EXPLORING MUSIC: BEAUTIFUL SOLUTIONS/LEOS JANACEK'S The Two String Quartets
The MHS Review 399 VOL. 12, NO.3 • 1988
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I find Leos Janacek's life story almost as amazing as his music. Through most of his musical career he demonstrated a minor talent at best. His early works, as charming as they often are, pale beside those of his models Dvorak and Smetana. Besides being derivative, they demonstrate a lack of mastery (incompetence, if you will) in handling traditional harmony, modulation, and instrumentation.
As if fulfilling the future adage "if you can't do, teach," Janacek devoted a large portion of his career to musical pedagogy. He did extensive ethnic music studies, propounded a theory that melody should grow out of speech patterns, and ultimately became the head of the Brno Organ School. And thus he remained, a second-rate musician in a musical backwater, destined for a squib in some future edition of Grove--and not much more--until his mid-60s.
As this century entered its second decade and Janacek approached his seventh, he began turning out one brilliant, highly original masterpiece after another, including the operas Kat'a Kabanova (1921), The Cunning Little Vixen (1924), and The Makropulos Affair (1926), the Sinfonietta (1926), the Glagolitic Mass (1927), and the two quartets on this release (no. 1, 1923; no. 2, 1928). In all these works he created a wholly new melodic vocabulary and harmonic syntax, an original and fully developed musical language.
The reasons for this late artistic flowering aren't hard to find. First, Janacek was a fervent Czech nationalist, and the advent of Czech independence in 1918 stimulated his creative juices. Second, as anyone acquainted with his late scores knows, he was a volatile, impetuous, passionate man with more than his share of heart; sometime around 1920 he fell hopelessly in love with a beautiful and happily married woman 38 years his junior, one Kamila Stosslova. (His own marriage of some 40 years was, and continued to be, a long-running failure.)
This relationship with Kamila seems to have been conducted at more than arm's length, consisting as it did of a daily letter bombardment on his part, with apparently few replies on hers. Mrs. Stosslova, given her awkward position in all this, must have been a woman of uncommon kindness and grace, managing, as she did, to preserve her own marriage without abdicating her role as Janacek's muse.
Now to the quartets at hand: if you expect something in the classical quartet style, you won't find it here. Janacek builds each moment out of tiny thematic kernels (the eloquent realization of his "melody derived from speech" theories) sequentially repeated and often marked by unorthodox harmonic juxtapositions. Each movement unfolds wholly in its own manner (there's not a "proper" sonata in the whole lot), but always in a dramatically pointed, inevitable, and totally satisfying way.
The First Quartet carries the subtitle "after Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata." Janacek was quite the Russophile and mad about 19th-century Russian literature. Tolstoy's novella about jealousy and marital infidelity (aided and abetted by Beethoven's unhealthily exciting music) obviously struck a chord in Janacek, himself in the throes of his "affair" with Mrs. Stosslovf His Second Quartet, alternately passionate and tender, is in effect his last love letter to Kamila.
This release marks my first, and I hope not last, encounter with the New World String Quartet. Rarely have I heard the intonation, balance, and tempo problems in these fiendishly difficult works so beautifully solved. These are performances which are at once probing and marked with wonderful abandon. They are also performances which allow us to appreciate how beautiful these pieces can be. Janacek has been well served.
Review of The New World String Quartet Playing LEOS JANACEK'S The Two String Quartets pg 11