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Janacek's Love Letters, With Strings Attached

Sep 14, 2009

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At age 63, Czech composer Leos Janacek began his most unusual writing project — a constant stream of more than 700 love letters written to a married woman 37 years his junior. It's remarkable, considering that the young woman, named Kamila, expressed little feeling for Janacek or his music.

Even so, Janacek filled his letters with passion. At an age when most people slow down, Janacek, fueled by his own unrequited love, went into high gear. He composed some of his best music, including the String Quartet No. 2 — called, appropriately, Intimate Letters.

Commentator Rob Kapilow pinpoints a section from the third movement of the quartet which he says reveals much about Janacek's unique sound-world. The passage is actually a musical portrait of Kamila, one that Janacek described to her in a letter: "It will be very cheerful, and then dissolve into a vision of your image, transparent, as if in the mist."

Power-Packed Emotional Nuggets

"As obsessed as he was with Kamila," Kapilow says, "Janacek was obsessed with short musical ideas that could convey maximum emotional impact in the fewest possible notes."

Janacek's portrait begins with simple-sounding repeated notes for the viola. The music speeds up, Kapilow says, but not in the usual way.

"It's not just a note speeding up," he says. "It's actually the blood quickening at the thought of Kamila, and it runs through the whole passage."

Janacek tells us all he feels for Kamila in a compact, rhythmically clear set of notes: short-short, long-long, and a repeated note, Kapilow says. The same pattern is heard over and over, but every time it's a little different, more complicated, with anguish at every step.

"Each time, it's taking us deeper into his feelings for Kamila," Kapilow says. "All these note changes are in the favor of emotion, and they are constantly surprising and shifting, just like the letters he would write — every mood would shift at an incredibly fast pace."

Janacek once wrote: "I maintain that a pure musical note means nothing unless it is pinned down in life, blood and locale; otherwise, it is a worthless toy."

Reading through Janacek's letters, Kapilow says there are hints that the composer was aware of his own fictionalized love affair. Yet the fiction must have been incredibly real, driving him to compose piece after piece.

"Maybe in the areas of inspiration, the distinction between fiction and reality is unimportant," Kapilow says. "In any case, we should all be as lucky and creative with our fictions as Janacek was with his."

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