Otomar Kvìch: String Quartets

The genre of string quintet happens to be very close to my heart. This is due partly to its potential on the plane of expression, and partly to the immense wealth that has been accumulated over so many years within its boundaries by the likes of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Smetana, Dvoøák, Janáèek, Shostakovich, and a host of others. To add a modest bit of my own to this treasury has been and continues to be one of my greatest lifelong ambitions as a composer.
I have engaged in writing music on a regular basis roughly since the age of thirteen. I was lucky always to have teachers who encouraged my affinity for this particular genre. Indeed, one of my very first compositional attempts yielded a string quartet in A flat major, a work still totally uninformed about the criteria defining the setting of this instrumental combination, and a composition that was naively childlike in terms of content. After that there followed a relatively long hiatus in my quartet writing. Another early piece close to the genre was a string trio which I wrote as a 17-year-old, during my conservatory studies in the class of Professor Raichl. There, one might already detect a certain degree of knowledgeability influenced, at my teacher´s behest, by various small-scale works of Sergey Prokofiev.
My “real” String Quartet No. 1 was written in the autumn of 1971, during my third year of studies at Prague´s Academy of Music, in the class of Jiøí Pauer. While that work no longer grappled with any problems on the planes of stylization or performance, it was nonetheless marked by my search at that time for an individual style, alas still largely fruitless. The quartet is in three movements. The first part, an Allegro, strives for “Beethovenian” firmness of structure, with each detail being derived strictly from the fundamental material. The third movement, which is in a different style, is influenced by the spontaneous musicality of Bohemian and Moravian folklore. The middle movement is an experiment combining the pattern of slow movement with scherzo: the second violin plays plays a three-quaver scherzo against the backdrop of a slow movement delivered by the other instruments. The string quartet was performed at a concert given by the Academy of Music on 23rd March, 1972, by the Czech Philharmonic Quartet, a professional ensemble. I was not really satisfied with the work, for its lack of “fermentation” (as well as its excessive length) – which in its turn probably urged me to set out, a year later, to work on another string quartet.
Beyond this professional motivation, however, String Quartet No. 2 is the result of yet another crucial internal impulse: namely, in February 1973 one of my closest fellow-student friends was killed in an air crash. His death dealt me a severe blow, and it was in that feeling of loss that was conceived the new string quartet.
Those years also witnessed my progress, after years of groping around in that huge tangle of styles that was offered by the contemporary music scene of the day, towards a more definitely individual compositional idiom. My nascent vision of compositional style was influenced by a number of factors: my personal experience as a player (during those years I was very busy working as an organist, orchestral player, and voice coach)); my experience as a listener (by then I was completing my study of music literature on a scale enabling me to compare diverse tendencies in the evolution of style, including ones separated by considerable distance in time); and my discovery of the essential problem confronted by the Modernist movement in music: namely, the fact that while from the viewpoint recognizing in progressive development the sole positive yardstick, this Modernism is set on a right course, at the same time, measured on the scale of perfection of musical structure, it very often lags behind the excellence of “classical” scores, an argument which was after all clearly reflected in the general audience´s undwindling preference for the so-called tradition. Naturally enough, my argument was not accepted affirmatively by all contemporary music specialists; nonetheless, deep down in my musician´s “heart” I felt satisfaction. I would not close my eyes before the “inventions” of avant-garde music: rather, I wished to integrate them into the language of music in a way similar to that by which Brahms had integrated into his own idiom Wagnerian chromaticism, or that by which Shostakovich had made dodecaphony, collage or sonic elements parts of his compositional language. After all, the numerous present-day studies on post-Modernistic music of the 1970s seem in hindsight to corroborate my views of the time.
Thus, apart from reflecting the experience of loss of a close friend, the String Quartet No. 2 was also a manifestation of sorts, whereby I signalled an attachment to tradition in music, to primal musical invention, to succinctness of structure, to clearly defined harmonic relations. The work´s three movements were originally assigned Latin subtitles relating to the quartet´s extra-musical inspiration: In memoriam; Dies irae; and Dona eis requiem. The first performance, on 4th March, 1974, was reasonably successful, and the piece has in fact since then become one of my most frequently performed compositions: it was played by various Czech quartets in France, England, U.S.A., Israel and elsewhere.
