Czech Concert Series Preview II

With a Clear Voice, Sound the Fiddle Strings

The title of the fifth song of Dvořák’s Gypsy Melodies, op. 55

Concert I: My Song Resounds, a Love’s Psalm

The title of the first song of Dvořák’s Gypsy Melodies, op. 55.

I. Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904): Gypsy Melodies (Cigánské Melodie), op. 55 (1880)

The seven poems in this set were written in Czech by Adolf Heyduk (1835–1923), but the songs were given their first performance by the German tenor Gustav Walter (1834–1910), a member of the Vienna Court Opera, so Dvořák used a translation into German especially made for the purpose by the poet himself. The first edition, in 1880 by N. Simrock of Berlin, included only the German text, but Dvořák wrote to his publishers shortly afterwards thus: 

And now I have a request. From what I hear, the Gipsy Melodies are in lively demand here in Bohemia but with Czech text. Would it not be possible to publish the vocal parts separately with Czech text, or if you were to publish the whole cycle with Czech text you would certainly not stand to lose anything by it, and you would give me great pleasure, as it is an attention I am due my countrymen to make it possible for them to sing my songs in the Czech language.

His publishers assented and both German and Czech texts were included in the second edition issued shortly afterwards, together with a very free rendering into English: 

I am convinced that Mr Dvořák’s scores are masterly studies in counterpoint. He is not satisfied with the mere harmonization of a single melody in a clear and interesting way; he combines two, three or even five varying themes. I could compare his scores to a good picture: a single idea recurring in many groups of scattered figures, each face bearing its own particular characteristics. Similarly, the pages of Dvořák’s scores are filled with interesting figures which unite to produce a great harmonic thought, without, however, a single one resembling another. A musician grows attached to Dvořák’s scores. What is most important, Dvořák never leaves his figures perpetually in one voice; hardly has one of them claimed our interest, than another rises up for notice. We are kept in constant excitement.

While the title Gypsy Melodies seems to imply a non-Germanic ethnic origin, the text and music in fact owe more to Germanic models, and the “gypsy” elements might best be interpreted as exoticism set against this backcloth. The second poem, for example, exudes the German Romantics’ obsession with death, and the third their terror of the wild forest. In the second poem, however, the “green forest halls” are set against the “puszta steppe’s wide plains” (“puszta”: the Hungarian steppe), where “with joyful song let me burst forth”, which evinces a genuinely optimistic mindset alien to the Romantics. Truly Schubertian wanderlust is present in the first song, as is the ubiquitous search for fraternal love. In the fifth song, “gypsy” fiddle strings are brought into intoxicating vibration, and an exotic image of the gypsy himself is painted in the sixth, while his eschewing of earthly riches and love of freedom are extolled in this and the seventh song.

If there is a specific Germanic model in Dvořák’s mind, it is Schumann’s four songs in op. 142, composed in 1852. Strikingly, both sets share a close focus on tears and their shedding on saddened cheeks, as is found in Dvořák’s songs three and four, and Schumann’s no. 2 “Lehn’ deine Wang” (“Lean Your Cheeks”) and no. 3 “Mädchen – Schwermut” (“Maiden – Melancholy”). Wanderlust is emphasised in Schumann’s no. 1 “Trost im Gesang” (“Consolation in Song”) and no. 4 “Mei Wagen rollet langsam” (“My Carriage Rolls on Slowly”), where the familiar “green woods” also appear.

Schumann’s prototype also manifests itself in musical components. “Reverse arpeggiation” in the piano accompaniment, by which chords are exposed in an arpeggio from their top to their bottom note, rather than the customary opposite, is found in Dvořák’s third song and Schumann’s fourth, and a strident vocal motif of a rising fifth in Dvořák’s sixth and Schumann’s first. Dvořák’s harmonic language derives most, however, from Richard Wagner, whom he had ardently admired from his adolescent years, as is manifested in the strong chromatic voice-leading of the third song and the accented, lingering appoggiaturas of the first. Schubert, though, is the wellspring for occasional shifts between major and minor versions of the same chord, for example, in the first song too.

