CUNNING LITTLE VIXEN
The Story of Act I
1. How the vixen Sharp-Ears
in the farm-yard of the foresterís lodge.
Sharp-Ears as a politician and 4. Sharp-Ears
makes her escape.
and Music of Act II
lays claim to someone elseís property.
gets herself talked about.
is wooed and won.
and Music of Act III
gets the better of Harašta, the poacher.
meets her death.
pelt provides a muff for Terynka.
is renewed in Sharp-Earsís cubs.
been plays with animals among the dramatis
personae from the time of Aristophanes to
that of Ionesco.
is a mixed cast of animals and humans, problems
of the relative size of both will arise acutely
in any stage presentation, and every producer
of Midsummer Nightís Dream has to contend
with, and attempt to balance, the height of
humans and fairies, particularly when the
effect of tall fairies and short humans, presented
simultaneously on a small stage, can be ludicrous
ninth opera, The Cunning Little Vixen is a
kind of Czech Midsummer Nightís Dream with
almost insoluble problems in this direction:
for instance, in the opening scene, the forester
falls asleep and a frightened little frog
jumps up and lands on his nose: a few minutes
later the forester catches a baby vixen, picks
her up like a dog by the scruff of the neck
and examines her triumphantly. Both frog and
vixen are singing parts.
then that most productions of this opera have
been clumsy to look at. After the première
of the opera at the Brno National Theatre
on 6 November 1924, the very able critic and
early biographer of Janáček, Vladimír
Helfert, suggested that the opera could be
improved by eliminating all the human characters
and making it entirely an animal opera-probably
for this very reason. One feels it would require
the delicate fantasy of a Walt Disney in another
medium to do justice to the visual presentation
of this poem of brotherhood between men and
animals, where both live in equality with
one another in a part dream, part real world.
Yet this miracle has been all but accomplished
on at least one occasion-on the stage of the
Berlin Komische Opera, May 1956, in Walter
Felsensteinís remarkable production.
Little Vixen was born in a newspaper office:
the literary editor of the Brno paper Lidové Noviny,
Dr. Bohumil Markalous, saw in the studios
of the Prague artist, Stanislav Lolek, a series
of comic animal drawings which the editor
took to another member of the Lidové Noviny
staff, the writer Rudolf Tesnohlidek, and
asked him to write a running commentary in
verse on the pictures which, later, he expanded
into a novel.
attempt at what we would now call a comic
strip appeared in serial form in the supplement
of Lidové Jyoviny in 1920 and
was seen by Janáček who was a
regular reader of the paper. The central figure
is a smart little vixen called LiŠka
Bystronožka (sharp paws) by Těsnohlídek:
owing to a printerís error, however, it appeared
as LiŠka BystrouŠka (sharp ears),
which the author thought an equally good name
and left at that.
One is reminded
that a misreading of the restored Buchner
manuscript resulted in a similar mistake in
the title of the play and opera-Wozzeck instead
later published an account of his meeting
with Janáček- "the youthful sage"-as
he called him. He began by saying that it
never occurred to him that his comic-strip
story might have not only a reader but an
admirer in the "man with silver hair
and sparkling eyes" who wished to translate
into music the trivial words and even more
trivial actions of the smart little vixen.
At first he thought someone was playing a
joke on him but, on receiving a direct invitation
from Janáček, he went-in fear
and trembling, he tells us-to meet and discuss
with the composer the question of turning
his animal stories into an opera:
was waiting for me in the small garden of
the conservatoire. He sat among the bushes,
with thousands of tiny blossoms shining round
his head; that head of his was equally white,
and seemed to be the biggest of those flowers.
He smiled; and I immediately knew that this
is the smile which life presents to us like
a gold medal for bravery in the face of the
enemy; for bravery in sorrow, adversity and
hatred. At that moment I believed that vixen
Sharp-Ears was sitting, tamed and quite dominated
by the kindness of the man in the small garden,
and that she would approach unseen to sit
at our feet and listen to our plotting. Janáček
mentioned the story in a few words and then
began talking about the forest at his home
in Wallachia which I do not know. He talked
about his studies of birds chirping and I
realised that he knew the happiness contained
in his smile." (* Quoted in Stedronís collection:
Letters and Reminiscences of Leos Janáček
(translated by Geraldine Thomsen), Artia-Prague,
1955, p. 164.)
had gone holidaying in the Tatra Mountains
in July 1921, and had written how he would
like to sing the praises of the majestic mountains,
the soft tepid rain, the frozen peaks, the
wild flowers blooming in the valleys, the
song of birds, the joyous undercurrent of
animal life in the forest. On such excursions
into the country he usually stayed at a foresterís
house and it is from these deep-felt experiences
of nature in the forests of Hukvaldy, Luhačovice
and Adamov that he drew the inspiration for
this, the most loveable and melodious of all
He had finished
writing the libretto by the autumn of 1922,
by which time he had probably already written
part of the music, for according to Stedron,
the score was completed by 17 March 1923.
Janáčekís libretto is written
in the Lisen (Brno) dialect and consequently
is by no means easily accessible to Prague
singers and audiences, in much the same way
as the poems of Robert Burns in the Ayrshire
dialect are puzzling to many English readers.
