Leos Janacek (1854 - 1928) did not achieve his fully distinctive artistic voice until he was in his fifties, with the opera Jenufa causing very good works he wrote earlier, including this Romantic cantata, to be overlooked frequently.
The text of the cantata is from a poem by his almost exact contemporary, Jaroslav Vrchlicky (1853 - 1912). One aspect of the story surely affected Janacek deeply: Its hero is a man named Amarus, who was abandoned as a baby to be brought up by monks in a monastery. Janacek himself, the tenth son of a poor village teacher in Moravia, had been shipped of to the Augustinian Monastery in the city of Brno for schooling at the age of 11. His memories of the event and his life there were bitter.
Harmonically and in its style of orchestration it is late Romantic style, though Janacek's characteristic short melodic patterns are present as well. The soloist and the chorus tend to sing responsively with each other, in a manner reminiscent of Orthodox Slavic churches.
It is in five sections. The first, Moderato, introduces the main character: as far back as he could remember, Amarus lived in the monastery, without knowing why. The baritone explains that because he was conceived in sin, the monks named him "Amarus": "bitter," or "painful" in Latin.
His upbringing was without affection, and he was kept innocent of the temptations of the world. Part 2, Andante, describes him as a tall, pale man, "always pensive as if filled with mystical yearning." One night he prayed to God (in an emotional tenor solo) begging to be told when his death would come. An angel (soprano) answers, "Death will come to you one evening when you fail to put oil in the lamp on the altar."
Despite having a tempo of Moderato, the third movement is the emotional heart of the work, and often possesses a remarkable urgency. Years later, still alone and sad, Amarus sees a pair of lovers in the church on a spring day. They pray before the statue of the Virgin, then leave the church, hand in hand. Fascinated by observing love and affection, which have not been a part of his life, he follows them outside. He follows them into the churchyard and seems them embracing among the graves and headstones. A pair of butterflies, the songs of birds, the scent of cherry and lilac blossoms and the emotions of the situation cause him to wonder about his mother and his birth.
In Part 4, Adagio, Amarus remains in the churchyard, listening to the bird singing. The next morning the monks discover that the light in the altar has burned out. They seek Amarus and find him dead, lying on a grave that they know to be his mother's.
The rhythm of the Epilogue is that of a funeral march but the music, remarkably, is bright and in a major key: In heaven, Janacek is telling us, Amarus will find the beauty and love he yearned for.