Leoš Janácek – Říkadla (Nursery Rhymes)
(b. Hukvaldy, 3 July 1854 — d. Moravská Ostrava (Mährisch-Ostrau), 12 August 1928)
Composer, pianist, organist, conductor, ethnomusicologist, folklorist, critic, author, teacher, and administrator, Leoš Janáček, was born in a small village (Hukvaldy) in Moravia in 1854. The hills, fields and forests of these Czech lands were deeply rooted in folk music and folk culture, a decisive influence on Janáček. His father was a teacher and wished his son to follow in his footsteps, but recognizing his precocious talents allowed him to study music. After completing his education he returned to Moravia to begin a career as a composer, choirmaster and music teacher, at the same time collecting and studying folk music, songs and dances. He gradually ascended to the most prominent musical positions in the capital of Moravia, Brno. At the age of 62 Janáček was an integral member of the music community, respected as a composer, teacher, folklorist and administrator. However, his name outside of Moravia was little known. At that point in his life about 30 of his composition were in print, consisting of some small choruses, keyboard pieces and liturgical works. Only a few of these had ever been performed outside of Moravia. That all changed on May 26, 1916 when his opera Jenufa was premiered in Prague. It was an overwhelming success, with further productions in major opera houses and publication by Universal Edition in Vienna. During the last twelve years of his life he experienced an amazing creative upsurge during which time he composed the masterpieces on which his international reputation rests today.
In 1925 Janacek was captivated reading some children’s nursery rhymes. These were printed, along with illustrations by Josef Lada, in the publication Lidové noviny [People’s News]. The folk texts were of Bohemian, Moravian and Ruthenian origins. He initially set eight of these rhymes for three mezzo-soprano voices, clarinet and piano. In 1927 he added ten more plus an instrumental prelude, scoring them for a small choir of 9 voices, with piano, 2 flutes/piccolo, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons/contrabassoon, ocarina, double bass, and toy drum. The set titled Říkadla (Nursery Rhymes) was premiered on April 25, 1927 in Brno at the Moravian Composer’s Club. The composer wrote the following about these songs: “I made Říkadla (Nursery Rhymes) not only because I found their humorous content amusing, but because I also liked the illustrations of Josef Lada. I have a nice collection now and I’m going to publish them. Lada’s pictures cannot be missing in the book. We have hundreds and thousands of rhymes. I made my choices and set the appropriate ones to music – nevertheless I had a hard time pondering how to make them whole. I was missing both the opening and ending and it kept slipping through my fingers for quite some time before I was able to put my finger on it. Now they are finished and I’m content with them in their entirety. They are composed for various voices and instruments and are frolicsome, witty, cheerful, – that’s what I like about them. They’re rhymes after all!”
Outwardly simple, even nonsensical, the lyrics are in turn humorous, witty, sinister, insular, morbid, superstitious, and are above all a multifaceted view of the peasant world from which they sprung. Janácek’s brilliant music and scoring bring out the unique characteristics of each of these texts.
Karl Hinterbichler, University of New Mexico, 2019
For performance material please contact Universal Edition (www.universaledition.com), Vienna.