Against this aesthetic there is no shortage of touches of genuine Eastern European folk music. Experienced players of hammered dulcimers (including the yangqin) will recognise the origin of cimbalom-like tremolos in the first song, which return in the last, especially broken octaves, which are a dulcimerist’s staple fare but are less idiomatic for the pianist. Other folk instruments also emerge: guitar-like arpeggiated chords in the first song and frantic piano countermelodies that imitate virtuoso fiddling in the sixth. In fact, the vocal triplet melodies of the first song are pure Slavic showmanship, and the fifth, sixth and seventh are authentic folk dances.

The fourth song is perhaps the most familiar and has been arranged as an instrumental solo in many versions. Its simple melody, with all notes with one exception drawn from the D major scale, is quintessentially folk-like, and regular phrases suggest a lullaby, especially given the strong resonant bass notes at the beginning of each bar and the uncomplicated diatonic harmony. The D sharp towards the end is the only note alien to the scale and thus the most poignant moment of the song. In terms of musical language, all this is true, but the ecstatic emotional impact set high in the singer’s vocal range is the unalloyed craftsmanship of a Wagnerian.

Antonín Dvořák: Letters and Reminiscences, Otokar Šourek, translated from the Czech by Roberta Finlayson Samsour. Prague: Artia, 1954, p. 58.

II. Leoš Janáček (1854–1928): In the Mists (1912) (In Czech: V Mlhách)

Janáček was a composer who wrote with his heart on his sleeve, and this piece, composed on the death of his daughter Olga, is no exception. Whilst the unbearable sadness of the moment is inescapable, so too is unrestrained celebration of her life, even if the passages that reveal this are all too brief, just as her passage through this world had “all too short a date”. Here is not the wallowing in morbidity so familiar from Mahler and his equivalent experience as a parent.

All the hallmark Janáček traits are to be found. His favourite key, D flat major, is the predominant tonality and the one to which he returns as solace in this world of dust and ashes. Perhaps this was an influence from Wagner’s Ring, where redemption through love is achieved in the final D flat major chord. Janáček was, however, first and foremost a composer who sat at the piano and evidently worked out his thoughts as his fingers found the notes themselves. They settled on the D flat major sonority so readily that he uses the colour frequently as an anchor for his rhetorical palette, revelling in the richer hues of the black notes of the keyboard.

As the mist unfolds, the opening moment begins with a typically sinuous chromatic melody in the right hand over a gentle undulating accompaniment in the left. It repeats many times, almost obsessively, as if this is an unrelieved emotion that cannot be abandoned. As so often with Janáček, the accompanying harmony moves effortlessly through enharmonic changes, here shown by “respelling” the notes of the D flat major chord in C sharp minor. The whole of the opening section uses only this material, spun out and repeated in perfect economy, but not developed, as this is a Czech voice and not a Germanic one, and presenting emotion is itself enough and excessive elaboration not required.

The whole movement is sculpted in a crystalline ternary form (ABA) by which the opening recapitulates after a central section, but, better than that, the first of these sections is itself a cameo ternary form, and, after a slow descending declamatory segment of a chromatic scale, the melody returns. Then, suddenly, the mist parts, grief fades, and in the middle section Janáček remembers the girl he brought into the world and her life and love. Marked “cantando”, a chordal melody whose parallel sonority is like medieval organum emerges here. As with the opening, its contour rises at first, but the cadence descends: a folk-like simplicity whose formation from a concatenation of minute musical cells is quintessentially Eastern European and a blend of pathos and latent energy. It too repeats many, many times, and through this we sense the power and flow of Olga’s cultural roots. The musical counterpoise is a series of falling harp-like arabesques, perhaps representing her grace and loveliness, a mood that soon dominates. When the opening melody returns, its rising chromaticism seems more of a struggle than earlier, and it is repeated only a few times. As a short coda, the two elements of the middle section are reprised, but now as fading memories, and all they can do is sink into D flat major.