String Quartet No. 3 was written during my first year after leaving school, when I earned my living as a voice coach at the National Theatre in Prague. For my fellow-students and myself, the period immediately after graduation was a “lean year” as we dubbed it, for there, following the years of dictate by the school curricula prodding us into writing ever new compositions, we suddenly found ourselves totally disengaged, with no one wanting anything from us. In such circumstances the aspiring composer, full of ideals and embracing an ambition to prove his own status alongside all those great names, snatches at every opportunity to put tu use his compositional skills. I was then among other things involved very actively in the work of the Jeunesses Musicales, where I came into contact with more than a few aficionados of classical music. At one point, one of them requested from me a piece for string quintet in a non-standard combination: namely, three violins, viola, and cello. This, to be sure, was a combination that was actually practiced at that time by five musicians based in the city of Zlín, who played at home, for the fun of it, but were short of music literature. I set out to work with a great deal of enthusiasm, but very early on I began to feel sorry for what appeared to be an auspiciously started musical form, considering the utmost impracticality of the combination. Eventually, therefore, I re-worked the still unfinished composition, transforming it into the classic string quartet format. In its musical idiom, the work is close to the preceding quartet, except that in terms of form it relies still more heavily on traditional forms; in its second movement (actually a combination of slow and fast movements), I tested out certain contrapuntal relations; and the composition´s final movement combines three subjects. My decision to rely on the so-called traditional forms stemmed from the realization that classic forms guaranteed a much higher degree of cohesion and structural logic than can be provided by so-called modern free forms; as well as perhaps a little from my aspiration to step out of the line of those colleagues whose concern with the structure of musical composition was largely superficial, if any at all.
The Third String Quartet was similarly fortunate as its predecessor. On the whole, the 1970s in what was then Czechoslovakia was a period which is today regarded from the viewpoint of politics as a true dark age. And yet, for the young generation of up-and-coming musicians there did exist then a number of opportunities (which were thoughtlessly eliminated two decades later) for presenting their new works and refining their further development. Riding the crest of this wave was also my Third Quartet which, like Quartet No. 2, was busily performed by several ensembles, both domestically and on international concert platforms (e.g., in France, England, and Hungary).
Thanks to the aforementioned comparatively plentiful opportunities that offered themselves to composers in Czechoslovakia during the 1970s, my output was likewise often confronted with the production of both my senior colleagues, and members of my own generation. As has already been noted, more than a few of my colleagues would not approve of the path I had embarked upon. While remaining faithful to my approach, I was by no means deaf to their arguments, which in turn led me to reassess my own compositional method. In particular, I devoted much time to intensive study of the latest compositional techniques (there, as an employee of Czechoslovak Radio, I was lucky to have free access to many recordings), and the subsequent search for a synthesis of that which constituted the core of my musical thinking, and that whereby that core could have been enriched under the influence of “New Music”. The fruits of this process then became manifest in my compositions for different combinations (piano sonata, Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 3, and others). This surge eventually reached its climax (apart from my Symphony in E flat major) in String Quartet No. 4. Its shape was influenced by a purely artistic aspiration to achieve an interesting form, and in its definitiveness to display the outcome of my search over the past few years for an individual style. The composition is comprised of three relatively brief preludes, and a central fugue followed without a break by a cathartic postlude. The work´s musical speech makes use of melodic techniques influenced by the “Musica Nova” and close to the dodecaphonic pattern of thought, as well as aleatory passages, some fairly rough chordal elements, and the quartet´s structure is strongly determined by the rational element.
The quartet was premiered on 20th March, 1981, during the Week of New Compositions, and was acclaimed by contemporary music specialists (a fact which was projected into my subsequent receiving a Master of Culture Prize). The composition´s later life, however, was far less fortunate than the fates of its “traditional” predecessors. To be sure, musicians were afraid to perform it, citing its exclusiveness and inaccessibility. Even I myself, a passionate beholder of all sorts of music though I may be, actually preferred the earlier quartets. Beyond that, what also contributed to a process unfurling in my mind during which I slowly came to part with what I had managed to gain over the past five years or so in terms of compositional thinking, was the fact that from the early 1980s, Czech compositional idioms had come slowly and surreptitiously to absorb postmodernistic approaches. Certain composers, who had always been highly sensitive to each incoming “gust of fresh air”, parted ways with the so-called Avant-garde movement for the sake of work in the Neoromantic style. This experience, along with my own discontentment with my latest output of that time, led me to yet another revision of compositional thought: With what I thought was surprising difficulty, I set out to teach myself a much simpler way of musical thinking in my compositional endeavours. This was a laborious process, as my mindset continued to drag me towards complex expression. Therefore, taking a thoroughly rational stand, I set myself the task of writing a series of straightforward, simple works, in pursuit of a new musical language. (These pieces include, among others, Preludes for Solo Flute, Duet for Violin and Cello, and later on, the Carnival of the World overture, and Symphony in D major.)
