Thursday, 25 April 2013


String Quartet No.22 in B-flat, K.589 — W. Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

i. Allegro, ii. Largetto, iii. Menuetto & Trio , iv. Allegro assai
In 1789 Mozart, getting desperate for money, visited Berlin where he met and played before King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia (himself an amateur cellist). He came back to Vienna intending to write 6 quartets for the King and 6 'easy' piano sonatas for his daughter Princess Frederike. Of the latter, only one seems to have been written — Mozart's last piano sonata. Of the quartets, Mozart only wrote 3; ours is the second, written in the summer of 1790. Mozart received part payment, but had the plates engraved at his own expense; they were published the following year, a week or two after Mozart died. A distinctive feature of all 3 'Prussian' quartets is the prominent and interesting cello part, intended no doubt for the king himself to play.

String Quartet No. 1, "Kreutzer Sonata" — Leoš Janáček (1854 – 1928)

i. Adagio/Con moto; ii. Con moto, iii. Con moto/Vivo/Andante, iv. Con moto/Adagio/Più mosso
Stubborn originality seems to be the keynote of Janáček's professional life. He was clearly an able pianist and organist, but difficult and wayward. A Brno choirmaster at 19, he entered the Prague Organ School at 20. Without a piano in his digs, he is supposed to have marked black and white rectangles on the edge of his table and practiced on that. He was expelled after criticising his teacher (Skuherský ), but allowed back in to win top place on graduating the following year. After teaching for a few years he took a place at the Leipzig Conservatoire but found his teachers inadequate and left after 5 months for Vienna where he stayed for over a year studying composition. His submission for a prize was rejected as "too academic" and he returned to Brno (1880), where he founded an organ school (which he directed for the next 38 years), and married. During the next 20 years he collected folk music, published musical criticism and composed, mostly choral church music. In the anguish following the death of his 20 year old daughter he wrote Jenůfa (performed with success in Brno, 1904); though it was 12 years before Jenůfa was staged (to great acclaim) in Prague. For the last 11 years of his life, Janáček was romantically obsessed (from afar) with a young woman called Kamila Stösslová, producing a late flowering of masterpieces. Our quartet was written in 1923. Each of its four movements contains many changes of tempo and mood, so that the conventional descriptors seem nonsensical. The key structures are even more difficult to squeeze into conventional forms. However, it has a title and so a story or message; presumably that of Tolstoy's novella which portrays carnal passion as destructive and abstinence as creative (except of children).

String Quartet no. 1, in E minor ———— Bedřich Smetana (1824 – 1884)

i. Allegro vivo appassionato, ("inexpressible yearning for something I could neither express nor define, but also a kind of warning of (my) future misfortune.")
ii. Allegro moderato à la Polka, ("brings to mind the joyful days of youth")
iii. Largo sostenuto, ("the happiness of my first love")
iv. Vivace, ("my joy in following [national elements in music]...until…checked by the catastrophe of the onset of my deafness,")

Smetana composed his first quartet at the age of 52 (1876) and titled it "Aus meinem Leben" ("From my life"). Son of a successful brewer at a time when Bohemia was in the Austrian Empire and obliged to speak German, young Bedrich showed a talent at the piano from an early age. After hearing Liszt perform, he resolved to emulate Mozart in composition but Liszt in technique. From the age of 14 he was educated away from home, at Německý Brod, Prague, and Pilsen. There the late teenager's pianism shaped his lively social life and he fell in love with Katerina. Qualifying at 19, the penniless youth followed Katerina to the Prague Music Institute where he managed to get taken on for composition lessons while earning his keep by teaching piano. He obtained Liszt's support in founding (1848) a Piano Institute which gradually became fashionable with the nationalist elite. Success allowed marriage. In 1856, 3 of his 4 children having died and his ability as a performer deemed second rate, he took a job in Gothenburg where his success as teacher and conductor was gratifying, but not satisfying. His wife died in 1859, and he remarried 15 months later. Throughout his years of struggle, rejection and loss, Liszt was a valued mentor, and friend. Only in 1861, on the building of a Czech opera house, did his fortunes begin to change. For there was no Czech opera. Smetana had first to learn the Czech language, and then to invent the genre. Success came at last in 1866 when his first 'nationalist' opera (The Brandenburgers) was finally staged, followed within weeks by his far more popular Bartered Bride, which soon became an international success. Smetana continued to encounter opposition in Prague, ostensibly for his 'Germanism'; but eventually produced a string of 8 operas. From 1874, encroaching deafness, marital problems and declining health, led (1876) the family to retire to the country, where Smetana was able to compose some late masterpieces, including this quartet and the Má Vlast tone-poems. Smetana died in an asylum at the age of 60, but revered as the father of Czech national music, and especially opera.

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