Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes

Leos Janacek (1854- 1928)

String Quartet No. 1 Inspired by Tolstoy’s"The Kreutzer Sonata" (1923)

It was not until the last decade of his life that Janacek achieved fame and international recognition as a composer (better late than never, eh?). This was due largely to the performance of his opera Jenufa, given at the Court Opera in Vienna in 1918. Before this, Janacek had been a music teacher in Brno. " Here in Brno I am a poor man - as though in a desert – where there is no proper music to be heard" he wrote in 1903. Janacek responded to recognition by producing a series of masterpieces, among them: the operas Katya Kabanova, The Cunning Little Vixen, The Makropoulos Affair, and From the House of the Dead, as well as the Glagolithic Mass, the Sinfonietta, and the two String Quartets- No.1 The Kreutzer Sonata and, No.2 Intimate Letters as well as the vocal work The Diary of One Who Vanished. These works won him a place beside Dvorak and Smetana in his homeland, and revealed him to be an original and profound voice in twentieth century music. It was also at this time that Janacek fell in love. In 1917, the 63 year old composer fell in love with a 25 year old woman, Kamila Stosslova. Though the infatuation was one-sided, and he was well aware of it, she became his inspiring Muse. They lived in different cities and were both married, but carried on written correspondence. (Which bore no resemblance whatsoever to the sort of things people in similar situations today type to each other on their computers.)

This quartet, which was composed in only a week, Oct 30 – Nov. 7, 1923 was by no means Janacek’s only attempt to create a work inspired by Tolstoy’s story. Two lost works; three movements of a string quartet dating from 1880, and a Piano Trio dating from 1908 were also based on the story. It is said that some of the material from the lost Piano Trio was used in the String Quartet No.1.

In Tolstoy’s story, a man traveling on a train shares a compartment with another man, Pozdyshev, who recounts the story of how he came to murder his wife, who he suspected of having an affair with a violinist who he himself had introduced her to. The catalyst for the murder was their performing Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata. He returns home unexpectedly from a business trip, finds the violinist in his wife’s company, and stabs her to death with a dagger, as the violinist flees. However, she lingers long enough to scoff at his request for forgiveness and to express her wish that her murderous husband be denied custody of their children. Pozdyshev is acquitted of the murder. He explains ‘At my trial they decided I was a wronged husband who’d killed his wife in order to defend his outraged honor (that’s the way they put it in their language). So I was acquitted. During the court hearings I tried to explain what was really at the bottom of it all, but they thought I was trying to rehabilitate my wife’s honour.’

The work as a whole seems to be constructed by the juxtaposition of melodic and rhythmic fragments. The melancholy first movement, with its opening rising motif, sets the tone of the work. The narrator is recounting to us a tale told to him by a stranger on a train. The second movement scherzo, a rather grim one at that, is again composed of fragments; a polka-like theme, a tremolo passage played sul ponticello "at the bridge", and a motif somewhat related to the theme from Beethoven that will be featured in the following movement. The third movement actually quotes the second, slow theme from the first movement of Beethoven’s work, first heard in measure 8. Its distortion and obsessive repetition suggest that we are hearing it through the ears of the jealous husband. In the fourth movement, we hear a reprise of the rising motif from the first movement in the low strings, as well as a theme played by the first violin marked "like in tears". In this movement the drama is brought to its terrible end.

The work was premiered by the Bohemian Quartet at a concert in Prague on Oct. 17, 1924. It then received a performance at the International Society for Contemporary Music Festival in Venice in 1925, followed two years later by its U.S. premiere in New York.


Janacek, whose operas were often based on current events, in one case, The Makropolis Affair on legal proceedings, were he alive today, could have updated the tale. Instead of having the men meet in a train compartment, they could have met, say, in a golf cart. The husband, perhaps an ex-athlete, could say that he didn’t kill his wife, but if he did, it was because he loved her too much. He could be brought to trial for the murder of his wife, however, unlike the benighted courts of Imperial Russia, he would be acquitted, not because he was a "wronged husband" but because of virtuosic verbal performances by his lawyers. Highlights of the opera could include the lawyer’s arias, particularly "If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit" though I don’t know how well that’d work in Czech (Italian definitely. Rossini would have loved it); as well as a musical pantomime of the glove-trying-on scene. If this seems a bit slim for a full-length opera, well, how about a music video?

1998-1999 Season, Program II, Sunday December 13, 1998

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