Dallas — When I spoke with her by phone, Geraldine Walther, violist of the Takács Quartet, had been driving all day to get from one performance to another. Even though she sounded tired when she answered the hone, excitement immediately came into her voice when she started to talk about the program the quartet will play on Oct. 6 at Southern Methodist University’s Caruth Auditorium, opening Dallas Chamber Music’s 2014-15 season.
The Takács, which also includes violinists Edward Dusinberre and Károly Schranz, and cellist András Fejér, will play a varied program: Haydn (String Quartet in B-flat Major, Hob. III: 67), Beethoven (E minor Op. 59, no. 2) and Janáček’s String Quartet No. 2 (“Intimate Letters”).
“We like to mix it up,” Walther says, “so we take the listener to three different musical worlds.”
She is certainly right about that.
Haydn was the rule maker who basically invented the string quartet (along with the symphony and a lot more). Beethoven, who also wrote string quartets all his life, was the rule breaker who loved to turn everything he inherited from Haydn on its ear. Janáček expanded the form to be a biography and even made up his own musical language.
“We start out with Haydn because this is the string quartet in its purest form. Next, the Janáček shows what the string quartet could become in the hands of a modern day composer who saw it as literary form, using music to tell a story. Then, when we go back to this early work of Beethoven’s; you can appreciate Janáček’s innovations all the more.”
It is an interesting concept for a program. Both Haydn and Beethoven were writing absolute music, without an underlying program or story. Both were exploring the possibilities of this relatively new ensemble—four independent voices from the string family that still can be easily distinguished from each other. This combination gives a composer the chance to demonstrate contrapuntal skills but also presents the challenge of making all four voices interesting to hear.
Janáček’s quartet is different in that he gives the main musical role to the viola, usually the low man on the totem pole. He named the quartet "Intimate Letters" ("Listy důvěrné" in Czech) and it’s based on the more than 700 love letters he sent to Kamila Stösslová. This was most probably a spiritual relationship, with unrequited love on his part. She was 1) married, and 2) 38 years younger than the composer.
In an ultra-romantic gesture, the composer gives the viola the role of Kamilla in this musical drama and wrote it for the viola d’amore, probably because he loved the name. But that nearly obsolete instrument is even more soft-spoken than the mellow modern viola and it became clear to Janacek that it couldn’t work, despite its most appropriate name.
Moment of Geek: The viola d’amore was popular in the Baroque era. It looks like a slightly smaller viola, but has six or more strings. Its unique feature, however, is another set of strings tuned the same way that run under the fingerboard. Here, they vibrate in sympathy with the notes being played on the main strings above. The sound it produces is often described as “warm” or “sweet.” Bach used it in his St. John’s Passion. In our current day, Bernard Herrmann used it in his score for the 1951 film On Dangerous Ground. Taking a page from Janáček, he uses it as representation of the leading female character.
“Actually, I play the viola d’amore,” Walther says. “We tried it out when we were rehearsing the Janáček but soon realized that the composer was correct when he decided against it. For one thing, the second set of strings is very fine and breaks easily. In order to achieve the correct balance, I went back to the viola—just as Janáček had to do. It is too bad, because when I play the material on the viola d’amore it produces this weird, haunting sound.”
The quartet also had to make some decisions about which edition of the Janáček to use. There have been a number of them over the years and a new one recently appeared.
“We didn’t want to turn our backs on the quartet as we knew it but also wanted to take advantage of the new discoveries,” Walther says.
“Knowing that my part was originally written for the viola d’amore, plus the fact that I play that instrument, helped us make our decisions,” says Walther. “Janacek wrote her more than 700 letters and they are filled with longing and melancholy. However, it is impossible for the modern viola to capture the same. We tried out every change, keeping some but not others.”
Another challenge of the Janáček is his musical language. He uses the interval of the fourth (think ”a-men”) throughout rather than the interval of the fifth that is the basis for our tonal language. The problem with using the fourth is that the instruments of the string quartet are tuned in fifths—one note further apart than the existing open strings. This creates a lot of awkward fingerings and adds an intonation problem that usually isn’t there.
“It took some getting used to,” Walther said.
It is of some related interest that Beethoven also had an unrequited love, although unlike Janáček’s public affair, her identity was never revealed. Like Janáček he poured out his heart in letters to her. The letters were probably written in 1812, long after the present string quartet was written. Modern scholars still argue about who she was. Beethoven only wrote her just a few impassioned letters, as opposed to Janáček’s 700-plus, but they were never sent. They were found in his papers after his death.
We hardly think of the rumpled, squat and odd-looking Beethoven to be much of a suitor and maybe that is why his love letters remained unsent. We will never know. But it appears that this unrequited romance and the loss of his hearing were two great tragedies that he barely survived and both affected his music.
In closing our phone interview, I asked Walther a favorite question about commissioning composers to write for the viola, an instrument that doesn’t have the wide repertoire of the violin or cello.
“Not right away,” she says. “I have played a number of premieres, though. [One is by Lowell Liebermann, a fine composer.] Right now, I can barely keep up with all of the music we play as a quartet and my other solo appearances. I have to squeeze practice in between all the quartet concerts and traveling. It is challenging, but is an exciting and fulfilling life.”
“But a commission …Maybe someday,” she adds wistfully.