SMETANA Bedřich, String Quartet No.1 in E minor ‘From my Life’

Allegro vivo appassionato
Allegro moderato à la Polka
Largo sostenuto

In 1874 Smetana fell ill with an infection that led within months to total deafness. For peace and quiet he moved to the village of Jabkenice in Central Bohemia, and it was here that he produced this overtly autobiographical quartet in 1876. Smetana supplied his own commentary on the work. It opens with ‘the call of fate (the main motif, first heard on the viola) into the struggle of life. The love of art in my youth; inclination towards romanticism in music as well as in love and life in general; a warning about my future misfortune – that fateful ringing of the highest tones in my ears which told me of my coming deafness.’

The second movement (à la Polka) brings back, according to Smetana, ‘memories of the merry time of my youth’, while the third ‘reminds me of the beauty of my first love for the girl who later became my faithful wife. The struggle with unhappy fate, the final achievement of my goal.’ For the fourth movement Smetana wanted to depict: ‘the recognition of a national awareness of our beautiful art, the pleasure derived from it and the happiness of success along the way until a terrible-sounding high tone starts ringing in my ear (in the quartet a high E) … as a warning of my cruel fate.’

The first performance took place in Prague on 29 March 1879. During his last years, Smetana’s behaviour became increasingly erratic. Early in 1884 he was moved to an asylum in Prague where he died a few months later.

© Nigel Simeone 2015


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