Janáček keeps his performer and audience in D flat major for the second movement, and the opening is also slow. Constructed in a less clear-cut form than the first, it is better understood as a modernist collage of contrasting elements such as became so beloved of the composer in his later works. Many of these shorter sections seem at first to have little relation to one another, but on reflection their melodies are found to be fashioned of the same succession of intervals and their underlying organisation every bit as rigorous and organised. The wistful and nostalgic opening melody that recurs in rondo fashion throughout is cunningly broken up by interpolated rests and seems to cadence with almost ponderous finality every few notes. Echoing it is a fragmentary skein of silk-like mist, but in fact the same melody transmuted and transformed. Later, interspersed into the tapestry are two taut and strident fugato sections either side of a cantabile passage almost Tristan-like in its unremitting unrequited yearning. When the opening melody eventually climactically recurs in its full glory across the breadth of the piano texture, it is as a triumphant eulogy. The final “Adagio” coda sees the fugato melody given a more impressionist treatment, with the entire paragraph accorded two renditions, the first cadencing in a desolate C sharp minor but the second in the final comfort of its enharmonic equivalent D flat major.

The short third movement explores a much more folk-like melody that includes repetition of the same note in a parlando fashion typical of Janáček’s desire to imbue his music with the rhythms of the Czech language. Taking a lead from the end of the second movement, it too alternates between major and minor sonorities. In a brief middle section, a sense of passion again wells up as the principal melody is given more forceful and determined treatment, but this self-affirmation swiftly subsides, and the opening is heard again, but this time only as a brief reminder.

Whereas most of the melodies of the first movement rise in contour, in the final movement they fall. Here too, a chromatic motif predominates, but its flavour is less lyrical and more vigorous and challenging. The mood is complex and undetermined, perhaps even adolescent: on the one hand, confident, forthright and declamatory, but on the other its accompaniment is at times painstakingly hesitant, as if seeking for approval. Cumulative repetition drives the texture throughout, and in the “Andante”, the principal metamorphosis sees the opening melody supplied with a rising seventh as its “head-motif” over an ostinato accompaniment that relentlessly reiterates particular notes. Melodies are as often in the bass as the treble, for example, in the “Adagio”, and the arabesques in the “Vivo” are now tortured and obscured. The close when it comes, almost unexpectedly, although still in D flat major, is no longer a comfort but a violent contortion.

This, then, is Janáček’s triumph over adversity, and a monument to a life that did not reach fulfilment. When tragedy strikes, some are submerged, but others struggle on, and leave a testament whose inspiration is as infectious as its sorrow. His times were no less troubled than our own, with war beckoning even as today the pandemic is still rife. Music, though, continues, as long as we all play our part.

III. Leoš Janáček (1854–1928): Presto for cello and piano, JW 7/6 (1910)

Presto and Fairy Tale belong together, were composed in close succession, and are found in the same manuscript of 1910. During this time, Janáček was unsuccessfully searching for recognition as a composer. At the heart of his musical aesthetic is an engagement with his native folk music and language, a quest that worked its way into all aspects of his composition. His article “Elisabeth” in the Moravian National Reader (edited by František Bílý and published by the Moravo-Silesian Society in Prague) of the same year gives:

How I love the children who are playing about me at this moment! Their laughter and innocent games, their roguery which always ends in tears. The life here in the meadow is for them a paradise. The morning sun, scented with ripening fruit, kisses them. The lime-trees cast a shimmering afternoon shade for them. At midday, the inquisitive sun seeks them out. I want to preserve a picture of a single afternoon with something more faithful than mere words: with notes. How unusual; I beg you, do not sing the phrases I have taken down in notes; enunciate them in such a way that the notes may indicate the modulations of speech. They will take on a beautiful serenity. You would recognize the children on meeting them and fall in love with them.

The influence of folk and speech rhythms is particularly evident in the motoric patterns of this Presto, and Janáček was principally known in his early years as a folklorist and ethnomusicologist. Yet, even then, his motives for indulging in this worthy pursuit were to unearth material for compositional activity. A grant application he made on 17 November 1891 to the Czech Academy of Art and Science in Prague for financial assistance while studying national dances includes the following:

I am engaged in studying national songs and dances. From these collections we may deduct certain rules which can be made valid for composing, if our music is to remain truly Czech in character. Our national dances could also influence it from the point of view of harmony, use of key and, above all, form.

 Pp. 341–7; quoted in: Leoš Janáček: Letters and Reminiscences, Bohumír Štĕdroň, translated from the Czech by Geraldine Thomsen. Prague: Artia, 1955, item 87.

