Czech Concert Series Preview III

With a Clear Voice, Sound the Fiddle Strings

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

Concert III: To dance attendance as a faithful shadow of my Kamilka and serve my queen

Letter from Janáček to Kamila Stösslová, written in Luhačovice, 17–18 July 1928;1

Janáček died on 12 August.

1 Intimate Letters: Leoš Janáček to Kamila Stösslová, edited and translated by John Tyrrell. London: Faber and Faber, 1994, letter 713, pp. 331–2.

I. Leoš Janáček (1854–1928): Sonata for Violin and Piano, JW 7/7 (1914), arranged for clarinet and piano by Shirley Brill (b. 1982)

Con moto




This sonata is replete with many of the hallmark Janáček traits. Constant tremolos, often disturbed, permeate the texture, and are reminiscent of the ubiquitous cimbalom found in folk ensembles across Eastern Europe. The harmonic language is principally late Romantic and chromatic but extended into a uniquely recognisable quasi-dissonant sound-world, though tonal centres are still recognisable and key signatures employed. Janáček’s predilection for the tonality of D flat as a place of repose is also self-evident.

Melodies fall into two types: either fragmentary and folk-like or lengthy and dreamy. These themes all seem to have a generic relationship with one another, often between movements, and give the whole work an organic unity. Accompanying patterns are often formed from constant reiteration of the same figuration, as much in the violin or clarinet as in the piano. The sonority of consecutive intervals of the sixth is common, sometimes becoming a seventh.

Although called a “sonata”, sonata form is not applied in a strict sense in any of the movements, and its three requisite sections – exposition, development, and recapitulation – are usually not clearly delineated. Even so, all the movements have a definite moment towards the end when material of the opening returns in a “quasi-recapitulation”. Moods change abruptly throughout, and lyrical features are typically punctuated by coarser staccato utterances, as happens at the opening to the fourth movement. Timescales are short, and the musical argument is usually over no sooner than it has begun, with the four movements crammed into seventeen minutes.

Transcribing a violin sonata for clarinet is a brave move and for the most part entirely successful. In Eastern Europe, the violin is intimately connected with folk fiddling, and much of Janáček’s writing is so idiomatically related to the instrument, for example chordal passages, that breaking this symbiosis would seem inappropriate. In fact, by virtue of a similar versatility, the clarinet is also a common folk instrument in the region, as Janáček noted on frequent occasions. Its ability to perform a seamless melodic line unimpeded by bow changes is a characteristic ideally suited to many moments in this sonata, for example most of the second movement, while its staccato attack is as evocative as violin pizzicato. Some of the bariolage patterns of broken chords are delivered even more efficiently on the clarinet; for instance, one such passage in the second movement is marked slurred, but is normally played with separate bows on the violin as its execution across the strings with slurred bowings is awkward and impractical; on the clarinet, slurring is more idiomatic and musically effective.

That said, a few of the higher notes are lost in the second movement by transposition down an octave, though the overall melodic line does not suffer much. Chords cannot normally be performed on the clarinet, but luckily there are few of these in this composition, though the extended melodic passage of consecutive sixths and sevenths towards the end of the third movement is spoilt somewhat by only one of the two voices being possible and its characteristic resonances not realised. Similarly, at the end of the fourth movement, a passage played high on the violin G string (marked “Maestoso”), with the special timbre that implies, does not have quite the same impact. By contrast, the bubbling continuation of the second theme of the same movement might seem to have been penned precisely with the clarinet in mind and is at the heart of all the expressiveness that it can convey.

II. Leoš Janáček (1854–1928): Concertino, JW 7/11 (1925) For piano, two violins, viola, clarinet, French horn, bassoon


Più mosso

Con moto


Wisely, Janáček does not deploy all the instruments at his disposal in this ensemble at the start, and the first movement consists entirely of horn and piano solo. Typical of his writing, melodic material is used extremely economically but constantly transformed to give it a fresh veneer. The entire horn part of this movement consists of the same three-note figure repeated many times in different registers and dynamics to form wholly new melodic contours, but always with only two different combinations of interval content so it is instantly recognisable as transmutations of the same essential element. One of these combinations is a falling minor third followed by a rising major third, which forms the basis of much of the harmonic writing of the intervening lyrical sections when the piano is solo.

In the pianist’s hands, the same three-note figure is used, but with intervals of a major and minor sixth replacing those of the major and minor third, though the rhythm remains identical and it is thus still recognisable. Set against this material, which embodies Janáček’s hallmark consecutive sixths, only a few other musical features form the entire rhetorical palette of this movement and thus the overall collage is constructed. One is the declamatory statement in the piano at the opening. Terse and succinct, it uses only the first five notes of the scale, but with a flattened third and sharpened fourth, so an Eastern European folk mode. Another, also in the piano, is an upward rush of notes, a Debussy-like arabesque, and this is the first counterpoise to the opening melody.

Where is the key? Where is the tonality? Where is the luxuriant Janáček of yesteryear, friend of Dvořák? The whole movement is in G, as witnessed by the opening statement and the G minor chord at the end, but there is no key signature and, in between, harmonies and melodies are made up of combinations of intervals and not chords in relation to keys and tonality. Now well into his seventies, Janáček has successfully adapted to the most progressive aspects of early twentieth-century modernism.

This economy of musical resource is continued into the second movement, which is virtually entirely for clarinet and piano alone, with the ensemble only joining for the last few chords. The clarinet is allowed here the luxury of two musical elements: the first, simply sustained trills, and the second a classically Eastern European staccato folk melody. Interest is sustained by simply transposing segments lasting a few bars up or down a specific interval one or more times, a “sequential” process common in Germanic classical composers, but here shamelessly deployed as a robotic repetitive device devoid of developmental or harmonic implications.

