The story of this post is s curious one. The first time I was consciously listening to this piece of music I was about to park my car in a street across my office. It was a cold, grey autumn morning and I thought: “How appropriate! Its too early, too cold and this piece is totally unhinged. Brilliant start into the day.” My judgment was based on the first bars and I reversed it quickly: the harsh musical language hides a Romantic longing, the story of an impossible love, of living on the edge and under incredible tension.
The looming of the Holocaust
Once I had reached my office, I had a closer look at my iPad. While I thought I was listening to one of Janacek’s quartet, I was actually listening to Bohuslav Martinu’s Quartet No. 5, H. 268. The French Quatuor Zaide has recorded it together with Janacek’s pieces, but I had never quite realized this. Martinu’s piece reflects the circumstances under which it took its shape. The composer wrote it in 1938 in Paris during a time of extreme poverty and political strife, shortly before he fled to the United States. He did not try to revolutionize the world of classical music, instead he wanted to write music honest in expression and rich in harmonic invention.
The first movement is very agitated, anxiety and tension, the sense of looming danger dominate the beginning, followed by a short nostalgic theme. The original theme comes back, both themes are developed slightly dephased one from the other. The fast and the slow elements form a lovely contrast and lead to the lyrical adagio, expressing a feeling of sadness, of being lost, of ultimate solitude. Around the middle of the second movement the music takes on a more menacing character, that fear that creeps into your mind when you start thinking too much and your thoughts can get away from what you are dreading.
Strife – the theme of the century?
Allegro vivo – the third movement kicks off in a mood similar to the beginning of the first movement and while I write this (on a bright September afternoon), an interesting thought crosses my mind. I know by far more modern string quartets expressing fear, violence, tension than pieces celebrating joy, love or comfort. Is that the prevalent theme of the 20th century? Did Mozart and Beethoven live in happier times? Or did the concept behind music evolve from expressing what the audience wanted to hear towards expressing what the composer felt? Perhaps one of the effects of World War I, proletarian revolutions and large-scale oppression was a greater honesty in music.
The last movement – lento, allegro – starts with a theme that I associate with resignation, desolation, there is no sunshine here, empty spaces and shadows of haunted people. This subdued mood turns into agitation at some point, but it sounds more like one last effort to show courage and determination and salvation seems to be further away than ever – despite the very moving last bars.
© Charles Thibo