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Smetana's Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 15

January 10, 2020

On this week's lecture, resident lecturer Bruce Adolphe discusses Smetana's Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 15. Featuring a performance by Orion Weiss, piano; Arnaud Sussmann, violin; and Mihai Marica, cello.

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Bruce Adolphe
Welcome to the Inside Chamber Music podcast presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. I'm Bruce Adolphe, Resident Lecturer at CMS, where I started the lecture series in 1992. In 2011, we began livestreaming the lectures on our website. The audio for this podcast comes from the ever growing archive of videos made available live and on demand ChamberMusicSociety.org.

We look at the music from a compositional perspective and find parallels in novels, plays and poetry. Plus, we explore historical context and with live musicians in the studio during the lecture as we experiment with performance issues. Today's lecture is about Smetana's Piano Trio in G Minor, Opus 15. Originally recorded October 10, 2012. Welcome. We're not going to have a different arrangement every week.

We might be here for a while because there will be a lot of concerts here. But welcome and welcome to the streaming audience. By now you probably, if you’re home streaming, used to the idea that I start in the middle of a thought and so I'm just saying hello to you. So, today is Smetana's G minor piano trio and this is a work that allows us to examine some very serious questions about music, which are fundamental to understanding composition, which I will get into as as we listen to this. You know, Smetana, Fauré, and Beethoven, three of the composers that are on this series happened to be the three great composers who went deaf.

I did not select them thinking about that. But it occurred to me later because, I mean, everyone knows about Beethoven's deafness. But I mentioned last week, Fauré also became deaf and wrote a lot of his great music after his deafness. And Smetana is also more famously deaf than Fauré because he wrote almost all of his great big famous pieces after his deafness at 50.

This piece is much earlier and it is a great piece. What's interesting about this is that this is a chamber piece by a composer who is primarily known for opera and big orchestral works, and he only wrote a few chamber pieces, but his chamber pieces are the pieces in which he is writing about real life and his own personal problems and issues and his own drama.

So here you have a perfect example of what chamber music really is about, because if he's writing about his fatherland, which is the most famous piece, you know, Vlast, Má Vlast, that's for orchestra. But when he's writing about his deafness, that's the string quartet. And when he's writing about his, the loves of his life and the traumas and the problems of his entire life, that's also a string quartet.

And, here, this piece you may well know is about the death of his first child and this is a very disturbing piece of music. If you didn't know that, you'll find that a lot of what I'm going to say is quite disturbing and so is a lot of the music you're going to hear. But, you know, the good thing about that is that it's art and art, especially music, in my opinion, is a great way of dealing with the saddest and most difficult issues we have.

It's uplifting to hear a tragic work as opposed to even a- or to read a tragic novel. But with music I think even more because it's so universal and so direct at the same time. It's so personal for the composer and it gets right to the heart of it. And yet it's a long time ago. So we're going to talk about what that means for a composer and look at some other examples of it as well.

So you have here a very rare instance of a composer writing a piece soon after a tragic incident in his own life. So, you know, it's even worse, though, because he had four daughters and three died very young. And the one who lived, lived a long life and became a friend of Janacek. And there's a famous document of Janacek's, which I love.

And you can find it easily in which Janacek, who liked to write down in musical notation the way people talked and the way birds chirped, and even the way the ocean moved, and the way, believe it or not, sunlight appeared. Everything. The mosquito is a good one, but that's easy. But he liked to write down the way people talk because he felt that in order to write great opera, he needed to capture the sound of the voice and the inflection and the rhythm and everything in his music, which he did.

And so there is a letter in which he writes down everything that Smetana's surviving daughter Sophie said. It's a beautiful letter. So here we have a piece about the death of his first child. The other three were still alive when he wrote this. And then after three of them died, not long after that, his wife died.

So then finally, you know, he gets remarried. He becomes this is all happens in Sweden because he left Bohemia because it was very difficult for him to achieve anything there. And in Sweden, he went to Gothenburg where, or Gothenburg where, as he put it, the musical life was so unsophisticated that he could become incredibly famous really quickly.

He said They still act like Mozart is new. This is, you know, the mid 19th century. They were still afraid to hear Beethoven. So he had a great time there. But then he got very bored and went back. And when he went back, luckily the whole Czech nationalism was taking place and it was a perfect moment for someone who had developed his skills and could write a Czech nationalist opera to do it better than anyone else.