The piano’s bold opening chords make a clear statement, but their function is no longer to outline a key structure, and instead to imprint successive sonorities selected on this basis alone. They return at the end of the movement, but in between, under the trills in the clarinet, successive arabesques bubble up and down in the piano, again constructed simply with a view to temporary sonic effect.

In the third movement, the whole ensemble is heard playing together at last and a motley band they seem at first. Brittle and strident, the effect is garish and forthright, and deliberately exploits a lack of blended subtleties such as might be found in a more homogenous ensemble. Arabesque bubblings work their way once more into the texture, in the piano first and then also the clarinet, which delivers them expertly and efficiently. When everything is getting excited, a sudden halt is called and a piano cadenza takes over while the ensemble looks on, thinking, “When will I get my turn?” For all its improvisatory feel, this cadenza is also tightly constructed, this time of two specific elements used repetitively and sequentially to form arabesques across the instrument, after which the ensemble re-enters to reprise the opening.

The piano remains centre stage in the fourth movement and the other instruments have only punctuating roles at best, especially the strings, who normally play together, alternating with the wind parts, who do still make melodic contributions, again working as a team. Trill patterns and piano arabesques again predominate. Melodically, the ear is most caught by a three-note double-dotted figure and a marcato quaver folk tune, which are both reiterated, and organically related to equivalent material in the first movement. No fewer than two piano cadenzas emerge, both again careful studies in the precise arrangement of passionate rhapsody.

One wonders what the outwardly serious and staid Mrs Stösslová made of it all, to say nothing of her cuckolded husband. She outlasted Janáček by only seven years. In her eyes, was the composer simply an ageing lothario, an adoring buffoon to be used, teased, sucked dry, ridiculed, and eventually discarded? Or was he a composer of genius with whom the association was as addictive for her as it was for him? And how do we feel?

III. Leoš Janáček (1854–1928): String Quartet No. 2 “Intimate Letters”, JW 7/13 (1928)

Andante – con moto – allegro

Adagio – vivace

Moderato – andante – adagio

Allegro – andante – adagio

This work was written at the request of the Bohemian Quartet. The viola part, originally conceived for viola d’amore, personifies Kamila Stösslová (1891–1935), to whom Janáček wrote more than seven hundred love letters. The viola d’amore itself proved impractical and a normal viola is substituted instead, just as she never married him or bore his child. The relationship started in 1917, when he was staying in the Moravian spa resort town of Luhačovice (near his home in Brno), which is where she lived, married to David Stössel and with two young sons.

In the evening of 29 January 1928, writing from Hukvaldy, he wrote:1

Today, I’ve begun to work on a quartet; I’ll give it the name Love Letters.

Later, on 1 February, writing from Brno:2

I came to my post, I saw your letter lying there – and I sighed aloud with joy! I’m writing now before opening your letter. I know that without you my life would be a dried-up meadow. At every step, I’d be saying, here this flower bloomed, there that one – that would be sad enough to choke one. I’ll read it now! I think that I’m going to be pleased – if only because you’re writing! … A special instrument will particularly hold the whole thing together. It’s called the viola d’amore, the viola of love. Oh, how I’m looking forward to it! In that work I’ll be always only with you! No third person beside us. Full of that yearning as there at your place, in that heaven of ours! I’ll love doing it! You know, don’t you, that I know no world other than you! You’re everything to me, I don’t want anything else but your love.

Progress was fast, and on approximately 28 February Janáček wrote from Brno:3

I’m writing the third movement of “Love Letters”. For it to be very cheerful and then dissolve into a vision which would resemble your image, transparent, as if in the mist. In which there should be the suspicion of motherhood. It’s night now.

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:

The tendency of the first quartet towards constructing collage effects from juxtaposing disparate elements is taken further in the second, and these combinations occur both simultaneously and in the successive arrangement of short musical sections. No key signatures are now present, and the level of dissonance has increased, with the violins often playing shrill double stops in their highest registers. As a document of love for his Kamilka, his emotions were clearly a rollercoaster of extremes. The tonality of D flat major seems, however, to be an anchor point and ends the first and fourth movements as well as punctuating the texture in between. Short, epigrammatic folk-derived melodies permeate, sometimes violent, sometimes tender, and always generically related; in fact, the whole quartet might best be understood as the transformation of a single theme.

At the start of the first movement, three components are collaged together: declamatory violin chords over a cello trill; these are alternated with a ghostly viola figure played on the bridge, then the violin rudely interrupts with Bach-like bariolage semiquaver broken chord figurations crossing over the strings. By contrast, the second movement begins in a tender fashion, but this early promise is not fulfilled. Janáček’s letters suggest that much of his passion went unrequited, and, like Mahler’s brief sojourns in tranquillity, the mood swings soon return, and the gentleness turns sour.

The third movement begins as an elegiac and ghostly dance, which is then punctuated by thudding folk melodies that reiterate themselves. This folk-style mood also opens the last movement, but another slowly takes over, almost tonal and late Romantic in style, like the most poignant moments in Mahler’s late symphonic works. A soothing vision of a higher world to which mankind can ascend and which transcends this earthly existence. In Wagnerian philosophy, a redemption in love, of which Kamila Stösslová was the embodiment, or, in a Mahlerian sense, a premonition of death.

1 Ibid. letter 573, p. 193.

2 Ibid. letter 573, pp. 195–6.

3 Ibid. letter 581, p. 199.

Ernest Robin