Leoš Janáček: String Quartet No.2

Intimate Letters


Composed in 1923, Leoš Janáček’s Second String Quartet was the second of two quartet commissions from the Bohemian Quartet. Subtitled Listy důvěrné (‘Intimate Letters’), the quartet is a musical representation of some 700 letters sent between Janáček and Kamila Stösslová. After meeting Stösslová in 1917, Janáček became infatuated with her, so much so that he based three different opera characters on her, including the Vixen from The Cunning Little Vixen, as well as using her as an influence for other popular works such as Sinfonietta and Glagolitic Mass. Although Stösslová remained emotionally aloof to Janáček’s desires, she still corresponded with him over an intense period, and was also by his side when he died in 1928. 


The Music

Famously telling the stories of their many letters, the Second String Quartet was premiered posthumously in September 1928, just one month after Janáček died. Not one movement of this quartet is in sonata form, instead Janáček takes the initial melody and harmony and juxtaposes, reverts and combines them to create a musical smorgasbord that is as theatrical as it is musical.


Movement I 

The opening letter bursts with sound and colour as the upper strings play a unison melody. The dynamic drops dramatically, with a solo voice emerging. It is generally accepted that the viola is the personification of Stösslová, and as such, Janáček utilises the instrument by offering solo lines, crunchy harmony and crucial textural changes. Throughout this movement there are joyous outbursts of unison which are often led by the upper strings. This injection of energy keeps the music driving forward. A mix of extended techniques are heard throughout this movement, such as playing sul ponticello. As the quartet becomes completely entangled, the movement comes to a rousing finish. 


Movement II

The evocative second movement  fluctuates between being highly lyrical to coarse and dissonant. The folk-inspired viola solo is underpinned by mysterious accompaniment, with the music always laying on a knife edge.  As each movement is representative of either a real or an imagined landmark in Janáček’s and Stösslová’s relationship, the constant changes reflect this uncertainty in Janáček’s mind. For a relatively short work, there are more than 26 time changes, and over 61 changes of tempo. Similarly to the opening movement, the second is intense and inexplicably beautiful in its arrangement. Throughout the dramatic central section, one gets a first-hand feeling of the composer’s visceral feelings. 


Movement III

The lamenting third movement opens with a violin solo accompanied by a dotted rhythm from the rest of the ensemble. Described by the composer himself as one of the most beautiful movements, the third once again represents the quick mood changes seen in the many letters between the two recipients. Nuanced intricate kernels of music create some intriguing effects throughout, with Janáček taking great care with the texture as always. Another highly intense central section is soon dismantled by a woeful cello solo which changes the mood until the final flourish ends this movement dramatically.


Movement IV 

The finale movement is full of energy as the violin takes the lead in the first instance. Huge dynamic jumps create a feeling of uncertainty within the music, and indeed the story. A gentle melody is led by a duo of violins as the sweetness of Janáček’s style is prised out. Deathly quiet sections are penetrated by unbelievably loud outbursts, representing the quick changes in Janáček’s mind as he thinks of his relationship with Stösslová. The composer stated that the last movement expresses the fulfilment of his yearning for his spirited friend, however one does leave with the feeling that his ‘great longing’ was never truly satisfied. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

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