Music and musicians from Moravia this hour: Antonín Dvořák and Leos Janáček, performed by a group of players for whom Moravia is home. Czechoslovakia is known for great string quartets, with a certain Central European richness and depth to the string sound, and impressive musicality.
Here you’ll meet two of the finest current Czech groups: the well-established Škampa, appearing with singer-composer Iva Bittová (all Moravians), and the considerably younger Pavel Haas Quartet. Bittová sings three Janáček songs with the Škampa—transcribed and arranged from folksongs imbued with the essence of Moravia, distilled from the composer’s lifelong study of this music. distilled from . Perhaps a similar kind of distillation process might explain what has been described as the “profoundly American” nature of Dvořák’s F Major String Quartet (the “American”), written during a stay in Spillville, Iowa. Although there are no obviously American melodies or motifs in the compositions he wrote in the U.S., Dvořák’s own statement makes the most elegant explanation: “ I should never have written these works “just so” if I hadn’t seen America.”
Pavel Haas Quartet: Veronika Jaruskova, violin; Maria Fuxova, violin; Pavel Nikl, viola; Peter Jarusek, cello. Based in Prague, the Pavel Haas Quartet takes its name from the Czech composer Pavel Haas, who was deported from Czechoslovakia in 1941 and died at Auschwitz three years later.
Škampa Quartet: Pavel Fischer, violin; Jana Lukášova, violin; Radim Sedmidubský, viola; Lukás Polak, cello. The Škampa Quartet was founded in 1989 at the Prague Academy of Music under the guidance of Antonin Kohout and Milan Škampa of the Smetana Quartet. Awards include the Best Quartet prize at the Premio Vittorio Gui competition (Florence, Italy), and the first prize in the Charles Hennen competition in the Netherlands.
Iva Bittová: Iva Bittová has created an original and totally individual way of playing music – “my own personal folk music.” She has been compared to Meredith Monk, Laurie Anderson, and Diamanda Galas, but she has her unique individual style. Since her first solo recording, Iva Bittová (1991), she has created six solo CD’s including The White Inferno (1997).
Antonín Dvořák: String Quartet in F Major, Op. 96 (“American”)
Pavel Haas Quartet
View the score
Leos Janáček: Moravian Folk Poetry in Songs, excerpts
Škampa Quartet with Iva Bittová
- “Jabúcko”: "Fuc, vetícku, z podolé" (Little apple "Blow, wind, from the valley")
- “Belegrad”: "Belegrad, Belegrad" (Belgrade "Belgrade, Belgrade")
- “Milenec vrah”: "Stójí Jano pri potoce, eja hoj!" (Lover as murderer "Jano stands by the brook")
Leos Janáček: String Quartet No. 1 “Kreutzer Sonata”
Dvořák’s “American” Quartet
"The influence of America must be felt by everyone who has any ‘nose’ at all," so wrote Dvořák of his sixth quartet, the "American." He had arrived in New York in 1892 to be head of the National Conservatory, and was eager to assimilate the mores and musical heritage of this country. During the winter of 1892-93, he wrote his Symphony "From the New World," and in the summer of 1893, he and his family headed to Spillville, a Czech community in the Iowa farmlands. He began his quartet on June 8. Three days later the sketches were completed, and the entire work was done by June 23. "Thanks God! I am content: it has gone very quickly," he wrote at its end.
While there is no denying Dvořák’s love of the Iowa countryside, whether this quartet contains any ‘American’ content at all is debatable. In it are arching, poignant melodies that found in his finest chamber music written in Europe both before and after his American sojourn. Apparent too, are the consummate skills with which he crafts his compositions, skills that suited him wonderfully well for his position with the National Conservatory.
Nationalistic characteristics in this quartet are more difficult to discern. None of his "American" music directly quotes American themes, be they black, Native American, or anything else. Yet there surely is no arguing with Dvořák’s statement, made in reference to the "New World" Symphony and this quartet, that "I should never have written these works ‘just so’ if I hadn’t seen America."
- Notes provided by Arts Management Group
Janáček and Moravia
String Quartet no. 1 (“Kreutzer”)
One of Czech composer Leoš Janáček’s major inspirations was the folk music of eastern Moravia. “I have lived in [folksong] since childhood,” he wrote, “in folksong the entire man is enshrined, his body and soul, his milieu, everything. He who is rooted in folksong becomes a complete man.” A Moravian, once asked by a writer to explain Moravia, replied: “Janáček. Janáček is Moravia and Moravia is Janáček.”1
Throughout the late 1880s, Janáček—more music teacher, director of the Brno Organ School, choirmaster/conductor, and writer than composer—collected, edited, and arranged Moravian folk songs and dances in collaboration with František Bartoš, the leading Moravian folklorist at the time. One of the results of their efforts was Moravian Folk Poetry in Songs, fifty-three folk songs assembled between 1892 and 1901 from A Bouquet of Moravian Folk Songs (1890), an earlier collection of 174 a capella songs, to which were added a piano accompaniment.
Vladimír Godár arranged Moravian Folk Poetry in Songs for voice and string quartet for a recording by Bittová and the Škampa Quartet in 2004. Miloš Štedroň, renowned Janáček and an editor for Editio Janáček, a new critical edition of the composer's oeuvre, writes:
“To me, Janáček’s Moravian Folk Poetry in Song has always been a riddle that appears to defy solutions: indeed, here is a rather less than a homogeneous work, one in which the composer, finding himself at a point of radical change in his style, set out on a path that was to take him the larger part of a decade (from 1892 through 1901), on which he pursued several different, often mutually conflicting lines. After a grand period of enthrallment by folk music, he was virtually permeated by the spirit of the individual regions where the songs he had tackled had originated. In his stylization of accompaniment, he alternately drew on the rules of traditional fiddler band music and the role of cimbalom (dulcimer), or elsewhere opted by design for a “minimalist” approach, as one would be tempted to call it today. Still beyond that, there even occurred instances where one feels an aspiration to continuity with a style of the musical salon, an attempt at transforming folk song and bringing it close to the idioms of the concert platform…[Godár's] arrangements here are masterly, harmonizing with Janáček’s world…Perhaps purists will find this hard to digest, but I for one am thrilled to listen to the familiar texts seen and heard in a novel way.”2
What brought wide recognition to Janáček, at age sixty-two, was the 1916 Prague performance of his opera Jenůfa (premiered in Brno in 1904). A year later in the Moravian spa town of Luhačovice he met and fell in love with Kamila Stösslová. The wife of an antique dealer thirty-eight years his junior, she was the great inspiration of his last period of creativity. Although the relationship may never have been consummated, it is documented extensively in their correspondence comprising more than seven hundred letters. These became the basis of his Second String Quartet, “Intimate Letters.” Feeling trapped in a loveless marriage, Janáček saw his own marital situation reflected in Leo Tolstoy's novella, The Kreutzer Sonata, in which the main character declares, “At the bottom of my soul, from the first weeks, I felt that I was in a trap, that I had what I did not expect, and that marriage is not a joy, but a painful trial.”
Censored by the Russian authorities, Kreutzer Sonata, apart from the author's philosophical discourse about love, marriage, sex, and other aspects of man-woman relationship, is the story of a husband whose jealousy convinces him that his wife is having an illicit affair with a young violinist. It all began at a soirée—arranged by her husband—when she accompanied him in Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata. Shortly afterwards, the husband goes on a business trip but cuts it short a day early. He arrives home past midnight and discovers the violinist and his wife dining together. Despite her protestations of innocence, he fatally stabs her.
The husband admits that “the whole tragedy was due to the fact that this man came into our house at a time when an immense abyss had already been dug between us, that frightful tension of mutual hatred, in which the slightest motive sufficed to precipitate the crisis.” After eleven months in prison, he recounts to the novella's narrator, “The verdict was rendered that I was a deceived husband, that I had killed in defense of my sullied honor (that is the way they put it in their language), and thus I was acquitted.” At the end of the novella, the husband says, “Yes, that is what I have done, that is my experience. We must understand the real meaning of the words of the Gospel—Matthew, V.28—'that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery'; and these words relate to the wife…and not only to the wife of another, but especially to one's own wife.”3
Tolstoy's novella initially found musical expression in a piano trio composed in1908 and revised for a performance in April 1909 during the author's 80th birthday celebration in Brno. The Trio was occasionally performed until 1922 but Janáček destroyed it after writing the String Quartet no. 1, completed on October 23, 1923 and revised until November 7. Having just completed his opera The Cunning Vixen and already thinking of the next, The Makropulos Affair, Janáček not surprisingly conceived the string quartet dramatically. “One can almost sense the individual characters entering and leaving the stage and hear their scenes develop [and the composer] tracing the outline of the story with a structure of motifs and themes.”4 In the third movement violin-and-cello duet recalls the theme of the variations in Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata.
On December 13, 1924, the String Quartet no. 1 was premiered in Brno by the Bohemian Quartet to whom it was dedicated. After a rehearsal, Janáček wrote Kamila that what he had in mind [while writing the Quartet] was “a poor woman, tormented, beaten, battered to death.”5 At the Terzo Festival di Musica da Camera in Venice in September 1925 sponsored by ISCM, Janáček's First Quartet won over Hindemith's Kammermusik no. 2, Ravel's Tzigane, Honnegger's Cello Sonata, Vaughan-Williams's Three Rondos, quartets by Szymanovsky and Korngold, and works by Roussel, Malipiero, and other Italian composers. This led to subsequent performances of the “Kreutzer Sonata” Quartet in Rome, Paris, and London.
- Tomás C. Hernández
Music Division, Library of Congress
1. Cited in Cecil Parrott, Review of Janáček’s Tragic Operas by Michael Ewans, Music & Letters, vol. 59, no. 3 (July 1978) (Return to text)
2 Liner notes to CD of Moravian Folk Poetry in Songs, Supraphon 2004 (Return to text)
3 Translated by Benjamin R. Tucker, Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.org/etext/689 (Return to text)
4 Mirka Zemanová, Janáček: A Composer's Life, 2002 (Return to text)
5 Quoted in Ibid. (Return to text)
Last Updated: 03/03/2010