Janáček’s mystery of the barn owl

Janáček’s two-volume cycle of miniatures, On an Overgrown Path, is a prime example of musical conciseness. While 19th and early 20th century music can at times be accused by its detractors of verboseness, Janáček’s style is pithy and direct by nature, so much so, that a sense of impatience is sometimes heard in the music. That isn’t the case with most of the movements of On an Overgrown Path, but it may be said of a few. The last movement of the first volume, The Barn Owl Has not Flown Away!, is typically terse and to-the-point. Its form is simple, shifting between two sections, one quite abstract and the other melodic. The form isn’t rare, but, the way it is used in this movement makes it unique in piano literature, and interestingly, this isn’t because of something it has, but rather because of something it lacks

In whichever musical forms composers happen to write, we are used to the concept of transitional material between sections—connecting tissue, if you will. Often, especially in Germanic music, this takes the form of developmental music, which often is among the most interesting and exciting material. The most obvious examples are from Beethoven’s many developmental and transitional sections. In The Barn Owl Has Not Flown Away!, however, we get something entirely different: a complete absence of any connecting material. Thus, we shift back and forth between section A and section B, either via a short rest or without one. To the extent that the music develops, it is only in the slight variations between the different entrances of the choral section, otherwise, it “stays put.” This structural stasis and simplicity enhances the changes in the choral section, which becomes the only real source of change and development in the piece. Had it not been for the repetitiveness of the opening material and the lack of transitional material, we might not have even noticed these slight and beautiful changes. 

This is precisely what cements Janáček’s reputation as a master of the miniature. His operas and other large-scale works notwithstanding, it is in these short pieces that we see his subtlety and cleverness emerge. When the little details are so effortlessly magnified, Janáček shines amidst the composers of sumptuous, late-Romantic music who were writing at the same time—Strauss, Sibelius, and others. 

There is one other fascinating aspect of The Barn Owl Has Not Flown Away!, which again highlights Janáček’s mastery of the small detail. Given that the title of the piece has an exclamation mark at the end, it is wholly odd that the piece ends on a musical question mark—the lack of a tonic chord. It is also entirely consistent with the obsessive and repetitive nature of the piece, as the “A” section lacks a tonic chord in all its previous appearances, so according to the internal logic of the piece, there is no reason for it to have a tonic chord in its last appearance. Yet, the very last bars of the piece (and of the first volume of On an Overgrown Path) constitute the only deviation the composer makes from the material of the “A” section, as the left hand plays a descending fifth twice, and the right hand holds the previous half-diminished chord. But even when he deviated, Janáček still did not resolve the music with a cadence to a tonic chord, and left it in limbo on a half-diminished chord. So has the barn owl flown away, or has it not? 

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2 comments on “Janáček’s mystery of the barn owl

  1. WOw!!! For me, I could respond with “IF gone, he’ll come back, and IF he stayed, he’ll still go away” that’s how craazy? nature works!
    thnx, Ariel, listening to this piece was fun!

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