Janacek's Love Letters, with Strings Attached

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Thursday's Pick

  • Song: "String Quartet No. 2, 'Intimate Letters' (Moderato: Adagio)"
  • Artist: The Schoenberg Quartet
  • CD: Janacek/Szymanowski String Quartets
  • Genre: Classical

At age 63, Czech composer Leos Janacek began his most unusual writing project: a constant stream of love letters, more than 700 in all, 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, he filled his letters with ardent passion, and at an age when many slow down, Janacek, fueled by his new love, composed some of his best music.

Leos Janacek 300

Late in his life, Czech composer Leos Janacek built much of his music around an unconsummated love. Erich Auerbach/Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Erich Auerbach/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On Feb. 1, 1928, Janacek wrote to Kamila, describing how his new string quartet would depict their lives: "There will be little fires in my soul and they'll set it ablaze with the most beautiful melodies. The first movement I did already. The impression when I saw you for the first time."

Janacek called his new quartet "Intimate Letters," and in the midst of composing its dramatic third movement, he wrote to Kamila one week later with a description: "It will be very cheerful, and then dissolve into a vision of your image, transparent, as if in the mist, in which there should be a suspicion of motherhood." Accordingly, this movement unfolds in a gently rocking lullaby. But the scene pivots, and a lighthearted theme scampers along — a blissful daydream that slowly drains itself of color and finally stops. Out of nowhere, a piercing cry rises high in the first violin.

Could it be a scream of desperation from Janacek himself? Locked in a loveless marriage, Janacek, through his intimate letters, dreamt of a love he knew would never come true. Luckily, he wrote more than letters.

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Leos Janacek . Erich Auerbach/Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

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