A to Z: Janacek

Wow…I’m kind of late to the game with today’s post. Sorry, but I just had a really unmotivated evening. It happens. Anyway, here we go, with another piece that I’ve never heard before, but by a composer that I have: the always-fascinating Czech composer Leoš Janáček. Janáček lived from 1854 to 1928, and while generally considered Czech, he was more properly a Moravian, coming from one of those European ethnic regions that has never had a nation of its own. Moravian folk music forms the backbone of Janáček’s musical output, perhaps even more strongly than Czech music forms the backbone of Dvorak’s.

Living as he did during the end of Romanticism and the beginning of Modernism, Janáček turns out to be one of those fascinating composers whose work seems to straddle the lines between a lot of different categories. As such, his music always has a very fresh sound, like it is at once old and new. The piece I’m using today was first performed just 11 years after yesterday’s Symphony by Andres Isasi, but it sounds so much more fresh and wonderful and exciting and new. Harmonically he is not willing to completely break with tonality as the Schoenbergs and Weberns of the world were in the process of doing, but neither was he interested in continuing the traditions of Romanticism. And he wasn’t interested much in an academic approach to music, either, choosing instead to focus on the folk character of his material and to compose it in ways that are so different from anything else being written at the time. His music is full of passages that churn and heave, with soaring segments of melody rising above ostinati that create an almost hypnotic effect.

Today’s work is Janáček’s Sinfonietta. It is scored for a full orchestra, but with the trumpet section expanded to fourteen trumpets. (Normally, a fully orchestrated work for an entire orchestra will use four trumpets.) As a former trumpet player, this is fascinating and appealing to me just on an instinctive level. But the orchestration is fascinating and subtle, and the piece is on the whole a wonderful and short (about twenty-five minutes long) exercise in musical drama. In his book The Essential Canon of Classical Music, David Dubal says that the Sinfonietta, “once heard, cannot be forgotten”. I’d agree with that. I listened to this work for the first time yesterday, and it’s been on my mind ever since.

This is a wonderful live performance, by the way. As always, pay close attention to the trumpet players. They are the key to everything in music!

UPDATE: Just listened to the piece again, and I must say, the applause from this audience seems awfully tepid in light of the quality of the performance they have just heard. What gives!

Tomorrow: an obscure Russian composer.

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One Response to A to Z: Janacek

  1. Unknown says:

    You mentioned having an unmotivated evening. At least you managed to produce something worth reading. My unmotivated evening is tonight (Friday for K). Just can't get my head in gear. Hopefully tomorrow will be different. Maybe it's blog block!

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