Bedřich Smetana String Quartet No. 2 in D minor

Pavel Haas String Quartet No. 2 (“From the Monkey Mountains”)

Leoš Janáček [2nd] Quartet for Two Violins, Viola and Cello (“Intimate Letters”)

Pavel Haas Quartet


The morning concert will present three main Czech quartet works delivered by world-famous chamber group the Pavel Haas Quartet. The presented compositions by Smetana and Janáček come from the very end of their creators’ lives and thus bring an important personal message as well as the highest level of compositional language. Even though Janáček was quite critical of Smetana´s opera work in particular, he valued his chamber music greatly. These string quartets are what the two completely different composers have in common, and they are emotionally tense compositions which narrate the life stories of their creators. In contrast with this, Haas’ work is a demonstration of the carefreeness and lightness of youth.

Bedřich Smetana (1824–1884) composed his String Quartet No. 2 in a very tragic period of his life. After a definitive loss of hearing accompanied by constant whistling in his ears, and with other diseases arising which also affected the composer´s mental health, he was also struck by absolute social isolation. He composed his second quartet in 1882, and characterized it himself as “carrying on where “From My Life” left off, after a disaster; it represents the whirl of music in a person who has lost his hearing”. His composition thus reflects all the poverty, mental restlessness, melancholy, memories of happiness and diminishing strength to go on living that the creative genius was experiencing at the time. This piece, which is unusually difficult to perform, was played for the first time at Konvikt in Prague on 3rd January 1884 to a rather subdued reception due to its musical innovativeness. Today this quartet is one of the most important works of Czech chamber music.

Quartet for Two Violins, Viola and Cello “Intimate Letters” by Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) was created in 1928, in the last year of the composer´s life. Intimate Letters is some kind of musical counterpart to the extensive correspondence that took place between Leoš Janáček and his muse Kamila Stösslová. This is suggested by the whole concept of the work, which is some kind of dialogue between first violin and a viola d´amour, which unfortunately broke during the first rehearsals and had to be replaced by a standard viola. Janáček finished the work and heard it at the rehearsals in May 1928, but didn´t live long enough to attend the premiere. He died unexpectedly on 12th August 1928. The piece was performed for the first time for specialists and officers by the Moravian Quartet on 7th September 1928 in a room at the Community Hall in Brno. The work was presented to the public at a theatre at the Brno Exhibition Centre as part of the Exhibition of Contemporary Culture in Czechoslovakia on 11th September 1928.

Janáček´s favourite and perhaps most gifted pupil Pavel Haas (1899–1944) composed his String Quartet No. 2 (“From the Monkey Mountains”) in 1925, i.e. not long after graduating from Janáček´s master class. The work is full of youthful enthusiasm, melodic invention, unusual sound effects, musicality and reflections of new musical trends that were arriving mainly from Paris. Haas composed his quartet based on his impressions from his summer stay in the “Moravian region”, colloquially known as the Monkey Mountains. He called the individual movements Countryside, Carriage, Coach and Horse, The Moon and I and Strange Night. The premiere took place in Brno in 1925 and provoked some quite violent reactions. The composer was lambasted for everything that we admire in this work today, particularly the use of a jazz band, which one of the critics called “an unheard of thing”. The composer only gained acclaim after the quartet was performed in Prague, where he decided against using percussion instruments in the last movement. However, we will listen to the work in its original form, with percussion.

Jiří Zahrádka