And he became extremely famous. What is not often talked about is that he hardly spoke Czech because he was brought up speaking German because of the politics. So he had to quickly study up so that he was not speaking like, you know, George Bush or something like I mean in Czech, you know, which can you imagine what that would sound like?

All right. So what I'm going to ask this illustrious trio to do is play quite a lot of the piece first, but not all of it. It's a big piece. It's not a huge movement, but it's a big piece. We're going to do the first movement. I'm going to ask them to play from the very beginning up until and past a little bit of the so-called second scene.

But before you do this business of second theme, I know that a few people asked me about the form of the Fauré, and you might think about that in this piece as well. Sonata form, which the first movement we heard last week of the Fauré and the first movement of this piece fall into sonata form, but only in the most, I don’t want to say vague, but the most conventional and not it's not fascinating, except for in other words, it was a very, very old form and composers used it without thinking pretty much.

And all it was for Fauré and all it was for Smetana was a theme in the main key, in this case G minor, then music that is of a different nature in the relative key and then a development of this and then a return of these ideas all in the main key. That’s so simple. But what's great about these composers is they make it still live. It still breathes. With Fauré, it lives because he's in a constant state of development and a constant, as we said, flirtation of almost changing keys and almost doing things.

So the form is very hard to follow because he's almost changing key all the time. And therefore the whole idea of sonata form where you are in a key and then you are in another key and then you have a development. And it's very hard to hear all of that. Here, what you will pretty soon hear is that for Smetana, he had to take the basic fundamental concept of sonata form and make it fit a tragic vision.

And so what he does, and it's very easy to hear the whole piece this way, but especially the first movement, death and agony and grief comes right at the beginning in G minor. And then when it moves into a major key and you hear the second idea, this is just everybody hears this the same way and it's hard to hear it any other way, which is memories of his daughter.

Now, then what has to happen is he has to somehow put together this music of memory with this music of the present reality. And that's the accomplishment of the piece. So let's hear the opening up until and through that second theme. (music) Okay, it's hard, hard to stop it. That's where we're going to stop. It's a beautiful (inaudible).

So at the very beginning, we know each other very well. You might know that. At the very beginning you hear what is both very heart rending and very personal, but also has a convention in it. And that's what I want to look at first. It's a convention of death, which is a descending chromatic line. Can you just play that opening solo for us again? (music)

Right. So this line (music), which normally would start on the tonic, we’re in G minor, and go down like this, but he does this and then this is great, this reaching of a tenth. That kind of is a scream. But I want to give you some background about what I mean by a convention of death because there are musical symbols or I would kind of say it’s symbolism that composers know about and audiences hear a lot and some of them disappear, they become meaningless.

But what's interesting is they don't become trite, they might be overused, but they matter because, for example, the descending chromatic line is a symbol of death because it given the 12 notes that we have, it speaks very strongly of pain because the half step is the most, in so much music, it's the tier of music, it's the weeping of music, the half step descending.

And then to have several of them, even in this key, on the dominant here. Now I want to give you a little tour of some of famous moments using that motif. You may know some of them, but some maybe not. The first one is the most famous of these descending chromatic bass lines that has to do with death.

It's by Henry Purcell when I am laid in Earth. Right? And the baseline (music) and then it does a cadence and it starts again and it goes over and over. It's a shortcut, which is a repeated pattern in three with the same harmonies. Here is a performance of some of it. I'm going to play never more than maybe two or 3 minutes of any excerpts.

So that is both tantalizing and frustrating. But you can always find these things. (music) And it happens over and over. So there you have the work- it's very effective. I can see that immediately. All right. Now, the next one is an extraordinary example. And there are two famous examples of Bach. I'm going to play both of them for you.

This one is from a cantata, BWV 12. And of course, Bach. We already know because the first of all, Bach was not the first composer to use the descending bass. And in fact, many Italian composers in his time were doing it quite a lot. But what he does in this cantata, which the text is weeping, lamenting, trembling, it goes on, sighing, crying.

That's basically all it is until it goes into a new section. He has the bass line moving very slowly in the descending chromatic line, and then the voices are all in size. The chorus enters in short phrases that overlap with lots of silence. And it's very, very moving. It's the same idea, the bass line in a different key, and then it starts again.

