The critically acclaimed Miami String Quartet performs with special guest, Eric Kim. This vibrant program includes works by Martinu, Glazunov, and Smetana.
Bohuslav Martinů (1890 – 1959)
Duo for Violin and Cello, No. 1
In addition to being one of the twentieth century’s most prolific composers – writing for virtually every genre of vocal and instrumental music – Bohuslav Martinů developed a distinct musical voice that helped establish his reputation as one of the modern era’s most significant Czech composers. Yet despite this substantial legacy, Martinů’s path to success was far from typical. A talented violinist from an early age, he entered the Prague Conservatory at age 15 but lacked the necessary discipline to excel in such a competitive environment. He was eventually transferred to the organ department to allow him to further study composition before ultimately being expelled for ‘incorrigible negligence.’ After years of teaching violin lessons and composing in earnest, Martinů travelled to Paris on a grant from the Czech government to study with Albert Roussel. Here he developed the musical style that would define his career.
Martinů’s Duo for Violin and Cello, No. 1 was composed in 1927 while living and working in Paris. The duo comprises two movements. The opening Praeludium is quietly introspective as both instruments present intertwining chromatic melodies. The movement opens with the cello in the same range as the violin with the two lines diverging as the tempo continually increases. In the movement’s climax, double-stopped chords in both instruments expand the duo’s texture to a four-voiced chorale.
The second movement is a spirited, folk-like rondo. The main theme is propelled by barreling triplets that lead to a lively cadenza in the cello. As the cello rises to tremolandi in its highest register, the violin rejoins to expand on the cadenza material. As this interplay moves ahead the instruments find their way back to the rondo’s primary material as the duo builds to its fortissimo conclusion.
Bedřich Smetana (1824 – 1884)
Quartet No. 1 in e minor “From My Life”
In 1874, at age 50, Bedřich Smetana began to notice a variety of hearing problems that eventually led to a diagnosis of tinnitus. His hearing quickly deteriorated, and by the end of the year he was rendered completely deaf. Initially this devastated Smetana as he had to completely step away from his career as a performer and composer, but the diagnosis freed him to devote his full attentions to composing, and led to many of his most beloved compositions. His musical output continued at his highest level for the next decade until his death in 1884.
Although he is best known for opera and orchestral music, Smetana composed a handful of distinctive chamber works, including a piano trio and pair of string quartets that all feature the rare distinction of including explicitly programmatic elements. Written in 1876, his first quartet offers the most complex programmatic attempt as Smetana composed an intimate depiction of his life as a musician. In the composer’s own words:
My intention was to paint a tone picture of my life. The first movement depicts my youthful leanings toward art, the Romantic atmosphere, the inexpressible yearning for something I could neither express nor define, and also a kind of warning of my future misfortune . . . The long insistent note in the finale owes its origin to this. It is the fateful ringing in my ears of the high-pitched tones which in 1874 announced the beginning of my deafness. I permitted myself this little joke, because it was so disastrous to me. The second movement, a quasi- polka, brings to mind the joyful days of youth when I composed dance tunes and was known everywhere as a passionate lover of dancing. The third movement . . . reminds me of the happiness of my first love, the girl who later became my wife. The fourth movement describes the discovery that I could treat national elements in music and my joy in following this path until it was checked by the catastrophe of the onset of my deafness, the outlook into the sad future, the tiny rays of hope of recovery, but remembering all the promise of my early career, a feeling of painful regret.
Alexander Glazunov (1865 – 1936)
Quintet for Strings in A Major, Op. 39
A student of Rimsky-Korsakov and teacher of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, Alexander Glazunov was a key figure in the transition of Russian music history. His career spanned Russia’s trends through a nationalist emphasis on folk idioms to a preference for western forms and styles and eventually to the Soviet era of control over artistic and cultural life that defined the middle twentieth century. Glazunov’s ability to adapt to these shifting tastes helped the composer remain at the forefront of Russian music throughout his career, and in his lifetime earned him a reputation as Tchaikovsky’s successor as the country’s top composer.
The quintet puts Glazunov’s adaptability on full display by presenting an amalgam of western and Russian nationalist influences. The form and content of the first three movements lack a distinct Russian character, opting instead for western styles, but the quintet’s final movement explores Russian folk rhythms and color throughout. Notably, the quintet features two cellos instead of the more traditional doubling of the viola, which lends the piece a darker, richer sound.
The viola begins the opening Allegro with a lilting melody, as the rest of the ensemble provides lush harmonic support. The first cello emerges with a contrasting theme, a stately yet soaring line placed in the instrument’s upper register. The movement showcases Glazunov’s talent for counterpoint as he weaves together five parts without relegating any one to an accompanimental role for too long, culminating in a forceful conclusion. The following scherzo begins with the viola playing a drone as the two violins exchange playful pizzicato phrases above. As the cellos join, the quintet settles into a chipper march pattern. The contrasting Trio passage trudges forward as the cellos pluck out plodding chords and the upper strings’ meandering lines intertwine before the return of the viola drone below a folk melody signals the return of the cheery pizzicato theme to close the movement.
A rhapsodic solo from the second cello opens the Andante sostenuto before the passionate main theme arrives in the first violin. The mood brightens as the first cello takes up the melody, but the heavy sentiment of the opening ultimately overtakes the movement. The finale begins like a feisty Russian folk dance, but Glazunov reveals a more sophisticated plan when the viola initiates a fugue based on the rustic melody. As the other instruments enter one by one, the texture becomes thick and complicated. Suddenly, everything falls into place for an idyllic Più tranquillo passage before the dance takes off. Again, Glazunov shows off his technique by shifting the emphasis of the meter while maintaining the boisterous momentum, concluding in triumph.