March 9, 2022Print | PDF
On An Overgrown Path (Po zarostlém chodníčku), JW VIII/17 by Leoš Janáček (1854-1928)
Leoš Janáček’s On An Overgrown Path is probably the composer’s most personal work, its complicated creation spanning more than 10 years, from 1901-1911. The first set of 10 pieces was published in 1911, but the final fifteen pieces as a set were not printed until 1942, well after his death in 1928. Intriguingly, while 3 of the pieces in the second set (five pieces) were intended by Janacek to be part of the “new series,” two numbers deleted from the first set were included in the posthumous publication of this new series.
The collection represents at once both the influence of folk music in his writing, as well as his darker reflections in response to tragic circumstances in his life. While the piano writing for these pieces oftentimes betrays convention and is surprisingly slippery, it is interesting to note that originally, some of the pieces began as arrangements of Moravian folksongs for harmonium (foot-pumped reed organ). In 1897, the composer was approached to contribute some works for publication in a series for harmonium entitled, Slavonic Melodies. Beginning as a set of three pieces, he added two more - all at first untitled, but the remaining five (Nos, 3, 5, 6, 8 and 9) were not completed until 1908 and 1911. In between those years, the death of Janáček’s daughter Olga from typhoid fever (1903) at age 21 left him devastated, and the Janáček scholar John Tyrrell has described the cycle as the ‘profoundest, most disturbing music that Janáček had written, their impact quite out of proportion to their modest means and ambition.’ Indeed, so many of the pieces take a dark turn despite any charming or innocent beginnings. The final piece in the first book, “The Barn Owl Has Not Flown Away” refers to what is regarded in Czech folklore as a bird of ill-omen. Here the cry or screech of the owl (sýček) is represented by a descending two-note motive (a minor third, which was also the interval of Olga’s last sigh), alternating with dramatic reference to its wings in the tremolos.
The title of the cycle refers to a Moravian wedding song in which a bride laments that “the path to my mother’s house has become overgrown with clover.” The titles of the first five pieces (Nos. 1, 2, 4, 7 and 10) were only given after Jan Branberger, a musicologist and critic, requested a submission of programmes or some hint as to the pieces’ inspiration in preparation for publishing.
Janáček replied to Branberger’s request in a letter dated June 6th, 1908, which included sketches of the musical motifs referenced below:
I thank you for your news. The little pieces “On an Overgrown Path” contain distant reminiscences. Those reminiscences are so dear to me that I do not think they will ever vanish.
I might tell you something more definite […] of the impulses behind them:
“The Frýdek Madonna” [...] this motif is sung by a far-off procession.
Another [“They Chattered Like Swallows”]: A group returns from an outing late in the day. Their drawn-out song is punctuated by the terse little motif of women’s chatter.
[Good Night!]: You will probably recognize the mood of parting in the piece based on this motif [...]ppp espressivo to which the words “good night” are suited. Now skip to the end.
In the final piece [The barn owl has not flown away!] an intimate song of life is punctuated by the portentous motif of the barn owl.
Do you sense crying in the penultimate piece [In tears]? A foreboding of certain death. An angelic being suffering deathly anguish through hot summer nights.
Since those times I have ceased to take excursions into the beautiful country around Hukvaldy for the pleasure of it.
Whenever I have a moment to indulge myself undisturbed in these recollections, then I find another such little piece comes to mind. It is on an overgrown path. There is a love song on the path, too. [A blown-away leaf].
The bitterness of disappointment is also in them [Words fail! – first motif] as well as the letter filed away for good. [Come with us! – final motif]. All in all, there is suffering beyond words contained here.
Does that suffice?
Your devoted Leoš Janáček
In Janáček’s most performed work for piano, On an Overgrown Path, the intimate expression (and its universality) of the human condition is ingeniously conveyed, placing it amongst the most important pieces in post-Romantic piano repertoire.
 Tyrrell, John. Janacek: Years of a Life Volume 1 (1854-1914): The Lonely Blackbird (London: Faber & Faber, 2011), 493.
 Zahrádka, Jiří. Preface to On an Overgrown Path for piano, by Leoš Janáček, IX-X. Edited by Ludvík Kundera, Jarmil Burghauser, and Radoslav Kvapil. Praha: Bärenreiter, 2006.
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