The Kreutzer Sonata

Leoš Janáček, of all composers, makes me wish for greater technical knowledge of musical form, as his music never fails to provoke surprise. His late music is against the grain of anything else happening at the time. One piece that I listen to often is The Kreutzer Sonata, based on Tolstoy’s novella of the same name. Tolstoy’s novella was in turn inspired by Beethoven’s violin sontata (Op. 47 “Kreutzer”), which is invoked in the third of the four movements of the Janáček, with an edgy canon between cello and violin.

In a letter to Kamila Stösslová (Faber and Faber’s Intimate Letters: Leoš Janáček to Kamila Stösslová relate one side of his unrequited and obsessive love. They are intense.), Janáček wrote, “I had in mind the pitiable woman who is maltreated, beaten, and murdered.” Composer and violinist, Josef Suk, wrote that Janáček intended the composition to be a protest against men’s despotic attitude toward women.

It is an uneasy but beautiful piece, always a pleasure to see performed live due to its complexity. I was fortunate to see a fine performance this week by the Julia Fisher Quartet.

Concentrated Exchanges

“The concentrated exchanges between Valéry “who does not forgive himself for not having been a philosopher” (Cioran) and Alain who may not have forgiven himself for not being a great novelist, like his beloved Balzac, are themselves components of a cardinal dialogue. Shorthand and the tape recorder have restored to modern philosophy some of the viva voce spontaneities and openness to questioning advocated by Plato. A considerable measure of Wittgenstein’s teaching survives in the guise of notes taken by auditors and conversations as recalled by pupils or intimates. On the banks of the Cam as on those of the Illissus. Even so mountainous a word processor as Heidegger propounds his considered views on language in dialogue with a Japanese visitor. The counter-authoritarian, anti-systematic tenor of twentieth-century philosophic instruction is restoring to orality something of its ancient role. Innovation, stimulus emanate from a Strauss or Kojève seminar. Disciples differ fruitfully over the master’s dicta and intentions. Already there is something dusty and self-defeating about vast magisterial tomes such as Jaspers on truth or Sartre on Imagination, treatises as monologue. “Dreams are knowledge” taught Valéry in his “Cimetière marin” and dreams tended to be brief.”

George Steiner, The Poetry of Thought

Steiner’s analytical reading of lyrical thought “from Hellenism to Celan” is illuminating to a similar degree as his Grammars of Creation, What I appreciate most of Steiner’s writing is not just his dissective interpretation of another writer’s thought but that he always responds with a rich meditation of his own in a way that often bears no relation to the original text, yet always comes with considerable creative force.

The Convalescent Quartet

The Busch Quartet performance of Beethoven’s A Minor Quartet – I always start at 17:29 -the third movement.

Although I have little technical knowledge of musical form, music plays as large a part in my life as literature. These last few months I’ve revisited pieces that have shaped my love of music.

The entire Op. 132 is characteristic of the unpredictability of late Beethoven, but this third movement, which Beethoven annotated as Hymn of thanksgiving to a deity from a convalescent, written to mark his recovery from a long and debilitating illness, never fails to turn me inside out. The two very fast sections that mark the transition between the three agonizingly slow chorale sections always give me a jolt, but are easily recognisable as the thrill of feeling better after those slow, timeless drowsy days of lying ill.

There is an otherworldly essence to Beethoven’s late quartets that somehow seems to anticipate so much of music to come.