This week we are talking about two completely different composers. Joplin is an American whose music falls into the ragtime and early jazz category. Janáček is a Czech composer whose style falls in the eras of Romantic/early 20th century. Joplin is highly known; Janáček is not. Joplin wrote mainly for piano; Janáček wrote a wide variety of music from sinfonetta to opera to chamber music. Night and day, almost.
Let’s start with Janáček. At Home Dad actually recommended included this composer. I wasn’t so sure but when I listened to the Sinfonietta, I was hooked. I love good strong brass parts and Janáček delivers with them early on in this piece.
Leoš Janáček was born in Hukvaldy, in what was part of the Austrian Empire in 1854. His father was a teacher but he encouraged Janáček when he realized what an influence music had on his life. Janáček enjoyed singing in the church choir and pursued a music education as young man. He chose to follow composition, though it took until about 1916 for him to find success. This was when his opera was performed and became a success. During that time, he earned a living by teaching and directing music. After being a choirmaster for a while, he was able to enroll in the Prague Organ School. He quickly completed the course, 3 years in a single year. All of this led to the founding of the Organ School in 1881. Shortly after this, he became deeply interested in the Moravian language and the folk music of the area. This become quite a driving force in his music, as did his friendship with composer Dvorak. He is known for developing speech melodies, bits of music derived from the melodic intonations of the language.
In 1914, he was asked to rework bits of his opera Jenůfa for its premier in 1916. This work had been completed in 1903 but he agreed to modify parts of it yet still kept in his speech melodies. This opera was a spectacular success and at age 62, Janáček entered what is considered his most artistic period of composition. Some of the pieces from this period include the symphonic poem The Ballad of Blaník, finishing the opera Katya Kabanova, and starting on his next opera The Cunning Little Vixen. He also worked on a string quartet After Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata and began even another opera based on Karel Čapek’s The Makropulos Affair. He was a contemporary and fellow inductee to the Prussian Academy of Sciences with Arnold Schoenberg and Paul Hindemith.
As Janáček approached what was the end of his life, his music got “younger” and more progressive. He fit into the 20th century style well, refining it with his work. The last year of his life saw him create the opera From the House of the Dead based on a novel by Dostoyevsky and his string quartet no. 2 Intimate Letters. He died August 12, 1928, in Czechoslovakia.
Resources for Leoš Janáček
I could listen to recordings of Joplin for hours on end. I love the ragtime music he developed. He is truly one of the early innovators of American music and a fore-runner of the development of jazz, which is a truly American style of music.
Joplin is believed to have been born in northeast Texas in about 1867/1868. His exact date and place of birth are not recorded anywhere, though he is noted on the 1870 census for Texarkana. His family lived in Texarkana when he was child. Both his father and mother were musical and encouraged it in their children. Joplin became a solid banjo player at a young age. Shortly thereafter, he began to teach himself piano, when he was allowed to play the one in the home of his mother’s employer.
As a teen, Joplin left home to become a travelling musician. Many of the reports of his early life are anecdotal but there are reports of him playing with different groups all over the midwest. He is noted as being a part of a minstrel troupe in Texarkana in 1891. In 1893 he is believed to have been in Chicago, maybe for the World’s Fair, leading a band and playing cornet. He is believed to have returned to Sedalia, MO, after that, making it his home base.
He attended music classes at George R. Smith College in Sedalia. About this time, he was also teaching a few students and beginning his composing. He published his first pieces in 1896. In 1898, he sold his first rag, Original Rag. He was forced to give arrangement credit to another since he was not strong in notation. For his next piece that he sold, Maple Leaf Rag, he worked with a lawyer to make sure he got full credit. It was a slow start to publication in 1999 but within 10 year, it had sold over half a million copies.
As Joplin continued performing and composing, he travelled and wrote. He was married briefly two times. The first ended in divorce; the second ended when his wife died 10 weeks after their marriage. As Joplin continued writing, he published many, many rags. He also worked on operas. He had one that was produced – A Guest of Honor. It was to commemorate the visit of Booker T. Washington to the White House in 1901. It was going very well until the box office receipts were stolen and that led to the inability of bill payment and the shutting down of the production.
Joplin worked for many years on another opera – Treemonisha. This was set in a rural part of northeast Texas and featured the story of how Treemonisha, the only educated member of her community, led her town out of ignorance and superstition. It is considered an allegory of Joplin’s view of the African-American community of his time. He believed that education would bring racial equality for his people. It was not fully performed until 1972. In 1976, Joplin was awarded the Pulitzer Prize posthumously for this work.
Joplin became very sick, quite suddenly, and passed away in 1917 at the age of 48.
There are plenty of recordings of Joplin’s music. I’ll just put one more here that has 27 of his piano rags all together if you want to listen to more.
Resources for Scott Joplin
Lori, At Home.
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