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PROGRAM NOTES: Opening Night: Souvenir de Florence

by Eric Bromberger

String Quartet No. 1 “The Kreutzer Sonata”

Born July 31, 1854, Hukvaldy, Moravia, Czech Republic
Died August 12, 1928, Moravska Ostrava, Czech Republic

Czech composer Leoš Janáček labored for years in obscurity. At the time of his sixtieth birthday in 1914 he was known only as a choral conductor and teacher who had achieved modest success with a provincial production of his opera Jenůfa ten years earlier. Then in 1917 came a transforming event. The aging composer fell in love with Kamila Stösslová, a 25-year-old married woman and mother of a small child. This one-sided love affair was platonic–Kamila was mystified by all this passionate attention, though she remained an affectionate and understanding friend. But the effect of this love on Janáček was staggering: over the final decade of his life he wrote four operas, two string quartets, the Sinfonietta, the Glagolitic Mass, and numerous other works, all in some measure inspired by his love for Kamila (he also wrote her over 600 letters).

Not surprisingly, Janáček became consumed in these years with the idea of women: their charm, their power, and the often cruel situations in which they find themselves trapped by love. The theme of a woman who makes tragic decisions about love is portrayed dramatically in the opera Kátya Kabanová (1921) and abstractly in his two string quartets. The second of these quartets, subtitled “Intimate Pages,” is a direct expression of his love for Kamila, while the first, subtitled “The Kreutzer Sonata,” takes its inspiration from Tolstoy’s novella of the same name. In Tolstoy’s story, a deranged man tells of his increasing suspicion of his wife, who is a pianist, and the violinist she accompanies in a performance of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata. He returns home unexpectedly, finds them together, and stabs his wife to death.

Working very quickly in the fall of 1923, Janáček composed a string quartet inspired by Tolstoy’s story (the actual composition took only nine days: October 30-November 7). A few days before the première of the quartet in 1924, Janáček wrote to Kamila, telling her that the subject of his quartet was “the unhappy, tormented, misused and ill-used woman as described by the Russian writer Tolstoy in his work, The Kreutzer Sonata.” JJanáček’s biographer Jaroslav Vogel reports that the second violinist at the première (who was in fact the composer Joseph Suk) said that “Janáček meant the work to be a kind of moral protest against men’s despotic attitude to women.”

Listeners should be wary of trying to hear exact representations of these ideas in the quartet, for this is not music that explicitly tells a story. Some have claimed to hear an elaborate “plot” in this music, but it is much more useful to approach the First String Quartet as an abstract work of art that creates an agitated, even grim atmosphere. Listeners should also not expect the normal structure of the classical string quartet. Janáček’s late music is built on fragmentary themes that develop through repetition, abrupt changes of tempo and mood, and an exceptionally wide palette of string color. The opening movement alternates Adagio and Con moto sections, and the other three movements, all marked Con moto, are built on the same pattern of alternating sections in different speeds, moods, and sounds. There are several striking touches: the arcing melodic shape heard in the first measures of the quartet will return throughout (the quartet ends with a variation of this figure), while the opening of the third movement is a subtle quotation from the Kreutzer Sonata of Beethoven, a composer Janáček disliked. Throughout the span of the eighteen-minute quartet, the music gathers such intensity that its subdued ending comes as a surprise.

Janáček’s performance markings in the score are particularly suggestive: by turn he asks the players to make the music sound “grieving,” “weeping,” “sharp,” “lamenting,” “desperate,” “lugubrious,” and–at the climax of the final movement–“ferocious.” One does not need to know Janáček’s markings, however, to feel the intensity of this music.

Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, K.493

Born January 27, 1756, Salzburg
Died December 5, 1791, Vienna

Mozart wrote only two piano quartets (violin, viola, cello, and piano), but he is generally credited with inventing the form (it is true, however, that other composers, including a young teenager named Beethoven, had already experimented with the form). In his piano trios, Mozart sometimes wrote what are essentially piano sonatas with string accompaniment–the piano has the musical interest, while the strings play distinctly subordinate roles–but in the piano quartets he faced squarely the problems and the possibilities of the new form and solved them by liberating the string voices and making them genuine partners in the musical enterprise.

