JANÁČEK Leoš, String Quartet No.2 “Intimate Letters”


This extraordinary work was the result of extraordinary circumstances. As a married man in his 70s, Janáček had been head over heels in love with the much younger Kamila Stösslová for a decade by the time he wrote his 2nd String Quartet. This was a passionate (if largely one-sided) love that is eloquently expressed in the hundreds of letters he wrote her, and in the pieces that were directly inspired by her – from operas such as Katya Kabanova to the much more private world of chamber music. On 29 January he told Kamila about the latest piece to be inspired by her: ‘Today it’s Sunday and I’m especially sad. I’ve begun to work on a quartet; I’ll give it the name Love Letters.’ By 19 February the sketch was finished, and a couple of weeks later Janáček had written out a fair copy. He changed his mind several times about the title, eventually settling on Intimate Letters. The original scoring, noted on the manuscript, was to include a viola d’amore – the viola of love – but this was more symbolic than practical and after a private play-through, Janáček abandoned the idea.   

Janáček’s letters to Kamila are revealing about the programmatic content of this quartet. The first movement he described as ‘the impression of when I saw you for the first time!’ and the third evokes a moment ‘when the earth trembled’. The fourth movement was ‘filled with a great longing – as if it were fulfilled.’ As for the whole work, he confided in April 1928 that ‘it’s my first composition whose notes glow with all the dear things that we’ve experienced together. You stand behind every note, you, living, forceful, loving.’  

Janáček died on 12 August 1928, and the quartet had to wait another decade before it was published, by which time both Kamila and Janáček’s long-suffering wife Zdenka were dead. Intimate Letters stands as one of the most personal and original works in the twentieth-century quartet repertoire. The Czech novelist Milan Kundera summarized the essence of Janáček’s art as ‘capturing unknown, never expressed emotions, and capturing them in all their immediacy’. 

Nowhere is it more immediate – or more emotional – than in this quartet.  

© Nigel Simeone


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