrey is a romantic. They set out to join the war against the Poles who have occupied the western Ukraine. They besiege Dubno Castle. Andrey falls in love with a Polish girl, and renounces his heritage to help her and the besieged Poles. Taras discovers his son’s betrayal and executes him. Ostep, meanwhile, is captured during battle and tortured by the Poles. Taras attempts to disguise himself to reach the prison to see his son, but his ruse fails, and he witnesses Ostep’s execution from the crowd. Finally, Taras is caught in battle, tortured and burned to death by his captors. Even as he dies, Taras calls on his men to continue the fight, and predicts that a great Tsar will come to rule the world.

Leoš Janáček read the novel in 1905 and made extensive notes. At a time when the Czechs were still ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Taras Bulba’s tale of a nation’s struggle to free itself from oppression struck a chord. However, it was not until 1915 that he began work on his orchestral work based on Gogol’s tale. The First World War was raging, and the Czech nationalist movement was gathering pace, inspired by Russia’s offensive against Austria-Hungary at Galicia. By the time he completed Taras Bulba in 1918, the war had left the empire exhausted. Later that same year the creation of the state of Czecho-Slovakia brought an end to 200 years of Austro-Hungarian rule.

Trying to map the plot of Gogol’s novel onto Janáček’s music in any more than a vague way is problematic. Janáček’s memory of a story he had read a decade earlier would seem to be less than crystal clear. His own note on the work, written in one long, breathless sentence for the Prague première, perhaps reveals that the spirit that is more important than the detail:

“Not because he beat to death his own son for betraying the nation – Part I (the Battle of Dubno);
not because of the martyr’s death of his second son – Part II (the Warsaw torments);
but ‘because the fires, the tortures that could destroy the force of the Russian people are not to be found on earth’ – for these words that fall into the fiery sparks and flames of the stake at which the sufferings of the famous Cossack ataman Taras Bulba finally ended – Part III and conclusion, did I compose this rhapsody in 1915-16 based on a tale written by N.V. Gogol. Leoš Janáček.”

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