Also as part of this series, I composed String Quartet No. 5. Similarly as the Second Quartet, this one too was inspired by the death of a fellow-student. Since, nonetheless, unlike in the case of Quartet No. 2, I did not write this composition in the immediate aftermath of the tragic event, the work is not so much an outburst of emotionality, as rather a meditation on the flowing of time and on how it transforms the images of people and things in our minds. This extramusical idea influenced the structure of the one-movement Quartet No. 5: it consists of a theme and variations which are arranged in a way allowing even for a sonata-type interpretation, or making it possible to view the composition as a miniaturized cycle, complete with a slow movement, scherzo, etc. The Fifth Quartet´s musical idiom does not resign on all of that which I had sought for prior to composing my Quartet No. 4. Rather, it pursues much the same line, only more judiciously and laying more weight on function. Here, the “new” elements are not integrated for the sake of artistry (i.e., with a view to “being modern”), but for the sake of expression (“it cannot be expressed otherwise”). The quartet was premiered on 22nd March, 1987, during the Week of New Compositions, and was received reasonably well (among other things, it received the Composers´ Union Prize). The ensuing months saw the advent of relaxation on Czechoslovakia´s political scene, a process which contrasted a degree of liberalization on the socio-political plane with the simultaneous considerable limitation of activity in the sphere of contemporary music. This also obstructed the comparatively auspicious start of the Fifth Quartet´s “performing trajectory”, a fact which in its turn makes it impossible to estimate with any precision whether that work would have equalled Quartets Nos. 2 and 3 in terms of concert platform life.
The year 1989 brought a thoroughly radical transformation of Czechoslovakia´s society as a whole, a change which naturally could not have left unaffected the life of contemporary music. Regrettably enough, alongside a huge number of unambiguously positive developments there came others which included the cancellation of certain activities which had served to promote contemporary music; at the end of the day, everything has been subordinated to free market criteria, leading to a situation where new compositional production has found it extremely difficult to withstand the tough competition of profit-oriented commercial music. Consequently, a good many composers have drastically curtailed their creative endeavours, among other things because they have found it unavoidable to earn their living by some other means. As regards style, the new era ushered in a Postmodernistic sense of freedom, albeit accompanied by a certain tendency towards isolatedness, a state where each composer is regarded as a solitary agent expected to seek opportunities to assert his or her work, without manifest concern for the work of his or her colleagues, and where there exists no evident ambition to draw lines of comparison or to establish the value of the modest amount of what has been publicly presented, or to try and draw up some sort of general framework or chart a map of developmental trends. Thus indeed, one is nowadays likely to come across professionally accomplished works co-existing alongside extremely unerudite scores, a situation where a by far greater importance is attached to the composer´s managerial and medial background than to the actual import of the work in question.
All of the problems that have been outlined in a nutshell and cursorily above, have naturally also afflicted my own work as a composer. The rapid wane of opportunities as well as the fact that driven by existential worries, I was obliged to take up several parallel working assignments, have compelled me, too, to curtail in a drastic way my compositional work to which I had up till that point devoted myself with absolute regularity. For me, the 1990s were thus marked by two thoroughly conflicting tendencies: on the one hand, I was intent on writing works which could not aspire at the given time to find a viable outlet, and whose major asset consisted exactly in their very “idealism”; and on the other, I was drawn towards the occasional seizing of various minor opportunities that would crop up here and there in terms of demand for my compositional work.
The latter type of activity can be exemplified by a commission from Prague´s Mozart Memorial at Bertramka, in 1999, for a composition to be included in a cycle of works by young artists on Mozartian themes. Fourteen years after my preceding work in this format, therefore, I once again returned to the string quartet genre: my String Quartet No. 6 was subtitled Mozart´s Lament. Its form is close to that of Quartet No. 5: here, too, I produced a one-movement form structured as variations on an introductory theme. This time out, though, the variations are conceived much more freely, and are more strongly imbued with “extramusical” programme: the individual sequences strive to approach Mozart´s life from diverse perspectives, as suggested by quotations from his correspondence. The quartet´s musical idiom draws freely on the bulk of my previous experience, including the use of collage: the composition features several quotes from Mozart´s Requiem. The above-mentioned isolatedness of individual composers has resulted in a situation where one finds himself much more readily disposed to write “the way he/she wants”. (Of course, this is not unequivocally positive. Beyond the factor of freedom, to be sure, there is a negative side to it: namely, the absence of a comparative scale of value.) Thanks also to the fact that my age has enabled me to view things from a certain distance, I personally no longer care whether somebody regards my music as conservative and therefore at the very best useless, or whether it is understood and appreciated. Indeed, I have reached a stage which could perhaps be characterized as follows: “Here is my music. You may try to understand it, though if you don´t feel like trying, it´s just as well as far as I am concerned. For I have known since very long ago that one cannot cater for every taste.”
