Obsession:  A Dark Plunge into Janáček’s Second Quartet

Leoš Janáček (1854–1928)

A dear friend related how much she recently enjoyed hearing Janáček’s second quartet on Chicago’s great public radio station, WFMT, and it got me thinking: with just two Janáček quartets in the repertoire – both masterpieces – and we’ve performed his first at NCMF already, maybe it is time to program the second.  Titled “Intimate Letters,” I have mixed feelings about the tale behind the piece but the music is remarkable. After a performance in New York in 2012, I prepared these notes along with links my buddy Ken Woods assembled. This is a deep dive but a great story with extraordinary music. Grab a cuppa, sit back, and enjoy.

Zdenka Janackova

A hero in his native Czechoslovakia, and one of the greatest and most original composers of the 20th Century, Janáček had a hot-blooded disposition and a pronounced appetite for the opposite sex. In 1917, after a particularly public and humiliating affair with the opera singer Gabriela Horvatova, Janáček’s wife, Zdenka Janackova, took the 61-year old composer to court.

Soprano Gabriela Horvatova

The result of that settlement dictated that the couple would remain wedded on peaceful terms, continuing to keep house together but sleeping apart. It was at this time that Janáček met the 25-year old (and very married) Kamila Stosslova. He fell instantly in love and she was to become the direct inspiration for many of his last works. Janáček’s wife, in her memoirs, wrote perhaps a surprisingly cool and analytical description of her young rival.

She gained my husband’s favor through her cheerfulness, laughter, temperament, Gypsy-like appearance, and buxom body, perhaps also because she reminded him of Mrs. Horvatova, although she had none of that women’s demonic qualities or artfulness. She was natural, sometimes almost uninhibited. One couldn’t exactly say she won my husband over, for she didn’t try to…she herself was completely unimpressed by my husband’s fame, and also by his person; sometimes she laid into him quite sharply and at other times he seemed almost ridiculous in her eyes…I felt I’d no option when I saw how desperately Leoš wanted this friendship. I said to myself that she could be a good support for me against Mrs. Horvatova.

Kamila Stosslova

Janáček pursued Kamila relentlessly, writing letter after letter, asking her to visit and inviting her to concerts yet often received no acknowledgement of his offers and, at best, sporadic replies. For years it was clear she did not take him seriously and he was often outraged by her perceived lack of gratitude and the flip manner of treating him. Yet her very elusiveness proved irresistible. This letter is typical of Janáček’s mixture of desperation and resignation.

How can one not want you when one loves you? But I know, don’t I, that I’ll never have you. Would I pluck that flower, that family of happiness of yours, would I make free with my respect for you, whom I honor like no other woman on earth? Could I look your children in the eye, your husband, your parents? Could I walk into your home? You know, we dream about paradise, about heaven and we never get to it. So I dream about you and I know that you are the unattainable sky. You are entire in my soul: so it’s enough for me to want you always.

For Kamila’s part, she gradually did come to develop a deep affection for the older man although the exact nature of her feelings remain unclear to this day. The second String Quartet, his last completed work, became an explicit chronicle of their relationship, in his own words, “both real and imagined.” It starts out with a masculine theme in the violins only to quickly come to a stunned stop in an eerie theme in the viola representing “the chilling mystery of an encounter with something new.” He wrote….

Our life is going to be in [this piece]… I composed the first movement as my impression when I saw you for the first time….Kamila, it will be beautiful, strange, unrestrained, inspired, a composition beyond all…..Its my first composition that sprang directly from things remembered; this piece was written in fire.

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The second movement depicts the town where they met and shared their first kiss (which, according to Janacek’s diaries, occurred on 26 August, 1927).

Today I wrote in musical tones my sweetest desire. I struggle with it. It prevails. You are giving birth. What would be the destiny of that newborn son? Would it be ours? Just as you are, laughing with tears in your eyes – that is how it sounds.

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A boisterous childlike theme half-way through the movement is followed by a tender, sad variation in the first violin.

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Then the childlike theme reappears in the viola with the original “Janáček” theme from the first movement in the violins as if the older man and young child were playing together.

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He wrote again:

I am now writing the third of the Love Letters. I want to make it particularly joyful and then dissolve it into a vision like your image. How could I not be overjoyed remembering the times of being with you when I felt as though the earth was trembling under my feet…. This will be the best [movement so far]… now  if only the last would turn out well, too. Writing this is like the worry I feel about you.

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There was always tension between Janáček and Kamila. He - desperate with longing, never knowing exactly where he stood, always trying to bring her closer; she - keeping him forever at arm’s length yet never pushing him away.  The final movement represents Kamila’s peasant roots and the way she seemed always just beyond his grasp. Writing of this movement he said “[this] last one won’t finish with fear for my pretty little weasel, [rather] with great longing and fulfillment.”

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Janáček was burning with impatience to send the work off to Kamila but wanted to hear it first to see if it had any merit. After the first performance on June 27th, 1928 he wrote:

You know, feelings on their own are sometimes so strong that the notes hide, run away. A great love – a weak composition. But I want [this] to be a great love – a great composition……I listened to their playing today [and ask myself] did I write that? Those cries of joy, but what a strange thing – also cries of terror after a lullaby. Exaltation, a warm declaration of love, imploring, untamed longing. Resolution, relentlessly to fight with the world over you. Moaning, confiding, fearing….Standing in wonder before you at our first meeting…..Oh, it’s a work as if carved out of living flesh. I think that I won’t write a more profound or truer one.

At this time, he changed the initial title he gave the piece from “Love Letters” to “Intimate Letters” in order to keep the true program more private, saying “I won’t deliver my feelings to the tender mercies of fools.”  After asking her to spend her summer holiday with him at his country villa in Hukvaldy, Kamila finally relented and traveled with her son, Otto and her husband, David. who soon left on business. On Monday, August 6, little Otto got lost while they were all hiking and Janáček combed the forest looking for him, pushing himself past exhaustion and becoming soaked in a downpour.  The boy found his way back on his own but Janáček caught a cold which he tried to conceal from Kamila. However, by Thursday he called the doctor who diagnosed the flu and the onset of pneumonia. Friday, as his health declined and his temperature hit 104, an x-ray revealed an inflamed lung and by Saturday he realized he was dying. During the visit to Hukvaldy, Kamila had brought with her a small diary, in which Janacek recorded his thoughts and observations. He wrote in the album.

And I kissed you.  

And you are sitting beside me and I am happy and at peace.

In such a way do the days pass for the angels.

Janáček’s modest villa in Hukvaldy

He lost consciousness on Sunday and died peacefully that evening.

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David Yang, Artistic Director

Janáček's funeral on August 8, 1928

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