Program Notes

LEOŠ JANÁČEK (1854 – 1928)

STRING QUARTET NO.1 'Kreutzer Sonata'
 I.Con moto
II. Con moto
III. Con moto
IV. Con moto

NOTE: several pieces from the festival’s past 10 years will be featured this summer
This is an ornery work by an ornery composer; everywhere he went Janacek offended
someone. Expelled from Conservatory for a scathing critique of the Director (he was
eventually let back in and graduated top of his class) he also alienated the powerful
director/composer of the National Theater with a vicious review, writing: ”Is this
dramatic opera? No, I would write on the poster: ’Comedy performed together with
music’ ”. This ferocity is a deep part of his music as well. Written in a mad creative
flourish in one week (!) in November 1923, this quartet is called “Kreutzer Sonata”
after the story of the same name by Leo Tolstoy. And if the piece is not strictly
programmatic, the neuroticism and violence of the novel’s protagonist is matched by
the music. The story is thus:

Two men meet on a train and one tells the other his story: marrying a much younger
woman, the protagonist became convinced that his wife, an amateur pianist, was having
an affair with a violinist with whom she was playing Beethoven’s “Kreutzer
Sonata.” (Sprinkled throughout the piece are twisted quotes from Beethoven’s work.)
Hoping to catch them in flagrante - the story is ambiguous as to whether they were
involved intimately - he returns home early and discovers his wife and the violinist....
talking quietly in the dining room. He threatens the man with a knife and, when the man
flees, he turns on his wife, inflicting a mortal wound.

Despite the upsetting story, I’m crazy about this work. Janacek knows how to whip us
into a frenzy and the pressure builds up sickeningly until the end when the murder is
unmistakably written in the music: listen for the viola solo as the other instruments
crash to a halt and look on in horror. What follows echoes the protagonist’s mad escape
from the apartment and the final, bitter realization of his horrific act.

Program notes by David Yang