Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Janáček's 1st String Quartet: Behind the Scenes

One of the works on the program opening Market Square Concerts' 30th Anniversary Season - at 8pm on Saturday October 1st at Harrisburg's Whitaker Center - is a string quartet not that well known on the average concert circuit. The Juilliard Quartet, celebrating its own 65th Anniversary, will be performing it along with Three Pieces by Igor Stravinsky and one of the quartets Mozart dedicated to Franz Josef Haydn, his String Quartet in A Major, K.464.

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If you’re looking over the program and see a string quartet by Leoš Janáček (see portrait, right) called “The Kreutzer Sonata” and you don't know it but the name sounds familiar, be warned it has nothing to do with a particular Beethoven violin sonata.

Yes, Beethoven wrote a violin sonata in 1802 which he eventually dedicated to the great French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer and consequently his Violin Sonata in A Major, Op. 47, a grand work in the heroic style, has always been known as the “Kreutzer” Sonata.

But Janáček’s first published string quartet, composed over the space of 15 days in October, 1923, when he was 63 years old, is not an arrangement or adaptation of Beethoven’s sonata nor is it based on themes from Beethoven’s sonata, at least in any explicit way.

Actually, the string quartet was inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s controversial novella, written in 1889, which he called “The Kreutzer Sonata.” And yes, Beethoven’s sonata plays a kind of incidental role in the story though it’s less of a story than a lecture about the nature of love, marriage and the societal roles of men and women.

Here’s the brief summary of Tolstoy’s book:

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During a train ride, a nervous man named Pozdnyshev overhears a conversation concerning marriage, divorce and love. When a woman argues that marriage should not be arranged but based on true love, he asks "what is love?" and points out that, if understood as an exclusive preference for one person, it often passes quickly. PPP Convention dictates that two married people stay together, and initial love can quickly turn into hatred. He then relates how he used to visit prostitutes when he was young, and complains that women's dresses are designed to arouse men's desires. He further states that women will never enjoy equal rights to men as long as men view them as objects of desire, but yet describes their situation as a form of power over men, mentioning how much of society is geared towards their pleasure and well-being and how much sway they have over men's actions.

After meeting and marrying his wife when he is 30, they experience periods of passionate love alternating with vicious fights. She bears five children, and then is given contraceptives by a doctor because her health is frail and she should bear no more children.

"The last excuse for our swinish life -- children -- was then taken away, and life became viler than ever."

Moving from the country into the city, the tension relaxes briefly as they adapt to a new life-style. His wife, returning to the piano once again, has taken a liking to a friend who’s an amateur violinist, and the two perform Beethoven's “Kreutzer” Sonata together.

Pozdnyshev complains that some music is powerful enough to change one's internal state to a foreign one. He hides his raging jealousy and goes on a trip, but returns early, finds the two together and, sneaking up on them after taking his boots off, kills his wife with a dagger.

The violinist escapes: "I wanted to run after him," Pozdnyshev explains to his listener, "but I remembered it is ridiculous to run after one's wife's lover in one's socks; and I did not wish to be ridiculous but terrible."

Later acquitted of murder in light of his wife's apparent adultery, Pozdnyshev rides the trains seeking forgiveness from fellow passengers.
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(Incidentally, this famous painting by René François Prinet called The Kreutzer Sonata - and long familiar to recent generations for its use in a famous perfume ad - was also inspired by Tolstoy's story in 1901.)

Now, this whole story is entirely told from the husband’s viewpoint and, in this summary, the expression “finds the two together” suggests something other than what he actually describes, how they were actually seated in the drawing room in the midst of conversation. But the implication of that expression, “finds the two together,” is what drives the husband’s rage and he vividly remembers every detail of the murder.

Janáček’s style is partly inspired by a love of folk music but more by the patterns he discovered in, for example, human speech. He often notated phrases and would use these to create more realistic sounding characters in his operas. Very often, there seems to be a kind of psychological fragmentation of something one might hear but is reflected on differently, as if one didn’t hear it the same way as others might. Often, a melodic line (or something that passes for one) might be interrupted or accompanied by often frenzied outbursts in other instruments as if there might be multiple layers to the perception of the music: what one hears (or speaks) and what one thinks as well as how others might hear it and respond. For examples of this, you only need to listen to the opening of the quartet and of the 2nd movement (at 4:00 into the first clip) and especially the opening of the 3rd Movement (beginning of the 2nd clip).

(Here, the Zemlinsky Quartet performs the four movements of Janáček’s 1st Quartet (“The Kreutzer Sonata”) in two clips. The sound is not great but it will give you a good idea of the piece.)

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But what does this lurid story have to do with Leoš Janáček and his 1st String Quartet?

He does not approach the story as a continuous narrative nor are there themes necessarily representative of specific characters or dramatic instances. Certainly, the constant nervous interjections in the background (though a common fingerprint of Janáček’s style) offer psychological commentary on the situation. The constant repetition of small motives – fragments of ideas, really – could represent the obsessive jealousy of the husband or the constant tension between the husband and wife. But this is all conjecture since nowhere did the composer say this is this and that is that.