It's exactly the same thing as the Purcell, the descending line. Here's a little bit of this cantata. (music) It's hard to stop. It's terrible. What's amazing about this is many things, but the most extraordinary is that it is the same harmonies and bassline over and over, and Bach structures it so that you first have just these individual crying and sighing, and then they get elongated and they start to overlap with dissonances based on suspensions, and they become more and more complex and it gets richer and richer and more and more disturbing as it goes on.

It's typically a Bach, a small movement of one of many, many, but a masterpiece. And now, of course, from the B minor mass, the crucifixes, it's almost the same thing, but it's a completely different piece because he, being Bach, is able to take the same idea with similar words, similar texture, and do something else. So here it is from the B minor mass. (music)

It’s a strange feeling just to touch something and have it stop like that. Just this alone, you can tell that these two examples of Bach are the same piece, but they're completely different. All the notes are different, everything is different, and yet it's the same exact idea. It's an extraordinary thing to be able to do that. Now we're going to move into Mozart.

All of these pieces, of course, are very well known to Smetana and the Mozart too. This is from Don Giovanni. Now, Mozart has The Commendatore, as you know, has been invited after he's been killed by Don Giovanni. He's been invited to dinner in a kind of a bad moment by Don Giovanni. So he invites the stoned guest the in this case, meaning a statue, not what it means today, to dinner.

And when the statue arrives, he is coming out of the grave. So the chromatic line is going up instead of down. But when Don Giovanni is brought down, the chromatic line goes down. So here Mozart is using the tradition in a way that is exciting and brilliant and different. And also it's both dramatic, scary and a little bit humorous at the same time.

It's just extraordinary. So here is a little bit of that. One of the most famous moments in the opera. Full of famous moments. Okay, 2 minutes and 29 seconds into the track. But just to make sure that you're hearing what I'm talking about over this fabulous singing of The Commendatore you hear (music) I'm just doing the chords, going up the chromatic scale, and then it stops.

So it goes all the way up from here to here. And then when Don Giovanni dies, which I may or may not play that, you hear this (music) It's very fast and he's, gets pulled down rather quickly. Alright. Here is that moment. (music) It starts here. That’s Don Giovanni. Here we go. It's. You'll hear it. Oh, you.

Okay. Alright. We don't have to hear the other little moment because I have to go sliding around with my finger to find that. Now, that's all pre-Smetana. And then you get this piece, which we'll come back to in just a moment. What about post-Smetana? There's a famous composer who was born right near where Smetana was born named Gustav Mahler.

Mahler was born also in Bohemia, which later was Czechoslovakia. He often said about himself he was a bohemian in a German state and a Jew as well, so that he didn't know where he was welcome by anybody. And Mahler, I'm going to play a little, two little excerpts from Kindertotenlieder, which is Songs of Death of Children.

Now, this is very closely related to the Smetana, but and by the way, Mahler was very influenced by Smetana's music because Mahler conducted Smetana's music in the Opera House in Vienna and he grew up in the same area, thought of him as one of the great masters from his childhood, and one of the first things he did when he became a conductor at the opera was The Bartered Bride of some other pieces as well.

And there is a something that I'm going to talk about more and more in this lecture, which is there is a sense that music can tell the truth in some kind of disturbing way. That it can break through technique to say something that's clearly personal and true that Smetana does in a few places, and that Mahler continues and also Janacek.

And then, of course, it's a free game. But I think it also starts, to a certain extent, way before with various people, but Beethoven being one. But it's a certain kind of truth where technique form and everything just stops just to say something. And I'll give you some examples of that in a moment. But here's a little bit of Kindertotenlieder.

I'm going to go into the middle of the piece to try to find a particular chromatic spot for you, but it's really all over the place. (music). Now, in the orchestra, even more chromatic descending. All right. I don't know how easy it was to hear, but it goes at different paces. The violas moving somewhat slowly and the base is even slower, dropping by chromatic lines.

By the way, before I forget, this is very important. Yes, one of Mahler's children died and he wrote Kindertotenlieder, but it's important to remember it's easy to keep forgetting this, even if you know it, that he wrote this piece before he had any children. It is not like Smetana who wrote it as a direct reaction to the death of a child.