 Ibid. p. 76.

IV. Leoš Janáček (1854–1928): Fairy Tale (Pohádka) for cello and piano, JW 7/5 (1910, revised 1912 and 1923)

Con moto – andante 

Con moto


Fairy Tale was inspired by the narrative poem The Tale of Tsar Berendei by the Russian Romantic poet Vasily Zhukovsky (1783–1852), a contemporary of Pushkin. Zhukovsky was intimately embedded in contemporary Russian artistic circles and one of the librettists of Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar. In fact, Janáček’s search for a Slavic musical identity included a long-term close association with Russian culture and he could read Russian; these are tendencies that critical opinion in the English-speaking world has tended to downplay. He admired Tchaikovsky and attended a performance of his music in Prague in 1888 and was also the founder and chairman of the Russian Circle in his native Brno (1897–1915). Sadly, no reputable English translation of Zhukovsky’s The Tale of Tsar Berendei exists and such garbled accounts of the plot as are available do not seem to account for the musical processes of the composition.

Dvořák’s observation of Janáček’s penchant for usual harmony is borne out by Fairy Tale, as much of what is present defies conventional explanation, yet is nonetheless curiously logical and avoids the discordancy of so many of his contemporaries. A Slavic national identity asserts itself throughout but seems to have seeped into a deeper level than pure citation. In March 1893, Janáček made another request for financial assistance, this time unsuccessful:

To the governing body of the Emperor Franz Josef’s Czech Academy of Science, Literature and Art.

The undersigned respectfully takes the liberty of requesting a travelling allowance for the purpose of collecting folk material in Moravia, Hungarian Slovakia and Silesia, so as to be able to know, at first hand, the harmonic aspect of Czech folk music and also to complete our collections of Moravian folk dances…

There can be no doubt of the importance of getting to know, at first hand, the harmonic aspect of folk music. For example, the taking down of cimbalom playing or the playing of groups of peasant players in Moravian Slovakia during the actual singing and dancing. It is long and difficult work but very urgent, as both the cimbalom players and the players in the peasant bands are dying out…

In his essay “Moravian Folk Songs from the Musical Point of View”, published in the collection of Moravian folk songs edited by František Bartoš, he notes:

What a splendid sonority and variety of colour when the fiddles, bagpipes and cimbalom play together. Today, the double-bass plays the lower notes, and instead of bagpipes, clarinets are often used. The melody gains in brilliance and strength when these combined instruments break out into sound. These instruments have given our songs rich variety of modulation…

The cimbalom is certainly present in octave tremolos of the first movement of Fairy Tale, Eastern European pathos in the long cello melody of its central section, and folk fiddling in reiterated triplet cello chords that follow immediately afterwards. Parlando melodic motifs in the second movement suggest the strong influence of speech rhythms, which are indeed present in the cello pizzicato “questions” and their “answers” found in several places. The melody at the opening of the third movement, with its strong sharpened fourth degree of the scale, has also imbibed a folk inflection, as is also indicated by frequent mordent-like ornamentation, while, from a rhythmic perspective, motoric alternation of 2/4 and 1/4 time signatures is an attempt to portray asymmetric aspects of folk dances.

Behind this, however, is a much greater sense of an individual compositional voice that is not necessarily entirely a product of national identity. Continuous rolling piano tapestries and tireless repetition of a particular figuration are treated in a uniquely expressive manner and drive the texture forward without reverting to the developmental motivic practices of nineteenth-century Germans. Frequent expressive use of cello pizzicato belies percussive usages of the same technique by Bartók and more aggressive equivalents of Stravinsky. Janáček’s folklorist explorations are perhaps better understood as principally a catalyst to allow the evolution of this personal aesthetic.

 Prague, 1901, Czech Academy; ibid. pp. 73–4.

 Ibid. p. 71.

V. Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904): String Quartet No. 12 in F Major “American” op. 96 (1893)

Allegro ma non troppo


Molto Vivace

Vivace ma non troppo

In 1892, Dvořák moved to America to take up an appointment as director of the National Conservatory of Music, New York City. Treated as a celebrity, he was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to write his symphony no. 9, which was premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1894. Just as critical opinion has tended to downplay Russian influence on Janáček, it has done the same with American influence on Dvořák, but he was quite specific on this matter and, in a letter to “My dear Friend Doctor Kozánek” of 12 April 1893, he records:

I am now just finishing my E minor Symphony. I take great pleasure in it and it will differ very considerably from my others. Well, the influence of America must be felt by everyone who has any “nose” at all.

