Covid concert 1


Leoš Janáček (b. Hukvaldy, Moravia, 3 July 1854; d. Ostrava, Czechoslovakia, 12 August 1928)

String Quartet No. 1, “Inspired by Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata (1923)

Composed in Brno between 30 October and 7 November 1923, and dedicated to the Czech Quartet, which gave the first performance in Prague on 17 October 1924.

This quartet in four compact movements (it takes only about nineteen minutes in performance) was written by Janáček in a single week. The composer called it “a profound excerpt from my own spiritual life, watered by my own blood.” To a close friend the composer wrote: “I had in mind a wretched, vexed woman who is beaten to death.”

The work is a kind of reflection on Leo Tolstoy’s short novel about an unhappy woman who is swept into the arms of an unworthy and opportunistic violinist, only to be finally killed by her own husband. It is in no sense an attempt to tell Tolstoy’s story in music; it may well, however, have some connection with Janáček’s own long infatuation with a younger woman, Kamila Stösslová.

An idea of the sincere emotional turmoil that went into this piece can be gained from some of the playing directions in the score: “ferociously,” “sharply,” “as if in tears,” “shyly,” “as if speaking.”

It is perhaps interesting to note too that Tolstoy, a man deeply suspicious and distrustful of music in general (he considered it morally dangerous) wrote the music-oriented story that inspired Janáček, who had no sympathy for Beethoven’s music, to write this quartet. The opening of the quartet’s third movement is a veiled reference to a theme in the famous Beethoven sonata that inspired Tolstoy’s story.

The quartet is full of Janáček’s musical trademarks—short bursts of musical energy which abruptly stop and are succeeded by contrasting material, insistent ostinato figures, moments of emotionally freighted silence, and above all a continuous feeling of emotional instensity that cannot fail to grip the attentive listener. It often sounds like music that is on the verge of breaking into human speech. There are short-lived bursts of what might almost be dance music (in the second movement) and wisps of pure lyricism (in the third). The musical gesture that opens the work returns to form a major element in the music of the final movement. Each of the first three movements ends quietly, despite the feeling of emotional intensity in the music. The last movement works up to a climax of great tension and excitement, then ends on a chord that begins softly and swells to loudness before it is released.

—Robert Finn

Mr. Finn (d. 2011) was music critic of The Plain Dealer from 1964-1992, and program annotator for the Society for many years.

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