Mahler had not even yet met Alma Mahler. He wasn't married and he was interested in Ruckert's poems. And Ruckert had lost several children he had of his own and wrote a whole series of poems about the death of his children. Mahler was fascinated by these, and then he started working on them, and it took him a long time to select the poems to start writing it and to get involved.

And meanwhile he meets Alma Mahler and they have some children. Now, he finished the piece before one of his children died, but Alma Mahler kept saying, “How can you be working on this when our children were just born? You've got to stop writing this piece. It's a bad omen.” And of course, you know, he thought, “That's ridiculous.”

You know, “I started it a long time ago. I need to finish it.” Well, he finishes it and shortly thereafter, you know, you draw your own conclusions. This is not a seance. I'm just telling you... But it's just a tragic, you know, life is worse than fiction. He finishes the piece and both of his children come down with scarlet fever, which is what killed Smetana’s three children.

And one of them dies. And it was a big problem. Mahler himself later wrote that he would never have started writing the piece after he had children, and he could never imagine how one could compose a piece about this. If one of his children had died, he would never do it. Yet he knew that Smetana had actually done it.

Smetana not only wrote it, he played the piano in the premiere. It's hard to know what this meant, how cathartic, how maybe it was perfect for him. It's very, very hard to know. So two more things. Well, here's a little bit more of Kindertotenlieder because it's another very good example. (music) Wait. Sorry. Here. (music) You know, I could go over the little spots.

They're not easy to hear, but I think that's too much. You can check that out yourself. This business of truth, the feeling when Smetana writes this, that it really happened to him, and the fact that he only wrote like this in chamber music, makes me want to play for you the most famous moment in all of Smetana which is when he writes about his deafness.

Do you know this little passage? Well, if you do, here it is again. And if you don't, it's I'm glad I'm introducing it to you because it's extraordinary. He had a buzzing and ringing in his ears, a very high pitched sound in his ears. And when he became deaf, he wrote his first string quartet to describe his whole life and what he called the impressions that happened to him.

And here is a moment where that deafness is portrayed in a way that is not about form. It is not about technique in the normal sense. It's about music expressing something in the most direct way possible without convention (music) So isn't that extraordinary? Do I need to analyze that? No. And the reason I don't is because it is almost as if you can see it.

I mean, it's a direct statement. The music is- here I am analyzing it. The music is broken off. The silence, the high pitch and the dramatic reaction. It's extraordinary. Now, I want to play one more thing. I don't usually do this. In fact, I don't think I've done this more than twice in 20 years at a lecture. I'm going to play a little bit of something of mine that relates to this too, because I, um, I have a piece that is about somebody struggling with a serious disease, and this was one of the few times in my life that I wrote a piece consciously about a terrible thing that was in my personal sphere.

Because I remember after 9/11, a lot of composers started writing their 9/11 pieces. I couldn't believe it. I just couldn't even begin to imagine how one would do that. Now, some people waited five, six, seven, eight, nine years, and I could see that. Somehow or other, I just couldn't believe that it was possible. But I also don't know how Smetana did what he did.

On the other hand, I had a commission from the Miami Quartet years ago to write a string quartet, and my wife's cousin was extremely ill and it was the only thing that was being discussed all the time. And I had to write this quartet. So I had a choice. Three things. Cancel the- don't write the quartet, I guess four things.

Don't write the quartet. Put it off. Just forget about this while I'm writing and write something else. Or actually try to address this. So, I decided to try to address it, and I'm not going to tell you exactly what it is, but I did try this idea. That technique should say something directly like that high pitched note and yet become somehow engaged in the musical language so it can continue.

So here's a little bit of one movement. I'll play maybe 3 minutes of this and then I might ask you about it, and then we'll go on to the, back to this quartet, trio. (music) I'll stop there. Now, the ending of it ends with a very crazy violin solo that's stopped short, and it doesn't go back to any of this other music.

I'm not going to ask you what I was going to ask you. I'll just tell you that I sometimes play this for music classes and ask them what they think they're hearing in terms of a narrative. And usually they get very close, which is that the back and forth is time. The violin is the person who ill and who is outraged.