Similarly, any notion of influence from African American spirituals is often also undermined, but, while serving as director, Dvořák met the African American composer and baritone Harry Burleigh, then a student of his, who introduced him to the genre.

Dvořák hired as his secretary the violinist Josef Jan Kovařík, who had just finished violin studies at the Prague Conservatoire. Kovařík came from the Czech-speaking community of Spillville, Iowa, where his father, Jan Josef Kovařík, was a schoolmaster. Dvořák decided to spend the summer of 1893 there with them, which is where he composed the “American” quartet. A strong sense of a genuine desire to engage with the American world around him spills out from all the narratives associated with this period; according to Josef Jan Kovařík:

The Master’s day in Spillville was more or less as follows: He got up about four o’clock and went for a walk – to the stream or the river – and returned at five. After his walk he worked, at seven he was sitting at the organ in church, then he chatted a little, went home, worked again and then went for a walk. He usually went alone – here he had none of the nerve storms which he sometimes suffered from in Prague – and often nobody knew where he had gone. Almost every afternoon he spent in the company of some of the older settlers. He got them to tell him about their bitter and difficult beginnings in America: the old men told him how they went to help with the building of the railway – 40 miles from Spillville – and how they went the long distance to work on foot, while their wives with the children toiled on the farms.

In Spillville the Master scarcely ever talked about music and I think that was one of the reasons he liked being there and why he felt so happy there.

In a letter of 9 September to a “Dear Friend”:

It is very strange here. Few people and a great deal of empty space. A farmer’s nearest neighbour is often 4 miles off, especially in the prairies (I call them the Sahara) there are only endless acres of field and meadow and that is all you see. You don’t meet a soul (here they only ride on horseback) and you are glad to see in the woods and meadows the huge herds of cattle which, summer and winter, are out at pasture in the broad fields. Men go to the woods and meadows where the cows graze to milk them. And so it is very “wild” here and sometimes very sad – sad to despair.

At the first and private performance of the “American” quartet in Spillville, Dvořák himself played the first violin, Jan Josef Kovařík the second violin, his daughter Cecile Kovaříková the viola, and his son Josef Jan Kovařík the cello. To take on such a role, Dvořák was clearly an extremely able player, as is reflected in the sustained melodies in double stops and the sonorities they produce that are such an intimate aspect of the flavour of this work.

From the perspective of musical content, the title “American” seems entirely apt. Taken as a whole, the work is flooded with “New World optimism”. Similar melodies permeate all movements, and their abiding common characteristic is a pentatonic framework, that is, they principally employ a five-note scale. Found in folk music worldwide, not least in China, pentatonicism is common in African American spirituals, particularly as recorded in the first published collections of these, such as were assembled in the late nineteenth century, shortly after emancipation, and readily available for Dvořák’s perusal. The melodic ornamentation he employs is often quasi-improvisatory and resembles the extemporised vocal styles of the plantations that these editions preserve.

That said, the compositional framework is principally Germanic. The first movement is in sonata form, with its requisite three sections – exposition, development, and recapitulation – all present, and the two themes of the exposition recur in the home key in the recapitulation, just as they should. The harmonic language is textbook late nineteenth-century chromaticism, with the most extreme and expressive chords, often augmented sixths, placed exactly where they should be, that is, just before strong cadences. There is even a fugato section of imitative counterpoint at the climax of the development section before the main theme returns in the recapitulation, as is common in Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The whole spirit is, however, sonorous, concordant and cheerful, and never the darker Germanic hues of tortuous, disturbed and introverted Romanticism.

Only the second movement does not conform to Germanic frameworks. Set above regular ostinato accompanying patterns are three glorious melodies, each occurring twice, and respectively eight, twelve and twenty bars long, followed by a coda of sixteen bars. The sheer periodicity of this magnificent architecture sets the mind at rest and allows the warmth of vibrating strings to penetrate the soul. Often the two violins play melodies in thirds, as if they were two singers extemporising together.

