String Quartet No. 1 in E minor (“From My Life”)
In the summer of 1874, Smetana's health began deteriorating rapidly under the onslaught of advancing syphilis, and by the end of October he was completely deaf. He was forced to give up his post as principal conductor of the Provisional Theater in Prague and move to the country to live with his married daughter, supported by a meager and often delayed pension.
Though in poverty and pain, Smetana continued to compose, turning often to chamber music for intensely personal reflection. He wrote a pioneering programmatic string quartet, Z mého zivota (From My Life), Op. 116, in 1876.
“Concerning the style of my Quartet, I shall gladly leave judgment on this to others and I will not be angry at all if they do not like it, for it is contrary to the conventional style of quartet music,” Smetana wrote to the music critic Josef Srb-Debrnov in 1878. “I had no intention of composing a quartet according to a formula or according to the usual conception of the form.... With me, the form of each composition is determined by the subject. Consequently this Quartet created its own form. I wanted to picture in tones the course of my life.”
This deliberate choice of a programmatic direction, though relatively rare in chamber music at the time, was a natural and instinctive one for Smetana. In the course of his operas and the great cycle of orchestral tone poems Ma Vlast, he had created templates for musical nationalism, portraying the people and places of Bohemia with vivid authenticity.
Smetana sent Srb-Debrnov his manuscript score of the Quartet for copying. (When the work was given a private performance in Prague later that year, the prominent viola part was played by the young Dvořák.) He also described the work in some detail, even including some directions for interpretation.
The opening movement, Smetana wrote, depicts the “inclination to art in my youth, romanticism predominating, the unspeakable yearning for something I could not express or definitely imagine, and also a sort of warning of my future disaster.” Here Smetana indicates the portentous main motif, a sharply attacked whole note followed by a bitten-off downward leap. This is also the origin, he says, of the high, sustained tone in the finale. “It is that fateful whistling of the highest tones in my ear, which in 1874 was announcing my deafness. I allowed myself this little game because it was so catastrophic for me.”
In the second movement, he continued, “the quasi-Polka carries me back in retrospection to the happy life of my youth when, as a composer of dance music, I frequented the fashionable world, where I was known as a passionate dancer.” In the slower middle section of the movement – “my impressions of the aristocratic circles in which I lived for many years” – Smetana offers easier alternatives for the chords the violins play over the viola and cello, but pleads for the original version if at all possible.
The ardent, lyrical third movement “brings to mind the bliss of my first love for the girl who later became my faithful wife.”
The finale begins as a vigorous and joyful dance, which is abruptly cut off by that high whistling omen. Snippets from the first movement follow, and the movement ends with a fading echo of the dance. As Smetana described it, the finale presents the “perception of the beauty of national music, and the happiness resulting from this interrupted by my ominous catastrophe – the beginning of my deafness; the view into a tragic future, a slender ray of hope for improvement, but remembrance of the first beginnings of my path still creates a painful feeling.
“That was approximately the aim of the work, which is almost intimate, and that is why it is written purposely for four instruments, as though in a small friendly circle they are discussing among themselves what so obviously troubles me. That’s all.”
— John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.