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by Eric Bromberger

String Quartet No. 2, "Intimate Letters"

Born July 3, 1854, Hukvaldy, Moravia
Died August 12, 1928, Ostrava

In the summer of 1917 Leoš Janáček, a 63-year-old composer little known outside his homeland, met Kamila Stösslová, a 25-year-old married woman with a small child, and fell madly in love. Over the final eleven years of his life, she was the inspiration for a volcanic outpouring of masterpieces by the aging composer: four operas, two string quartets, a mass, tremendous orchestral works, and numerous choral and chamber pieces–as well as 600 letters written to her. Janáček’s love for Kamilla Stösslová was entirely platonic–and one-sided. Mystified by the composer’s passion, she responded with affectionate friendship and encouragement, content to serve as muse for a creator she did not fully understand (Kamila was lucky to have an understanding husband–Janáček had a furiously jealous wife).

Janáček said that all his late works were, at some level, an expression of his love for Kamila, and one piece made that love explicit. During the winter of 1928, he took three weeks (January 29-February 19) off from work on his opera From the House of the Dead to compose his String Quartet No. 2, which he subtitled “Intimate Letters.” Janáček’s original nickname for the quartet had been “Love Letters,” but he decided against that, telling Kamila that he did not want “to deliver [his] feelings up to the discretion of stupid people.” To underline the latent meaning of the quartet, he at first intended to replace the viola with the viola d’amore; when the older instrument proved to have insufficient power, he returned to the modern viola, which is given a very prominent role in this quartet.

Janáček noted that each movement had a particular program. The opening movement was inspired by his first meeting Kamila at the Luhačovice Spa during the summer of 1917; the second depicts events of that summer; the third he described as “gay, but melting into a vision of you”; the last expressed Janáček’s “fear for you–however it eventually sounds not as fear, but as longing and its fulfillment.” After hearing a private performance of the first two movements, the exultant composer wrote: “Kamila, it will be beautiful, strange, unrestrained, inspired, a composition beyond all the usual conventions! Together I think that we’ll triumph! It’s my first composition that sprang from directly experienced feeling. Before then I composed only from things remembered; this piece, ‘Intimate Letters,’ was written in fire.”

This passionate, intense music is in Janáček’s extremely-compressed late style. Themes tend to be short, there are countless abrupt tempo shifts, and the music is tightly unified–even accompaniment figures have thematic importance, and there is some cyclic use of themes. The full-blooded beginning of the Andante gives away suddenly to the true first theme: an eerie, unsettling melody played ponticello by the viola–Janáček said that it reflected Kamila’s disquieting arrival in his life. This theme recurs in many forms in this movement, which pitches between the lyric and harshly dramatic. By contrast, the Adagio is based largely on the viola’s opening melody; this rises to a climax marked Maestoso before closing over flautato mutterings from viola and second violin. The Moderato begins with a lilting dance in 9/8, followed by a lyric violin duet. The climax of this movement is a stunner: the music comes to a stop, then the first violin rips out a stabbing entrance on its highest E–marked appassionato, this is an explosive variation of the preceding duet tune. The concluding Allegro, a rondo, gets off to a good-natured start with a theme that sounds as if it might have folk origins (actually it was Janáček’s own). Once again, there are frequent mood and tempo changes, and–driven by furious trills and mordants–the music drives to its impassioned close.

The 74-year-old Janáček was very pleased with this music. To Kamila, he wrote that it was “like a piece of living flesh. I don’t think I ever shall be able to write anything deeper or more truthful.” Six months later, the creator of this passionate music was dead.

Piano Trio in G Minor, Opus 15

Born March 2, 1824, Litomšyl, Czech Republic
Died May 12, 1884, Prague

Smetana wrote very little chamber music–two quartets, this trio, and a set of pieces for violin and piano–but that chamber music is particularly intense and personal. It was as if he poured his enthusiastic Czech nationalism into works like The Moldau and reserved a more personal kind of expression for chamber music. His best-known chamber work, the autobiographical String Quartet No. 1 (appropriately subtitled “From My Life”) reaches its climax when the first violin’s high E comes stabbing through the closing moments of the last movement–it was the sound of that high E piercing Smetana’s head that signaled the onset of his deafness and the insanity that led to his death.