Mozart completed his first piano quartet, in G minor, in October 1785 just as he was beginning work on The Marriage of Figaro. The opera occupied him throughout the winter, and after Figaro began a successful run in Vienna on May 1, 1786, Mozart returned to chamber music. That year saw three piano trios, a string quintet, and the Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, completed on June 3, only a month after the première of Figaro.

Coming from a particularly happy period in Mozart’s brief life, this quartet is marked by a genial and utterly open spirit. The firm beginning of the Allegro–the opening statement concludes with little fanfares–establishes the bright mood that pervades this quartet. While Mozart reserved the key of G minor for some of his most serious statements, he preferred E-flat major as the key for nobility, warmth, and breadth. That contrast is beautifully illustrated by his two piano quartets–the stormy first, in G minor, is followed by the more relaxed E-flat major quartet. Of particular interest in the first movement is the way Mozart sets the three string instruments in opposition to the piano: the strings often play together, presenting ideas as a group or responding to the piano. This extended movement includes a third theme, and Mozart even calls for a repeat of the entire development before the brief coda.

The opposition of piano and strings is most evident in the quiet Larghetto, a nocturne-like movement of unusual harmonic interest. The piano announces the graceful main theme, and the strings respond as a group–the music moves easily between piano and strings. The concluding Allegretto, however, makes the piano the star. The piano’s music here is full of brilliant runs and virtuoso writing, while the strings retreat to the shade, merely answering or accompanying it. But it is easy to forgive the concerto-like qualities of this movement when the piano’s part is so exciting, easy to be swept along on the triplet runs that eventually dash this movement to its close.

Sextet for Strings in D Minor, Opus 70 “Souvenir de Florence”

Born May 7, 1840, Votkinsk, Russia
Died November 6, 1893, St. Petersburg

Like so many other composers from cold European climates, Tchaikovsky had a special fondness for the countries of southern Europe. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol is an affectionate portrait of Spain, but Tchaikovsky–like Brahms–was particularly attracted to Italy. An exciting visit during the carnival season of 1880 to Rome (where his brother had an apartment) inspired Tchaikovsky’s brilliant Capriccio Italien. And it was to Florence that Tchaikovsky went in 1890 to complete his opera The Queen of Spades.

Upon his return to Russia, Tchaikovsky wrote a sextet for strings, which he significantly subtitled “Souvenir de Florence.” His motive appears clear–he wanted to remember in music the sunny climate and friendly atmosphere of that Italian city–and he succeeded. The sextet has none of the gloomy, tortured music that Tchaikovsky wrote in his blackest moods. Instead, suffused with the golden glow of warm nostalgia, it offers some of his most good-natured music.

The choice of string sextet for this music is unusual, particularly for a composer who wrote so little chamber music. The additional voices created all kinds of compositional problems for Tchaikovsky, and he struggled with them. Though the work was completed in 1890 and performed privately then, he revised it thoroughly before its first public performance on December 6, 1892. The proud composer wrote to his brother: “What a sextet–and what a fugue at the end–it’s a pleasure. Awful, how pleased I am with myself!”

The lengthy opening movement, Allegro con spirito, is in extended sonata form, with the first violin announcing both main themes. The surging opening idea gives way to a songful second subject over steady accompaniment, and a long development leads to a dramatic close. The slow movement, Adagio cantabile e con moto, opens with a series of chords, rich layers of sound, before the first violin’s melody rises above pizzicato accompaniment. The movement’s brief midsection rustles ahead with tremolo-like passages full of dynamic surges and quiet pizzicatos before the opening material returns.

The scherzo, Allegretto moderato, is in ternary form, with the middle–surprisingly–faster than the outer sections. The opening sequence sounds as if it is based on Russian folksong material, while the exhilarating middle section–full of ricochet bowing–flies. The coda leads to a cadence on a giant pizzicato chord. The finale, Allegro vivace, is the shortest of the four and again opens with another passage that sounds as if it may have folk origins. The second theme is one of those unmistakable Tchaikovsky tunes, soaring and surging. At the climax of the movement comes the fugato treatment of the first theme of which Tchaikovsky was so proud, and a blazing coda brings the sextet to a conclusion full of sunlight.