A scherzo and trio come next but are complicated by the opening scherzo recurring twice after two separate trio sections. Lively and bristling with a Beethovenian verve, the pentatonic language of the scherzo belies this style and lends the movement a uniquely folksy mood. The trio sections share common musical material, whose chief characteristic is a “stile antico” almost reminiscent of primitive hymnody, such as is employed on occasion by Beethoven, but seems here to have as its wellspring instead the Christian music of early European settlers.

The last movement is a rondo that alternates a lively opening melody of a “rodeo” flavour now often found in Hollywood westerns with another theme of the “stile antico” type. The central section is once more equipped with a fugato and thus the movement could be argued to merge the characteristics of both sonata and rondo forms. In fact, chameleon-like and as a European who has travelled to the New World, Dvořák has managed successfully to adapt his erstwhile musical language to a new environment.

He returned to Bohemia permanently in 1895.

 Ibid. p. 166.

Concert II: And that is why music is so dangerous

Leo Tolstoy, The Kreutzer Sonata (1889), chapter XXIII

I. Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904): Piano Quintet in A Major, op. 81 (1887)

Allegro ma non tanto

Dumka: andante con moto

Scherzo (Furiant): molto vivace

Finale: allegro

Dvořák has the almost unique distinction of earning the admiration of Brahms and his critical amanuensis Eduard Hanslick, and he dedicated his ninth string quartet of 1877 to Brahms thus:

About three weeks ago I set out on my intended journey to Vienna in order to thank you personally for all the kindness you have shown me. I was very sorry that I was not fortunate enough to see you before you left for Leipzig. I took the opportunity to visit Prof. Hanslick who received me very cordially. At his request I left a number of my compositions with your housekeeper and beg you, if you are already back in Vienna, to be so good as to look them through. At the same time I take the liberty of inquiring whether you received the Duets with the German translation and whether it is good…

I have further the honour to inform you that your splendid D minor Concerto was performed at a concert given recently here in Prague and was extremely successful.

And now I venture, highly honoured Master, to approach you with a request. Permit me, out of gratitude and a deep respect for your incomparable musical works, to offer you the dedication of my D minor Quartet.

It would be for me the highest honour I can aspire to and I should be the happiest of men to have the honour to subscribe myself as bound to you in eternal gratitude.

Although Brahms accepted the dedication, his reply (undated) acidly remarks:

You write somewhat hurriedly. When you are filling in the numerous missing sharps, flats and naturals, then it would be good to look a little more closely at the notes themselves and at the voice parts etc.

Certainly, the Brahmsian model is the strongest influence in the Piano Quintet in A Major, and the musical language and formal structures are recognisably of this style, but there are important differences. Dvořák is much more a composer of pure melody than Brahms, and allows all members of the ensemble to come to the fore at different times to perform entire melodies, while the accompaniment is provided by the others. These all-too-rare moments in the limelight are unquestionably a welcome relief for much-maligned second violinists and viola players. Seduced by melody, Dvořák allows it to naturally dominate the musical narrative, as is particularly evident in the opening to the first movement.

He is also more block-like in his use of figuration, choosing a particular type for each section, concentrating on it, and then discarding it for the next. His thinking is more symphonic, appropriately so given such a sizeable work, and the players interact like orchestral sections rather than interweaving parts of a chamber music tapestry. There are few moments when the texture is not rich and dense.

Brahms would have approved of most of the structure of the first movement, which is a textbook sonata form with the requisite exposition, development, and recapitulation. The second and fourth movements also come close to sonata form, though Eastern European sadness is dominant in the second and a fearsome velocity supersedes everything in the fourth. The third is a scherzo with an inner trio contrasting outer sections that are fast and furious. Most moving and startling is a moment near the end of the work when the texture suddenly halts its relentlessness and a few simple chords are sounded, first in the piano and then the strings. A melody that has permeated much of the movement is suddenly heard only as a folk tune. Dvořák has tricked us all along and is telling us here that this is his true voice, allowed free rein only when the debate is almost over and a fitting conclusion required.

