Janáček – String Quartet No. 1 ’Kreutzer’ Sonata
Robert Smetana, in his introduction to the score of Janáček’s Kreutzer Sonata, published by Hudebni Matice, recommends that we approach this music “as a passionate confession of the principle and power of emotional relations between man and woman in life and in art, to grasp the music not as decor, but as an integral part of life, a part that is often excessively painful, and to hear in it the intense personal participation of the composer.”
Considering Janáček’s breadth of compositional output it is perplexing that he achieved notoriety very late in life. He encountered little success for his music during his youth and middle age but in 1915, at the age of 61, the Prague State Opera produced Janáček’s Jenůfa, to great critical and public acclaim which in turn suddenly threw a spotlight on the composer and his work. Suitably inspired, he launched into a period of musical productivity that remains one of the most diverse, personal and identifiable outpourings in the 20th century. His two string quartets were part of that rich harvest and remain true to Janáček’s conception of natural musical realism – the conviction that music springs directly from the substance of everyday life. Evident in all his works are folk influences, speech patterns and more importantly a raw humanism – a music derived from the core elements and emotion of existence.
As suggested by the quote from Robert Smetana the other inspiration for Janáček’s rediscovered creative energy was his passionate, yet unrequited love for Kamila Stösslová, a younger woman who was undoubtedly the catalyst for most of his late music.
Written within a short period of time in 1923 at the age of 69, the first string quartet draws direct inspiration from Tolstoy’s novella, “The Kreutzer Sonata”which is in turn named after Beethoven’s Violin Sonata dedicated to the French violinist Rodolph Kreutzer. The story is told from the viewpoint of a man who suspects his pianist wife to be having an affair with her violin colleague. The husband’s presence at a charged performance of the Beethoven Sonata ignites the fuse of his suspicion and he ultimately murders her in a fit of jealous rage.
Besides its portrayal of primal human instinct the novella is a commentary on marriage, women’s rights, morality and justice. Although the correlation between the form and layout of the quartet and the plot of the story are tenuous at best, the music portrays a myriad of emotions within its four short and unconventionally structured movements using recurring operatic style leitmotifs, a ceaselessly shifting rhythmic and dynamic palette and an intuitive use of string colouristic techniques. In addition Janáček makes direct canonic reference at the outset of his own third movement to the Beethoven Sonata in an almost direct quote of the lyrical second theme, which in this instance is paired between first violin and cello. Perhaps the greatest irony of this powerful piece is that Tolstoy presented music as an almost hedonistic enabler of adultery, whereas Janáček wanted to protest what he regarded as the unfortunate tyranny of men over women. In Janáček’s hands, the balance of sympathy shifted decisively, even though the tragic climax could not be averted.
Whilst Janáček imprinted this quartet with his intensely personal style via both musical and programmatic means, it is ultimately his keen dramatic sense that causes the music to seethe with thinly-disguised depictions of seduction, passion, rage and despair.
Beethoven – String Quartet Opus 74 in E flat Major, ‘Harp’
It is always perplexing to come across a Beethoven string quartet that seems to have a reputation as one rarely played, particularly one that is so glorious as the Op.74 ‘Harp’ Quartet.
Written in 1809 and named for the passage of elegant pizzicato in the first movement, the ‘Harp’ seems to stand independent of both middle and late quartets in that it is really neither one nor the other. It contains invention, somber beauty and accessibility, and yet it also has a reputation amongst performers as one of the most fiendishly difficult to play. The first movement is largely confident and dignified, with the coda containing one of the most original and spectacular passages in quartet writing for the first violin. The tender and elegiac slow movement is amongst the gems of Beethoven’s writing for quartet, and is followed by a true Scherzo, strongly reminiscent of the Fifth Symphony, which is reinforced by a rushing C major trio. The parallel with the symphony becomes even more striking when the scherzo recedes into a breathless pianissimo that shows signs of behaving like the famous link into the symphony’s finale. The Quartet’s fourth movement, is a theme and variations, based on a largely simple melody, but ingeniously developed through different combinations within the quartet.
Interestingly, the ‘Harp’ was the first Beethoven quartet to be published independently with its own opus number – unlike the collection of six works as in Op. 18, or even three as in Op. 59. This remained the norm for all later quartets, each of which was too individual to be lumped together with others in a single publication. In this sense, this magnificent work truly stands alone in Beethoven’s quartet output.
Dvořák – String Quartet No. 12 in F major, Op. 96, B. 179, American
“Dvořák had a well-nigh inexhaustible fund of melody—melody succinct and characteristic, always striking in rhythm, never banal, and tinged with enough quaintness to make it unlike that of anyone else.” – The Art of Dvořák
Some of Dvořák’s most well-known works date from the years 1892-95 during his three-year sojourn to America where he served as director of the National Conservatory in New York. They include the New World Symphony, the Cello Concerto and the “American” String Quartet.
In the summer of 1893, Dvořák took his family to Spillville, Iowa, for a vacation away from New York City. Spillville was a Czech community, and Dvořák spent a happy and productive summer there, surrounded by familiar language, customs, and food. He sketched the “American” Quartet in only three days (June 8-10, 1893) and completed it within fifteen. Dvořák, a normally labourious composer wrote: “Thanks be to the Lord God. I am satisfied. It went quickly.” As soon as the final score was ready, on June 23, Dvořák read it through with three students, with Dvořák playing first violin. The official premiere was given in Boston by the Kneisel Quartet on January 1, 1894 who went on to play it over 50 times that concert season. The issue of a specifically “American” influence on the quartet is a matter of conjecture, although Dvořák shed some light on the debate by denouncing “that nonsense about my having made use of original American melodies. I have only composed in the spirit of such American national melodies.”
Nonetheless it is entirely true to say that the unashamedly sunny and optimistic “American” String Quartet in particular bears the stamp of the time and place of its composition. The most pervasive aspect of the quartet supporting these qualities, as well as reflecting Dvořák’s general preoccupation with folk idioms, is the use of the semitone-free pentatonic scale with nearly all melodic material based on some form of it. In the third movement, Dvořák transcribes the song of the native Scarlet Tanager, a bird that he heard whilst hiking in the countryside which provides the strongest link to the quartet’s American rural origins.
Notes by Adam Chalabi and Lerida Delbridge.