In both cases there is a picturesque attraction,
once the characteristic cadences of the languages
took the principal incidents in the picture-story
serial of Lolek-Tesnohlidek, gave each a descriptive
subtitle and strung them together into a more
or less connected narrative, although a close
examination will reveal inconsistencies, discrepancies
and a general looseness of construction. Janáčekís
great propagandist and friend, Max Brod, made
an earnest and well-intentioned attempt to
improve on the original text in his German
adaptation and transcription of the libretto,
published in the Universal Edition of the
vocal score. Although a few ideas of Brod
still persisted in the recent Felsenstein
and Sadlerís Wells productions, Brodís version
is now generally discarded (it certainly always
has been in Czechoslovakia) as showing little
understanding of the true nature of Janáčekís
pretty forest fantasy. Interested readers
should consult The Correspondence of Leos
Janáček and Max Brod, Prague,
1953, and Vogelís valid criticism of the Brod
additions-particularly his excessive symbolism-on
pp. 288-92 of his book.
the psychological conflicts, the emotional
stresses, the turbulence of text and music
in Janáčekís last two operas,
and the tremendously realistic, dramatic human
operas which preceded it, The Cunning Little
Vixen stands out as something entirely different:
a pastoral symphony, a sincere and touching
tribute to mother-nature, an almost Buddhistic
hymn in praise of the basic unity of all living
creatures. There are nature sequences in other
Janáček operas but only in The
Cunning Little Vixen does the composer give
the fullest expression to his love of nature
in terms of poetry and fantasy. In the forest
sequences Janáčekís characteristic
explosive musical prose writing is replaced
by smooth, evenly balanced rhythmic phrases.
Continuous melodies which are often repeated
and have a ballet-like simplicity and shape
replace to a large extent the usual short
epigrammatic motifs, although this technique
is still employed in the human scenes of the
and Music of Act I
act consists of four short adventures:
1. How the
vixen Sharp-Ears was caught.
in the farm-yard of the foresterís lodge.
as a politician.
makes her escape.
HOW SHARP_EARS WAS CAUGHT
is part of a dark, dry wood, bathed in summer
sunshine. In the background is the den of
a badger. When the badger sticks his head
out, we see that he is smoking a long meerschaum
pipe. Flies circle around him, a baby fox
is curled up asleep, other small animals are
seen. The blue dragon-flies weave around one
another in the light swift movements of an
begins with the gently rocking No. 81 tinged
with a drowsy melancholy-
and chirpings continue (sec A of 81). We may
be sure that these and the innumerable other
animal voices and cries in the opera are as
they sounded in the ears of Janáček
during his forest sojourns, for he could write
in musical notation the melody curves of a
lilting No. 82 falls into regular five-bar
phrases and is the theme for the dance of
No. 81 reappears
making a compact A B A prelude.
At the first
sound of the foresterís arrival, the badger
crawls into his den and the dragon-flies and
other insects and the small animals quickly
disappear. The forester is out of breath,
has been drinking too much, is drowsy and
feels like taking a nap in the shade. If his
wife should ask questions he can always say
he has been after poachers: he feels as tired
as he did after his wedding night. Taking
the gun from his shoulder, he becomes sentimental
over it, calling it his trusted companion,
his only real sweetheart, for a gun neither
talks back nor nags him, which, one presumes,
cannot be said of his wife. He falls asleep.
At his first
approach the animals are startled and vanish
quietly to No. 82. A vague arpeggio figure
accompanies his opening speech.
and grasshopper enter to suitable insect noises-
has round his neck a small barrel-organ and,
as soon as the forester is asleep, the cricket
asks him to play a tune. The grasshopper agrees
but tells the cricket not to expect too much
from him: he knows only the old tunes. In
the charming and delightful ballet sequence
which ensues, the main theme is this delicate
spidery waltz tune.
is followed by two variations and appears
in regular phrases of eight and four bars.
The cricket dances with a mosquito who flies
on to the foresterís nose, takes a quick bite
and itself immediately becomes tipsy (a little
nibbling scale up and down on clarinets and
cor anglais-see bottom of p. 12).
are flying about gaily and a little frog appears,
and catches a gnat (graphically pictured in
the last line of p. 13). Fearing a similar
fate the mosquito backs away hurriedly, the
little frog croaking "Bre-ke-te! "around
it. The mosquito tells it to shut up and asks
sarcastically where the frog was hiding when
it thundered. A little vixen runs in and is
taken aback at her first sight of a frog who,
in turn, is frightened to death of the vixen.
(The soft innocent lazy little whole-tone
vixen (Sharp-Ears) is unaware that she has
strayed away from her mother and, staring
at the frog, asks "mummy" if this is
something good to eat. The terrified frog
gives a hasty leap, landing on top of the
foresterís over-red nose (a loud variant of
No. 85 in the bass with excited chirpings
in the treble).
forester awakes, curses the cold, clammy frog
and looking around him, spies the fox cub.
It is the work of a moment for the experienced
forester to seize Sharp-Ears, who wails painfully
for "mummy"-hold her by the scruff of
the neck and examine her. He is pleased at
what he sees and intends giving the vixen
to his children for a pet. The terror of the
young Sharp-Ears is depicted in two snapping
chords and the trill turn and arpeggio figure-
arpeggio (A of 86) generates many other motifs:
see Act II, at figures 2, 6, 8, 10, 11, 17,
18 and elsewhere.
slings the gun over his shoulder and goes
off laughing. After a momentís silence the
blue dragon-fly reappears searching in-vain
for her little friend the fox-cub (flute solo
and cadenzas alternating with A of the dragonflyís
tune No. 82 on a solo violin in very delicate
and sensitive musical tracings).
and insects appear and dance together to a
repeat of the music of the previous dragon-fly
ballet: gradually the dragon-fly companion
of Sharp-Ears gives up hope of finding her
little friend and sadly folds her wings (to
a transformed No. 86) as the orchestra gently
repeats bars 1 and 2 of No. 81 with the sad
little A of No. 86 underneath as a cor anglais
fades and only the shadows of trees are to
be seen, as the scene ends with the same soft
melancholy music of the opening. The singing
parts of frog, mosquito, cricket, grasshopper
and baby vixen should be those of young children
with thin, piping voices.