Jan, a Czech

Every weekday morning I wake to the usually mellifluous, occasionally clangorous sounds of WETA 90.9. As this daily routine occurs on Rooster Time, WETA wisely crafts its playlist for the early morning hours – only very occasionally is there something like John Philip Sousa summoning you awake (and possibly inducing violence). Unfortunately, it’s never as nice as the royal awakening Eddie Murphy enjoys at the beginning of Coming to America, which every classical music lover and comfort enthusiast would enjoy. Oh, plus the bath. My god, the bath!

My favorite part of my decidedly less regal routine is when I lay in bed and listen, half-awake, for a while when there is something particularly interesting or new to me on WETA. While my dog re-cuddles under the bed, hoping against hope that it was all just a horrible, horrible mistake and that bipedal idiot isn’t really going to get up when the sun hasn’t even yet elected to do the same! (to her everlasting credit, she gets into our routine fairly quickly). One day this week, the annoyingly-not-on-Twitter David Ginder played a piece for us by Leoš Janáček entitled, “Moravian Dances” and explained that Janáček had made a great study of the folk music of his native lands (he was born 1854 in Moravia, then a crownland of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and now part of the Czech Republic) and used it in his compositions. He was a leading expert on this folklore and made the first recordings of Moravian folk music and published his adaptations and transcriptions. Since I am not an expert, I learned today that these are more closely related to Slavic music melodically and structurally; whereas Bohemian music gravitated towards its geographic German neighbors.

Word up, homies.

There was something about the melody in the first Dance that captivated me. Now, this isn’t exactly a stretch. Your correspondent is someone who has listened to hours of Jodeln and Alphörner on YouTube, worn out CDs of traditional Bavarian music, etc. So the affinity for European folk music was already extant (which, as you can imagine, makes me societal anti-catnip – hence I only mention it from the safety of a blog). I mean, my favorite scene in The Sound of Music is when they dance the Ländler! By the way, if you’re looking for otherworldly yodeling (and I have a sneaking suspicion that, clandestinely, you are), look no further than Franzl Lang, the Bavarian Jodler-König (King of the Yodelers). And you thought Brian Wilson’s falsetto was impressive!

You want and need that hat in your life. Just look in the mirror and admit it already. I know I did.

Swerving from the rumble strips back onto the highway, there was something so simple, yet so culturally expressive in the first Moravian melody that Janáček brought to us. I kept humming it throughout my ablutions, listened to it in the car on the way to work, and although the Jodler-König’s highwire act has now replaced it in my head, I listened to it a few times at work as well. I learned from some digging that it is called “Fur coat” (Kožich). Janáček took it down in 1886 from someone named Jan Myška, in Petřvald (eastern Czech Republic, close to the Polish border, as I now know). I like how the tempo slows and the volume diminishes when the melody is played, and how eventually, there is a harp playing triplets underneath it. Sublime stuff. Here are the 5 dances, played (ironically) by the Slovak Philharmonic:

Two related points. One, Janáček is not exactly who springs to mind when thinking of classical composers, awash as we are in the three B’s and Mozart and the other giants of the genre. Sometimes that hierarchy is correct – I’m sure the Beatles were outranked at times on the charts by long-forgotten bands – and sometimes it isn’t. Discovering these “other” composers is a true delight. Without inflated reputation (“I’m supposed to like this, right?”) one feels free to simply explore and enjoy. There are vast worlds outside Vienna and Italy! Janáček’s Wikipedia entry notes that “Through his systematic notation of folk songs as he heard them, Janáček developed an exceptional sensitivity to the melodies and rhythms of speech, from which he compiled a collection of distinctive segments he called ‘speech tunes’. He used these ‘essences’ of spoken language in his vocal and instrumental works. The roots of his style, marked by the lilts of human speech, emerge from the world of folk music.” I mean, I just HAVE to know more about that.

On the other hand, since I don’t value every piece of music that Bach wrote the same, it also throws the truly great works in harsher relief – mere mortals can write beautiful music, like Janáček, but the Chaconne is not of this world.

Second, obviously at one point in time, the music of Europe’s hoi polloi was not exactly celebrated in classical music’s lofty capitals. It is to the great credit of Janáček and others (his compatriot Dvorak springs to mind, even Debussy weaving French children’s songs into some of his compositions) that they recognized the simple beauty in these dances and songs – that, in the final analysis, they were as deserving of a place in the musical firmament as anything else. Spruced up symphonically, of course, for their big début. You comb your hair before you go out, don’t you? Well, you should start.

And, if you follow the chronology closely enough (or, rather, not closely, since now I’m bloviating), that eventually gave us the great gift of the Jodler-König. For which every single person on Earth thanks you, Leoš.

Strike up a tune, Moravian minstrels!