“A tsar will arise on Russian lands, and there’ll be no power on earth that won’t submit to him!” declares the hero of Gogol’s novella Taras Bulbabefore he’s burned at the stake. It was this novella – and this scene in particular – that inspired Leoš Janáček’s orchestral rhapsody of the same name.

Repin Cossacks Ilya Repin’s Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire, 1891

A Czech composer celebrating the supremacy of the Russian spirit might seem anachronistic – especially given the events of the 20th century – but before the First World War many living in Czech lands saw Russian culture and pan-Slavism as an attractive alternative to the German-speaking Habsburg Dynasty that had ruled for hundreds of years. So while Antonín Dvořák and Bedřich Smetana embraced a particularly Czech brand of nationalism in their music, Janáček became obsessed with all things Russian.

“I wonder sometimes whether he thought himself more Russian than Czech,” Alexander Briger muses. The Artistic Director of the Australian World Orchestra, and a leading Janáček specialist, will be performing Taras Bulba– “the most marvellous music ever written” – with his...

This article is available to Limelight subscribers.

Log in to continue reading.

Access our paywalled content and archive of magazines, regular news and features for the limited offer of $3 per month. Support independent journalism.

Subscribe now