Guest blog- David Yang on Janacek’s Intimate Letters

I thought David Yang’s script to accompany our performance of Janacek’s String Quartet no. 2, “Intimate Letters,” would make a great blog post and a wonderful primer on a rarely heard masterpiece, so with his permission I’ve edited and reformatted it to fit these pages. Enjoy.

 

A hero in his native Czechoslovakia, and one of the greatest and most original composers of the 20th C., Janacek had a hot-blooded disposition and a decided liking for the fairer sex. In 1917, after a particularly public and humiliating affair with the opera singer Gabriela Horvatova, his wife, Zdenka Janackova, took the 61-year old composer to court. 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 Janacek met the 25-year old (and very married) Kamila Stosslova. Janacek fell instantly in love and she was to become the direct inspiration for many of his last works. Jancek’s wife, in her memoirs, wrote perhaps a somewhat objective 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 Leos wanted this friendship. I said to myself that she could be a good support for me against Mrs. Horvatova.”

Janacek 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 Janacek’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.”

Click here to listen to the “Janacek” theme from the opening of the first movement.

The second movement depicts to the town where they met and shared their first kiss (which, according to Jancek’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.”

Click to listen

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

Click to listen

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

Click to listen  

“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.”  

Click to listen  

There was always tension between Janacek and Kamila. Him desperate with longing for her, never knowing exactly where he stood, always trying to bring her closer; her keeping him forever at arms length but only at arms length and never further.  

The last movement represents Kamila’s peasant roots and the way she seemed always just beyond his grasp. Writing of the last movement he said…    

“[this] last one won’t finish with fear for my pretty little weasel, [rather] with great longing and fulfillment.”  

Click to listen  

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

 “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 theworld 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 also changed the title he gave it 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, Otto got lost while they were all hiking and Janacek combed the forest looking for him pushing himself past exhaustion and getting soaked in a downpour.  The boy found his way back on his own but Janacek caught a cold which he tried to conceal from Kamila. Yet by Thursday he called the doctor who diagnosed the flu and the onset of pneumonia. The next day, as his health declined and his temperature hit 104, an x-ray revealed an inflamed lung and by Saturday he realized he was dying.  He became unconscious on Sunday morning and died peacefully on Sunday night, August 12th.  

During the visit to Hukvaldy, Kamila had brought with her a small diary, in which Janacek recorded his thoughts and observations. On August 8th, already feeling the effects of the excursion to the woods, wrote how happily the days were passing. On August 9th, the day the doctor was summoned, and he did not write in the album. But on August 10th he wrote in the album for the last time, recording his sweating during the night and his gratitude to Kamila.  

“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.”  

Listen here.  

Citations and bibliography available on request.   Copyrighted material is reproduced here without profit for educational purposes only under Fair Use provisions of relevant copyright law, and will be removed on request of copyright owners.  

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

4 comments on “Guest blog- David Yang on Janacek’s Intimate Letters”

  1. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Janacek in performance- only in New York

  2. Kenneth Woods

    For more on Janacek and this piece, please check out

    Beckermann, M. ed. Janacek and His World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.
    Vogel, J. Leos Janacek, A Biography. London: W.W.Norton & Co

    KW

  3. Zach

    Hello! This is a great post. I enjoyed reading it and appreciated links to the recordings throughout. I recently did a small study on Smetana’s chamber works (a piano trio and two quartets) and made a presentation of a similar method (explanation of the program with clips interspersed). I am expanding a bit to include other Czech composers. Do you have a bibliography/citations available? I would love to check out your sources if possible. Thanks

  4. Augustin Lipp

    Hi! From where did you get this excerpt?

    (Its my first composition that sprang directly from things remembered; this piece was written in fire.)

    Thanks a lot for all, have good day!

    A. Lipp

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