And the cello, in this case, it is the disease. But if I don't tell anyone what it's about, I also get that the two inner instruments have to do with time passing, but sometimes it's a couple having a terrible time, you know, which is fine. Why not? Because it's the same idea in a way. But what's interesting is when you, as a composer, when you write something that has a specific narrative from real life like this, then the theme is just a theme that gets developed anymore.

You can't possibly think of it that way, just like that high note. If we didn't know that Smetana was writing about getting deaf, I bet we'd figure it out. If not that we would know something very close. We'd find another musical scenario, or I should say extra musical scenario that explains why everything stops and there's a high pitch, you know, how many reasons can there be?

We could probably- it would be an interesting assignment to write five descriptions of what that could possibly mean, as opposed to looking at a piece of music and saying things like what is often called analysis. First theme enters in G minor, then you get a modulation to E-flat Major or B-flat major. And then the second- this kind of thing is totally uninteresting musical analysis like that is really for how, when you're learning fundamentals, it's rudimentary concepts.

It's like looking at a James Joyce and looking for adjectives. You know, there are five adjectives on page one. Okay? So it's really not very interesting. It's also doing that with anybody. All right. Now, getting back to this piece, except I wanted to read one quote. The most important thing, a quote that relates to all of this very profoundly.

This is Arnold Schoenberg in a letter to Mahler after hearing a Mahler symphony. “I think I have experienced your symphony. I felt the struggle for illusions. I felt the pain of one disillusioned. I saw a man in a torment of emotion, exerting himself to attain an inner harmony. I sensed a human being, a drama, truth, the most ruthless truth.”

That is an amazing description of what he heard, you know, and it would be much less interesting for him to write. I enjoyed your symphony, especially the modulations, where the E-flat suddenly seemed like a D sharp and-” which I am going to say something like that in a minute. And you know, it's very important to know that at the deepest level those things are just syntax and vocabulary and getting past it is complex.

So here's a piece that allows us to do that. Hey, you can come back now, allows us to do that. One thing I'd like to point out is how the the scream, if you can play the opening again, but stop after you have the leap up to the B-flat, here's your chromatic scale. (music)

Right. And then that (singing) that comes back with both of them in torment. Let's play basically right where that starts at 17, everybody. So the theme is in the piano now, and the cello and the violin are both doing this tormented scream. (music) Okay, great. Yeah, that's the kind of realism, which not only was he the first Czech nationalist composer, but this kind of realism was a gift to Janacek, who took it much, much further.

Janacek's music seems to be, the operas too, seem to be so real that looking for structure and form is sort of beside the point. And then that becomes a very, in some ways it makes him the first real modernist. In some ways more modern than Debussy even, who was a great revolutionary and in some ways more modern than Schoenberg.

Because aside from language and vocabulary, it's how direct is your relationship of the grammar of what you're saying to what you're actually trying to communicate. And in a way, modernity in all the arts became a breakthrough. Let's get rid of traditional ideas of what something, a work of art is and try to get to something more true.

It relates to Freud. It relates to, of course, Freud, you know, I'm going to get sidetracked, but this is one of my favorite stories. You know about Freud and Mahler. Some of you must. Freud saw Mahler as a patient once, and it was a completely ground, earthshaking experience for Mahler because first of all, and this isn't the main point, but Schoenberg had never heard of any of Mahler's music, but that's beside the point.

Mahler came to him with lots of issues, and a lot of it had to do with a feeling that he couldn't write and depression, et cetera. And in one conversation it came out that in his childhood Mahler's parents were having a terrible argument and he was a little boy, and he ran out into the street as maybe like he would never come home.

And he ran smack into an organ grinder playing a really silly little melody. And the, the confluence of the triviality of that little tune and what he was feeling became his music, became the essence, what he does. And it stayed that way, which is not that his music is that simple, but, not at all. But it's that the idea of simple folk-like melodies that are put through emotional ringers or just simultaneously heard against a background of tremendous anxiety, that's exactly when he realized that came from that moment.

He felt that a very good session and didn't come back. Okay. I don't think Freud said, “Well, that's about it. Okay, I hope you got something from that.” Okay. So another important moment is when this winds down it takes a long time for the drama to start to change. And he does it very gradually. And then when we get to the second theme, the second theme does some very beautiful harmonic things.