One thing he did say is this: "I was imagining a poor woman, tormented and battered to death by her husband, just like the one the Russian writer Tolstoy describes in his Kreutzer Sonata.” It is quite possible Tolstoy’s novella was only a starting point and that Janáček wasn’t really using it as a basis for the piece, only an inspiration for it.

Certainly, as we can see from Janáček’s operatic heroines, he definitely sides with the women in his stories: in fact, the only opera of his that doesn’t (his final opera, based on Dostoievsky’s From the House of the Dead) doesn’t have a main female character. Janáček has little sympathy with Tolstoy’s attitude towards women as he expressed them through his character Pozdnyshev’s socio-political rant.

Rather than focus on the gory details of the murder, he turns this intensely violent drama into such psychological turmoil, it is almost difficult to imagine what is happening where. It could be as if the music takes place all in that single moment where the husband walks in on his wife and her violinist friend and… well, sees what? What is she imagining, expecting? How does one explain the enigmatic ending: a meditation on what led to the crime? After all, regardless of the court’s decision, the husband felt he was right and justified.

But don’t forget, Janáček is “telling” this from the woman’s point of view.

Anthony Burton, writing the liner notes for the Emerson Quartet’s recording, pointed out what he saw as similarities between the opening melody of Janáček’s 3rd Movement (the start of the 2nd clip, above) and the lyrical second theme of Beethoven’s otherwise generally heroic violin sonata ( listen to 2:50 into this clip with Itzhak Perlman & Martha Argerich) though I can’t hear it, myself. Certainly, there is little of Beethoven’s heroic quality in this piece in Tolstoy’s story or Janáček’s approach to it.

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Much is made of Janáček’s late-in-life affair – if one can call it that – with Kamila Stösslová, the young wife of a young antiques dealer. They met in 1917 at a spa on a summer holiday, the wife (then 25) with her infant son (see photo, left, taken in 1917 with her son, Otto) left alone for a week while her husband is away on business. Janáček befriends her and he almost immediately notated in music a fragment of her speech. Despite the difference in years and her basic indifference to him and to music in general – even Janáček’s wife couldn’t see what he saw in her, intellectually – a long and involved correspondence developed between them, consisting of over 700 letters.

His feelings (see photo, right: the composer, taken in 1917 when he was 63) were not reciprocated. However, he himself confessed to her things that must have made her cringe (today, we would call this TMI) but he also acknowledged that his love for her inspired most of the major works he composed in the last ten years of his life.

This was not Janáček’s first affair. The success of his opera, Jenufa, in 1916, introduced him to the soprano Gabriela Horvátová, and he became enchanted by her. Revealing this new passion to his wife Zdenka – their relationship had long cooled since their first years together (see photo, below left, taken in 1881) – she tried to commit suicide. Janáček wanted to file for a divorce but after the composer lost interest in Horvátová, they agreed instead to an “informal” divorce to avoid a public scandal. From then until his death in 1928, Janáček and his wife lived separate lives in the same household.

So it would be easy to read into life’s reality something of Tolstoy’s story, perhaps. He had known Kamila for six years before he composed the work in two quick weeks in 1923, in between having written The Cunning Little Vixen which can be quickly summarized as a love story set among the animals of the forest, and then The Makropolous Case, an opera about a woman who, having drunk a magic potion as a child, lives to be over 340 years old and for whom relationships are nothing (“she is cold as ice, brrr”), which he began composing a few weeks later.

And adultery or marriage difficulties figure prominently in his earlier operas, Jenufa and Katya Kabanová. Given Pozdnyshev’s constant harping on the base animal instincts behind man’s relationship with woman – “this swinish behavior,” as he keeps calling it, this need to have sex and procreate – was this suggested by the completely natural – that is, asocial – love experienced between the vixen Sharp-Ears and her mate, the fox Golden-Skin?

It is not the first time this lurid story of a husband murdering his wife in a jealous rage, attracted the composer. In 1908, apparently, he had begun a string quartet which he abandoned after three movements which also was inspired by Tolstoy’s tale, put aside, turning it, then, into a piano trio. This is presumably lost but the implication, from statements the composer made, was that some of this material eventually found its way into the String Quartet of 1923.

(This would not be the first string quartet that got caught up in the reality of marital infidelity. When Arnold Schoenberg was in the midst of composing his 2nd String Quartet, he discovered his wife having more than a conversation with an artist friend: you can read more about that in this earlier post on my blog, Thoughts on a Train.)

But the stories in most of Janáček’s operas are told from the woman’s viewpoint, whether it’s a female fox, a woman wronged by society’s moral attitudes like Katya Kabanová or even Elena Makropolous in all her various disguises over the centuries who tires of the idea of love and eternity. 

His Second String Quartet, however, will be all about Kamila Stösslová, inspired by the more than 700 letters they had written each other over the past 11 years:

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"You stand behind every note, you, living, forceful, loving. The fragrance of your body, the glow of your kisses – no, really of mine. Those notes of mine kiss all of you. They call for you passionately..."
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Small wonder it’s known by the subtitle, Intimate Letters. Written in Febraury of 1928, it was premiered later that year, about a month after Janáček’s death.

But that’s a whole other story…

(Speaking of which, if you're interested in extra credit, check out this post on Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata at my blog, Thoughts on a Train.)

- Dick Strawser

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