II. Leoš Janáček (1854–1928): String Quartet No. 1 “Kreutzer Sonata”, JW 7/8 (1923)

Adagio – con moto

Con moto

Con moto – vivo – andante

Con moto – adagio – più mosso

Janáček’s string quartet depicts Leo Tolstoy’s novel Kreutzer Sonata (1889), itself inspired by Beethoven’s violin sonata no. 9, which is dedicated to Rodolphe Kreutzer. Janáček described his vision of the composition in a letter to his young lover, Mrs Kamila Stösslová, dated 14 October 1924:

I had in mind an unhappy, tortured, beaten woman, beaten to death as Tolstoy described her in his Kreutzer Sonata.

Tolstoy’s story tells of a husband rabidly jealous of his wife’s liaison with a professional violinist, employed by him as her chamber music partner for them to play violin and piano music together. Tolstoy never reveals entirely whether the liaison is genuine or merely the figment of a tortured imagination, but the impression left with the reader is that his fears are indeed well founded, even if the final consummation has not yet taken place when the husband bursts in on them and stabs her to death.

Sections of the novel are related here in a translation by Benjamin R. Tucker (1854–1939), an American anarchist and socialist. To set the scene, in a train carriage the narrator meets the husband Posdnicheff, who then narrates his tale, having first mused at length in an entirely amoral manner on the sexual hypocrisy of contemporary society. Posdnicheff’s instinctive perception of a potentially adulterous relationship between his wife and the violinist is immediate:

I saw that, after the first interview, her eyes were already glittering, glittering strangely, and that, thanks to my jealousy, between him and her had immediately established that sort of electric current which is provoked by an identity of expression in the smile and in the eyes. (Chapter XXI)

He makes no attempt to assuage his urge to commit violence:

In abandoning myself to my anger, I became steeped in it, and I wanted to commit some violent act to show the force of my fury. I felt a terrible desire to beat her, to kill her… (Chapter XXII)

Yet, when they perform, he admits to being captivated:

Music makes me forget my real situation. It transports me into a state which is not my own. Under the influence of music I really seem to feel what I do not feel, to understand what I do not understand, to have powers I cannot have. (Chapter XXIII)

And to strong empathy with the composer:

And music transports me immediately into the condition of soul in which he who wrote the music found himself at the time. (Chapter XXIII)

He realises his predicament:

Music provokes an excitement, and this excitement is not accompanied by the thing that needs properly to be done, and that is why music is so dangerous, and sometimes acts so frightfully. (Chapter XXIII)

Like Plato, he admits to the strong emotional persuasive power of music, and how it should be contained:

In China music is under the control of the State, and that is how it should be. (Chapter XXIII)

Yet he also concedes the edifying potential of music:

The music transported me into an unknown world, where there was no room for jealousy. (Chapter XXIII)

Unlike Othello, he is acutely conscious of his emotional state, yet still makes no effort to control himself:

My heart swelled, and the mad beast of jealousy began to roar in its lair, and seemed to want to leap upon his prey. (Chapter XXIV)

Ultimately, for him, it is music that is to blame:

There was a bond between them, music – the most refined form of voluptuousness. (Chapter XXIV)

When he finally comes to commit murder, in the extremity of his rage, his view of her has become infinitely distorted:

Her features exhibited fear and hatred toward me, her enemy, such as the rat exhibits when one lifts the rat-trap. (Chapter XXVII)

Janáček’s musical response to this novel is of equal intensity. The whole work is based on the iconic theme heard at the opening, which, like the jealous fantasies that inspired it, refuses to leave the brain of the composer, his players, or their listeners. Round and round like a collage of transformations, it plays over and over again, sometimes a pattering folk tune, sometimes a grindingly repetitive accompaniment figure, and sometimes gentle and lyrical, but it never leaves the texture, not even for a moment. When there are silences and nothing is heard, we simply wait for it to be reiterated once again. To match this stridency, the harmonic language has left behind the late Romantic chromaticism of Dvořák and is now on the verge of atonality, always astringent, violent, acidic, never compromising, and never resolving. Tolstoy likewise never reveals how Posdnicheff has ended up on the train, apparently a free man and guiltless of murder, and neither is the musical dilemma resolved, a searing and pitiless jealousy that does not end. 

 Leoš Janáček: Letters and Reminiscences, p. 171.