The Tragic Hero – Taras Bulba

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Leoš Janáček’s Taras Bulba

In 2019 AWO Artistic Director Alexander Briger AO will conduct 2 performances of Czech composer Leoš Janáček’s (1854-1928) great Rhapsody for Orchestra: Taras Bulba based on the novel by Nicholai Gogol.

Janáček was a Russophile, he formed a Russian club in the Czech city of Brno where he lived, he visited Russia twice and sent his children to study in St Petersburg. He was a great admirer of Russian literature and it was the novelist and playwrite Nicholai Gogol that he admired most.

The violent and bloody story of Taras Bulba is one of Gogol’s most enduring and influential works. Ernest Hemingway called it “one of the ten greatest books of all time”. It tells the tale of Taras Bulba, an ageing Cossack, and his two sons Andrei and Ostap and how all three meet their gruesome deaths. The story is set in sixteenth-century Ukraine, which was then under the rule of Poland, the Cossack patriarch Taras Bulba pushes his sons onto the battlefield as soon as they are out of school, only to watch them die. Taras Bulba is based on several historical personalities and the story can be understood in the context of the romantic nationalism movement in literature.

Janáček claimed that he was drawn to the novel Taras Bulba because of his belief that “in the whole world there are not fires or tortures strong enough to destroy the vitality of the Russian nation” paraphrasing Gogol’s own lines. “For the sake of these words, which fell into searing sparks and flames off the stake on which Taras Bulba, the famous hetman of the Cossacks, died, did I compose this rhapsody.” Janáček picked three episodes from Gogol’s tale, each dealing with a tragic death – first that of the sons Andrei and Ostap, and then Taras Bulba himself

This is where the story becomes even more interesting due to the interconnectedness of life, so please read on!

The AWO’s Inaugural Patron was the late Sir Charles Mackerras who was notably Chief Conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra 1982-1985. Sir Charles had great connection and admiration for Janáček’s music which culminated in the award of an honorary doctorate from the Janáček Academy of Musical Arts, Brno. In a 2004 Radio Prague interview Sir Charles said “The first time I met Janáček’s great operas […was] when I came [to Prague] in 1947 on a British Council scholarship, and I heard Václav Talich conducting Katya Kabanová. That really changed my life because I became a great studier of Janáček’s music and everything about him.” It was Jiří Tancibudek, Principal Oboe of the Czech Philharmonic, who introduced Sir Charles to Janáček and it is with great joy that the connection comes full circle as Jiří’s Melbourne-born daughter Sandra, alumni of the Australian Youth Orchestra (AYO), has performed with the AWO and currently plays with the Berlin Staatskapelle.

Here’s where the story becomes even more interconnected due to Janáček’s love of all things Russian! AWO Artistic Director Alexander Briger AO, who studied under Sir Charles Mackerras, was invited last year to conduct Jay Reis’ opera Rasputin for the Helikon Theatre in Moscow to celebrate the anniversary of Rasputin’s death. A branch of the Briger family tree leads directly to the man who murdered Rasputin, Prince Felix Yusupov the first cousin of Alexander’s grandmother the Countess Zenaide Sumarokoff-Elston.

So to bring all the threads of this story together Alexander Briger will conduct Janáček’s Taras Bulba Rhapsody for Orchestra from Sir Charles Mackerras’ original scores which would make any true Russophile, as was Janáček, smile.

You can listen to an excellent recording of Sir Charles Mackerras performing Taras Bulba with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra from a 2009 recording on Apple Music/iTunes HERE, or on Spotify HERE.

You can watch video of Sir Charles conducting the Czech Philharmonic’s performance of Taras Bulba HERE.

If you enjoyed this story you may be interested in visiting these sources:
Website devoted to Janáček:

Transcript of Radio Prague Interview with Sir Charles Mackerras, 2004

Clive Paget of Limelight Magazine’s great telling of the story Alexander Briger’s time in Moscow:

State Library of South Australia J. D. Somerville Oral History Collection, transcript of an interview with Vera Tancibudek:

Huscher, Phillip – Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Program Notes: Leoš Janáček – Taras Bulba, Rhapsody for Orchestra

So for those of you who made it to the bottom of this tale, here’s your prize! The video and music links to our AWO live concert recordings:

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Relive our exhilarating concert performances with Zubin Mehta, Sir Simon Rattle and Alexander Briger on our YOUTUBE channel.



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AWO live concert recordings can be found on your favourite music streaming service. Listen to our recordings on SPOTIFY and ITUNES/APPLE MUSIC.




These great recordings were brought to life by our media partners ABC Classic FM and Foxtel Arts (2016). CD’s of these recordings can be purchased by calling the AWO Office: 02 8283 4527.

Don’t miss Taras Bulba a Rhapsody for Orchestra conducted by Alexander Briger from Sir Charles Mackerras’ score: