String Quartet No. 1 after L. N. Tolstoy: The Kreutzer Sonata
March 6, 2016: The Escher String Quartet
Between October 30 and November 7, 1923, Janáček quickly penned a string quartet inspired by his rereading of Leo Tolstoy’s rather lengthy “short story” entitled The Kreutzer Sonata. Just as it was not Janáček’s first string quartet (he destroyed a student work that he wrote in Vienna in 1880), the piece was not his first to deal with the Tolstoy story, which in 1908–09 had inspired a piano trio, of which only a sheet of fragments remains. Clearly Janáček was profoundly affected by Tolstoy’s theme of love, both in and outside of marriage.
The story, heard by the author during a train ride, is told with every emotional detail by a husband who murders his wife in a jealous rage upon finding her with a violinist, to whom he, ironically, had introduced her. The catalyst for the heightened feelings between the wife and the violinist—and the intensifier of the husband’s jealousy—is Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, which the wife and the violinist perform for a small gathering. The husband tells of the music’s terrible and dangerous powers, which can incite people to abnormal actions. One day the husband returns home unannounced and, finding them eating dinner together, stabs her to death in a frenzy.
By the time of this Quartet, Janáček’s own life had been profoundly affected by the flowering of his rather one-sided love for Kamila Stösslová, a beautiful married woman more than thirty-five years his junior, whom he had met in 1917, and who inspired all of his late works. He and his wife, estranged but living with him, maintained a friendly relationship with the Stössels for the next ten years, but at the time of Janáček’s death in 1928 his wife’s jealousy had escalated to a feverish pitch over his deepening relationship with Kamila. Janáček’s love interests had strayed outside of marriage several times before, but Tolstoy’s examination of passionate extramarital love, and of how destructive marriage could become, seems to have resonated especially during the composer’s late all-encompassing love for Kamila.
Janáček’s affinity for Tolstoy’s story seems somewhat surprising given his fundamentally optimistic outlook on life as compared to Tolstoy’s pessimism. Further, Tolstoy reputedly hated music—though his story clearly shows he knew quite a bit about the music he describes—and Janáček, on the other hand, lived and breathed music. Then there is the issue of Beethoven, whose music Janáček is reported to have said “left me cold.” What is not surprising is that Janáček’s four movements do not pretend to follow the narrative, and in fact his choice of an instrumental rather than vocal medium allowed him a vagueness that was actually advantageous for intermingling outside influences with abstract musical elements.
The brief first movement, while outlining sonata form, certainly creates an air of passion and tension with its opening of yearning, sustained lines overlaid with scurrying phrases. The second theme seems to start more cheerfully, but becomes stormy and then ruminating as a quasi-development leads in very short order to the recall of the opening.
Janáček infuses his second movement with the elements of a polka, an idea he may have gotten from the First String Quartet, “From My Life” of his countryman Smetana. Yet his few merry dance strains are constantly interrupted by darting fragments, disquieting tempo adjustments, pauses, an eerie rustling played sul ponticello (on the bridge), and an impassioned melodic snippet with insistent accompaniment that becomes positively angry.
The violin and cello duet that opens the third movement makes reference, as biographer Jaroslav Vogel noted, to the lovely second theme in the first movement of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata. The calm of this opening is short-lived—again Janáček interrupts with sul ponticello jabs. The struggle between these ideas becomes monumental, which, combined with later pensive moments, make this movement possibly the most emotionally draining of the Quartet.
The last movement opens quietly with a reminiscence from the first. The finale also features long melodic lines over driving accompanimental patterns, which erupt in a remarkable sounding pizzicato passage toward the center of the movement. Several commentators have noted how likely it is that Janáček’s performance directions, such as “shyly,” “as in tears,” or “as if speaking” allude to moments in Tolstoy’s story, but the composer left these to the imagination of the listener. After a climax of almost unbearable anguish, the ending sinks to a resigned rather than restful quiet.
© Jane Vial Jaffe