Reflections on String Quartet No.1, Kreutzer Sonata, by Leos Janacek

Reflections on String Quartet No.1, Kreutzer Sonata, by Leos Janacek

Leos Janacek´s musical voice is unique. No other music behaves or sounds like his. There are no long lines or tunes. His harmonies are unlike anything you have ever heard. He wrote two mature string quartets. He destroyed a youthful third. He wrote the Quartet No.1, Kreutzer Sonata, in nine days in 1923, some ninety-five years ago. He was 69 years old. This is modern music that is not modern. It is not atonal like Schoenberg, nor is it percussively experimental like Bartok. It is not the neo-classicism of Stravinsky. Janacek is unique. Uniquely passionate.

I have written the first paragraph like a series of almost unconnected statements. But it returns to its own beginning and repeats itself, or almost repeats itself. The style is a deliberate choice because Janacek wrote like this, both in music and words. His style is almost musical cubism, where a shape, a form, a subject is visible, but it is broken into pieces that do not join. The pieces seem to repeat, but they are never quite the same, and the shapes are probably never quite complete. There are always questions, rarely statements.

Like Wagner, Janacek uses leitmotifs, tiny musical germs that signify a character, an emotion or an action. They reappear throughout a work, but never simply repeat. In this first quartet you will hear a sweet, slightly sad phrase of only two bars. It is unmistakably feminine. This contrasts with a nervous, repeated motif of short, staccato notes and regular use of ponticello, harsh bowing near the bridge. This is male. It is angry and jealous. The contrast between female vulnerability and sincerity and masculine impetuosity and pride is played out through the work. But in Janacek these ideas and associated phrases are short. They are gone almost before you have heard them. Musically, the sound of Janacek is more like Bruckner than any other composer. This is no surprise, since he studied in Vienna when Bruckner´s works were being performed. The difference is that the repeats and variations in Bruckner last for several minutes. In Janacek, they are all finished in seconds, and they sound more like Puccini.

The quartet´s subtitle, Kreutzer Sonata, is not a homage to Beethoven, though there is a quote from the Beethoven sonata, brutally compressed by Janacek, in the third movement. The quotation has musical and pictorial intentions, because the Kreutzer Sonata of the subtitle actually refers to a short story by Tolstoy of the same name. The quartet is not a literal programme of the story, but more of a cubist painter’s impression of it.

In the story a man spends much time and energy trying to analyse his marriage. His attitudes are conservative and male-centred. His wife, however, developed independent interests, a quality he himself could not understand. For him, a wife should be submissive and obedient. But this wife took up music and learned the piano. She often played alongside her teacher, a violinist who regularly visited the family home. The pair decide to rehearse Beethoven´s Kreutzer Sonata for a performance and the husband becomes jealous of his wife’s musical bond with the violinist teacher. In Tolstoy, the fact that these unmarried people play music together is problematic.

As the pair rehearse, they play better together and the husband’s jealousy grows. He needs to feel in control of his wife’s experience. He confronts her, becomes angry and stabs her in a fit of rage. She dies, but he is not severely punished because he was the husband and adultery was suspected. Music was to blame. This story unfolds during the String Quartet No1 by Janacek, but it is not quite the same story.

This work was commissioned and first performed by the Bohemian Quartet in 1924. In his biography of Janacek, Jaroslav Vogel describes how the quartet´s second violinist, the composer Jozef Suk, believed that Janacek wanted the work to be a moral protest against men´s despotic attitude towards women. Suk would have been reasonably close to Janacek, incidentally, because he was married to Dvorak´s daughter and Janacek and Dvorak had been close friends. His opinion would thus have been an informed one. Whereas Tolstoy´s story suggests that music is sensual and rather dangerous, Janacek makes entirely the opposite point. Here music is human conscience. It presents an emotional liberation via music and asks if it should also represent the social liberation and independence of women.

This is an interesting point. Janacek did not treat his own wife well. He had affairs. He was already by the 1920s obsessed with Kamila Stosslova, a married woman over thirty years his junior. He wrote over 700 letters to her. She replied twice. Much of what he wrote was inspired by his extra-marital longing for Kamila. Perhaps he wanted to liberate her via this music, and so there is much evidence of his own guilt and selfishness in his apparently liberal message. In contemporary terms, Janacek’s obsession with Kamila came close to “stalking”, but the creative energy his obsession generated resulted in fifteen years of intense musical activity.

He was almost sixty before his first success. He had lived a teacher’s life, devotedly developing the music school in Brno. He became obsessed with a younger woman. He became estranged from his wife. And, in those final years, he wrote four great operas, two quartets, several orchestral works and much other music, all of which, like the Kreutzer Sonata, tells a story. It is his story. He, himself, is a vulnerable individual. He is flawed. He is also a genius, and thus a modern human being with his own voice.

Philip Spires

Author of Eileen McHugh, a life remade, a free downloadable biography of an unknown sculptor.

Eileen McHugh - a life remade - is a novel about a sculptor whose creative life ended in the 1970s. She left no work, but now an archive of her notes and sketches has come into the possession of Mary Reynolds, who is determined to resurrect the artist’s life and reconstruct her work. She contacts people who knew Eileen as a child and as a student in London. Via these partial memories, she recreates the artist and her work.

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