Janáček, String Quartet No. 1, "Kreutzer Sonata"

October 21, 2007

Leoš Janáček, 1854-1928

String Quartet No. 1, "Kreutzer Sonata", 1923

Leoš JanáčekIn several ways, Leoš Janáček was the polar opposite of Mozart and Mendelssohn. Not a child prodigy, he didn't enjoy even a modicum of fame or recognition until he was in his sixties. Rather than thriving in such main European cultural centers as Vienna, Berlin, Leipzig or London, Janáček spent most of his life in Brno on the eastern edge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in a region that would become Czechoslovakia after World War I, around the same time that Janáček's music began reaching a wider audience. Whereas Mozart and Mendelssohn achieved their greatest work, indeed, lived their entire lives before reaching even forty, Janáček created his most well known and highly regarded compositions in his late sixties and seventies, discovering new energy and passion for life including, or perhaps because of, falling in love with a much younger woman who became his muse. Janáček is best known for several operas that reflect his interest in folk music, speech patterns and his conviction that music springs directly from the substance of everyday life. Among his celebrated works are a mass, a few orchestral pieces and a handful of chamber works including two string quartets. Rare for chamber music, but consistent with Janáček's conception of a natural musical realism, both quartets may be considered program music with elaborate narrative associations, string quartets that have been called "wordless operas."

Written in 1923 when he was sixty-nine, Janáček's first quartet was inspired by Tolstoy's novella, "The Kreuzter Sonata", named after Beethoven's violin sonata dedicated to the French violinist, Rudolph Kreutzer. Leo TolstoyTolstoy's story is told by an inconsolable man who, in a fit of jealous rage, murders his apparently adulterous wife only to be consumed by regret and disillusionment about marriage and the treacherous urges of the human animal. His wife's supposed lover is a violinist, and she, a pianist. A pivotal moment in the story occurs when they play Beethoven's sonata for a social gathering. Tolstoy devotes two pages to the husband's incredulous reaction to the first movement presto and the wild, dangerous exhilaration the music evokes. The situation simultaneously embodies three primal and overwhelming urges that tangle into disaster: musical ecstasy, sexual desire and jealous rage. Besides its vivid presentation of human passion with its tendency towards tragedy, the story is a debate about marriage, women's rights, morality and justice. Janáček was so affected by Tolstoy's story that he had already tried previously to capture it with an unfinished piano trio.

Various commentators attempt to correlate the quartet layout with the story's plot but the results are inconsistent and unconvincing. Neither the score nor Janáček himself provides significant pointers. Still, the music eloquently portrays an array of suggestive sensations, emotions and actions using a small but potent set of motifs, a dazzling palette of rhythms with swiftly changing tempi and dynamics, and a broad selection of coloristic techniques using mutes, tremolo, bowing near the bridge (sul ponticello) and pizzicato. The music is often less melody than a compelling, emotionally charged talking; Janáček's attention to speech patterns is evident in his music that eloquently speaks. A noteworthy aspect of his style is the tendency for thematic variety by using the same motif at different speeds, in particular, accelerating into rapid repetitive patterns, mesmerizing ostinati almost akin to minimalism.

BeethovenDoes Janáček make any specific musical references to Beethoven's Kreutzer sonata? Tolstoy makes pointed reference to Beethoven's first movement in particular. Janáček's quartet incorporates at least two ideas from the unbridled presto. First, he features a variant of Beethoven's rapid-fire main theme based on a four-note motif with two central repeated notes. It appears as early as the third bar of the quartet and can be heard throughout the first and third movements. Second and more striking is a nearly direct quote of Beethoven's second lyrical theme in Janáček's third movement with one significant modification: a switch from the tender major to the troubled minor. The third movement begins with a canon of this theme sung by the intimate pair of first violin and the cello only to be interrupted several times by the strident, repeated note motive from the viola (and second violin). Surely this is the lovers' performance and the husband's incipient madness. The ensuing feverish pitch of the third movement would seem to express the irrepressible passions of desire and jealousy, perhaps the delirious acts of sex and murder. The finale begins with the opening theme, now dour and elegiac with the character marking of "lugubre" followed by another frantic climax of motion and energy depicting memory, shock, regret and reckless despair with a final character marking of "feroce": fierce, wild and harsh.

Both of Janáček's quartets are fascinating works that significantly stand out from the traditional repertoire of the string quartet. Using unconventional forms, they are strongly evocative with Janáček's distinctive music language that is modern but tonal, highly charged with volatile moods, energetic rhythms, astringent coloristic effects and the use of recurrent, cyclic motifs like operatic leitmotifs. The ensemble always features a spacious texture where each instrumental voice projects individuality in high relief. With prominent elements of piquant eastern folk melody, dance rhythms and evocations of rustic instrumentation, Janáček's language shares a kinship with other great composers whose first efforts bracket his quartets, namely, Bartók and Shostakovich.

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.