Considering the present circumstances, I would say that Mozart´s Lament has been performed with a comparatively high frequency since its premiere on 6th September, 2000. This is certainly due to its “handiness”: it is not long, and its programmatic association with Mozart makes it attractive for the audience.
This country´s music scene has counted for several decades now with the presence of the Chamber Music Society, an association affilated to the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Its scope of activity includes the organizing of an annual series of subscription chamber music concerts, a season which has grouped around its programming a stable core of sophisticated audience. It has therefore offered a fine framework for performances of some of my quartets (Nos. 2, 3, 4, and 5), as well as my other chamber compositions. That may also have been why the Society´s current chairman commissioned a new quartet from me in 2002. I was then confronted with the question of what character I should imprint into this new work. I realized that in that sense, all of my quartets were actually “irregular”: the Second ends with a slow movement; the Third, on the other hand, has no regular slow movement; the Fourth has an utterly unorthodox structure; and the Fifth and Sixth are both one-movement works. Consequently, I decided for once to change my scheme of things and compose a traditional four-movement structure of the kind once cultivated by my own “idols”: Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms… At the same time, I was aware of the fact that a similar commission might well be the last in my life: the Society´s future chairpersons might not show such interest in my music, and after all, I myself might not live much longer. Hence my decision, on the plane of content, to write a sort of apotheosis to Music as such. The first part is in fact constituted by a sonata movement evolving from the opening laudatory flourish. The second movement renders a different type of tribute to music: it is comprised of dozens of quotations from some of the history´s most illustrious compositions which I have deeply admired. The third movement is a very short dirge, an expression of sorrow at all the evils which trample the genuine, sacred art of music: commercialism, ignorance, semi-amateurism, arrogant and dumb critics… The fourth movement returns to the tone of celebratory “singing”. In contrast to the opening movement, it manifests an ambition to display the composer´s “professional” skills: it features a highly elaborate contrapuntal structure. The quartet was premiered in November 2003, at a concert of the Chamber Music Society.
Altogether, my seven quartets document the road – as milestones of sorts – I have negotiated so far in my capacity as a composer, and in their own way relate to parallel paths pursued by some of my fellow-composers. As I have already noted, there have been some who have never acknowledged a single note in my works – above all, in defiance of their style. Seen with the eyes of my today´s mind, those experts who are set on evaluating everything solely through the prism of style, are irrelevant. Beyond them, however, the passage of time has witnessed a good many performances in which players and audiences alike have proved, to my satisfaction, that music like this has something to tell them, and that therefore it is meaningful to engage in writing it.
In conclusion, a few notes on my works composed for string quartet in combination with other instruments:
The earliest of these compositions is the Symphony for String Quartet and Orchestra. In it are intertwined the two crucial lines of my output: that of string quartets, with that of symphonic music, represented by symphonies and concert overtures. The Symphony for String Quartet and Orchestra was written at the same stage of my career as String Quartet No. 5. What is uncommon about it is the fact that this is not a concertant work, but rather, the string quartet parts are incorporated into the symphonic tissue as its equivalent partners. The four soloists symbolize a band of friends (perhaps the Four Musketeers?) who stand together, surrounded by a not always friendly outside world.
Dating from the same period is the Quintet for Piano and String Quartet. Compared with the symphony, it is conceived in a more artful, sophisticated style, in consonance with the traditional understanding of the difference between the rather exclusive universe of chamber music, and the more “mass-oriented” symphonic music.
The Sextet for Oboe, Harp and String Quartet, entitled Variations on Hrubín´s Verse (relating to 20th-century Czech poet), was written in 1999, at a time which was not simple for me personally, and a point where as a rule recollections of youthful ideals which recur somewhat sentimentally in the mind of an ageing fellow are confronted with the shattering impact of rough-edged reality.