The Piano Trio in G Minor springs from a similar personal tragedy. Smetana and his wife had four daughters in rapid succession, and just as rapidly three of them died. The greatest blow for Smetana was the death of the eldest, Bedřiška, a spirited little girl who showed promise of unusual musical talent. Her death from scarlet fever at the age of four on September 5, 1855, nearly drove Smetana mad. He plunged into a deep depression and was able to rescue himself only through his work. By the end of that month he had begun to compose the Piano Trio in G Minor, and he worked steadily for two months, completing it on November 22.

As might be expected, the mood of this music is dark: all three movements are in G minor. What might not be expected is that this trio has no true slow movement: a sonata-form opening movement and a rondo-finale frame a central fast movement. The Moderato assai first movement opens with the stark sound of the violin alone, playing the grieving idea that will dominate the entire movement; the chromatic descent of a fifth that shapes this theme will be felt throughout the first two movements. The second subject, announced by the cello, is somewhat gentler, but the development is anguished, and the opening theme returns to drive the movement relentlessly to its close. Despite its minor tonality, the second movement is not so intense as the first. It is a scherzo-like polka, and some commentators have felt that the polka theme depicts Bedřiška at play (the first movement’s stark opening subject makes a ghostly reappearance within this opening statement). Smetana interrupts this movement twice with trio sections (he calls them Alternativos); the first of these is lyric and heartfelt, the second powerfully inflected on dotted rhythms. The end of this movement is particularly effective: the return to the opening material at the close of the second Alternativo is halting and uncertain, and the movement is suddenly choked off. The beginning of the finale, a rondo marked Presto, drives ahead on pulsing energy; Smetana took this opening theme from his own Piano Sonata in G Minor of 1846. The cello’s somber, lyric episode may break the energetic pulse of the opening, but it preserves the intense atmosphere that marks the entire trio, and at its close, this music remains–despite a move into G major–dark and grieving.

Sextet for Strings in A Major, Opus 48

Born September 8, 1841, Mühlhausen, Bohemia
Died May 1, 1904, Prague

Dvořák dated his manuscripts very carefully, and so we know that he wrote his Sextet for Strings in the space of only fourteen days: May 14-27, 1878. This was a crucial moment in Dvořák’s career. After a long and trying apprenticeship, the 37-year-old composer found himself suddenly famous that year when his Slavonic Dances created an international sensation. But some of the finest musicians of the era were already alert to Dvořák’s talent, and chief among these was Brahms, who had offered the unknown Czech composer his friendship, found him a publisher, and introduced him to his friends. The importance of the connection with Brahms can hardly be overstated, for it gained Dvořák performances by some of the finest musicians of the day. The Sextet for Strings had a private performance at the Berlin home of Brahms’ good friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim, and Dvořák–the son of a small-town butcher–was flabbergasted by his good fortune, writing to a friend: “after being here [in Berlin] for only a few hours I had spent so many enjoyable moments among the foremost artists, that they will certainly remain in my memory for the rest of my life.”

Music for string sextets–two violins, two violas, and two cellos–is comparatively rare. Dvořák certainly knew Brahms’ two sextets, composed during the previous decade, but the other two famous sextets–Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht–were still in the future. Dvořák makes use of the resources available with six players, yet takes care to keep textures clear throughout. Longest of the four movements, the sonata-form Allegro moderato contrasts its flowing first melody with a rhythmically-sprung second idea in the unexpected key of C-sharp minor. The development makes ingenious use of bits of rhythm from both these ideas before this amiable movement fades out on a broad restatement of the opening theme.

The real gem of this sextet is the second movement, which Dvořák marks dumka–the use of this old folk-form is further evidence of the composer’s growing awareness of his distinctly Czech identity. Derived from Ukrainian folk music, a dumka is elegiac in character and often features sections at quite different tempos. The main theme of this movement, at a slow polka rhythm, is full of dark flashings in its melodic turns and key shifts; the two distinct contrasting episodes preserve the movement’s somber character.

Dvořák marks the third movement Furiant, but numerous commentators have noted that it lacks the cross-rhythms and changing meters that define this old Bohemian dance form. In any case, this movement–which returns to the home key of A major–offers sparkling outer sections and a busy trio. The finale is in theme-and-variation form. Lower strings present the somber theme, and six variations follow. The final variation in fact forms an exuberant (and lengthy) coda that makes its way back to A major only in the final bars.