Janacek, Leos: String Quartet No. 1 (inspired by Tolstoy’s ‘Kreutzer Sonata’)

LEOS JANACEK was born in Hukvaldy, Moravia, and remained a stubborn Moravian patriot for the rest of his life. After pursuing a fairly conventional romantic style as a student in Prague and Leipzig, he returned to Brno in Moravia and began to write in an obsessive (‘con moto’) modal style, using speech-rhythm and folk- music as sources for musical expression. His career, and indeed the crystallization of his style, did not come until quite late in his life, when his opera Jen?fa finally brought him success at the age of 62. Before that, things were not so easy. When he was 27 years old, he married Zdenka Schulzová, then a 15 year-old piano stu- dent (almost 16). They were, by most accounts quite unhappily married until the time of Jen?fa (35 years), and became still more unhappily married when he devel- oped a fantastic passion for the then 25-year-old (and married) Kamila Stösslová.

In this context, Janá?ek chose to explore Leo Tolstoy’s short story, “The Kreutzer Sonata,” and set the experience of it as a string quartet. Tolstoy’s story tells of one Pozdnishev, who is trapped in a loveless marriage, and is driven to a murderous, jealous rage when he comes to believe that his wife (whom he doesn’t love) is having an affair with a violinist (with whom she is playing Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata). It’s a rough fantasy, especially projected from Janá?ek’s own life, and it receives rough treatment – obsessive ferocity, clear rage, and the expressive force which Janá?ek had mastered at this late stage of his career.

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