And I have to say something about them, even though they are syntax and vocabulary, because they are illuminating. Pardon me. Oh, look. We're going to have all these separate chair moves. Okay. When this happens. (music) Now that already is simple enough. It comes, you know, he's thinking of Chopin. He's thinking of Liszt. And Schubert too. From Major to minor.

But then this note takes us somewhere else. That kind of inharmonic writing is both- this is an example of something both conventionally learned from Schubert, learned from Beethoven even, which is where Schubert probably got it. But the idea that from major to minor is the beginning of a journey where you can take this G flat and reinterpret it as an F sharp and take us to a distant key.

Now, what makes this beautiful, aside from the harmonies, is that what he needs to do is get to a faraway place. He's in reality. He's tried, you know, he's changed key because sonata forms change key, but it's not enough. He needs to go far away into a memory space. And so both in terms of register and in terms of harmony, he finds himself with the perfect moment to go from major.

It's tempting to be sad with minor to take that note and let it enter like what we now call a wormhole. Let him go into a new area, almost a new territory harmonically, where he can remember his daughter. Let's go back back up and hear a little bit of that. With everybody listening. (music). Okay. Now, I hate to stop you, but did you notice that the scream appears as something beautiful?

It's hard to notice that, but play the scream once, the opening. I'm calling it the scream. Like the movie. (music) Yeah. And then here. Here. Where wherever you just were. (music) Yeah. See, it's the same thing. But here, instead of a scream, it's an opening onto something beautiful. It's just an amazing connection. That detail changes the whole thing. Let's go back just a tiny bit to make sure we hear that.

Let's go to 53 right on the let's say the last beat of 53. (music) Right. So that's an extraordinary moment because he didn't need to use that there. But that, taking the scream motif, which at the beginning was so heart wrenching. And then he was throwing through, back and forth. Having it be something beautiful is a great idea.

Now, there's a long section that is very Beethoven-like, although not harmonically, which, this is at the Più Animato at 66. He knows that structurally and dramatically, if he's going to repeat the theme (singing) this chromatic thing over and over, he does it about 20 times. I actually counted it several times. I got 19, I got 20, I got 21. I started to give up.

But it's a lot of times to hear that. Did anybody count it? Yeah. Good. Don't bother. But if he's going to do it that many times and sometimes in counterpoint, so actually you're hearing it more like 60 times if you count each little entrance. He needs a break from it too, but the break can't always be visions of his daughter.

So what he tends to do is find a very Beethoven thing, which is to look for the strength to go on. To build. You know, Beethoven does this in many of his pieces. You start with, it's a kind of a harmonic crescendo, a structural crescendo, and also an actual crescendo. So here if we start right at the Più Animato, you will hear something which is mostly about getting bigger, louder and stronger.

That's really what it does. Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony has this many, many times. Let's try that. (music) Okay, thank you. That was a lot harder than touching an iPad. So there you have that kind of Beethoven build in fact list. When he heard this piece said, “It's marvelous, it's full of Beethoven.” And he must have meant something like that.

By the way, Liszt helped Smetana many times. His career, this is something Liszt was renowned for doing, helping young composers. He got his first piece published for him. And Smetana really idolized Liszt. And Smetana was a great pianist And you'll hear in some of the piano solos, some Chopin and some Liszt. In a way, Chopin was his childhood, Smetana’s childhood.

He grew up playing a lot of Chopin and performing a lot of Chopin. But then as he got older, he became fascinated with the Liszt and became Liszt’s close friend. And you hear both, in fact, why, since I'm talking about it, let's do that. How about the two, some of the piano solos? Now, remember, Smetana played this himself so that means that the fact that he gave himself two large cadenzas is, I don't think it's because he's playing the piano and he wants to show off.

I think he needed time. And I don't know, and will have no way of ever finding out if he actually played these cadenzas, these written out things the way they're written. I doubt it. I bet he embellished them like crazy because it was a tragic piece. It was his piece and it was live. And in those days, it wouldn't have been so unusual to do that.

But let's hear- it sounds pretty much like he's doing that anyway. Let's hear the first one at the tempo rubato. (music) Keep your pedal down. I'm going to talk over this for a second. Now, what's about to happen- I love that. What's about to happen is the violin comes in with the opening theme, but instead of it being alone as it was before or accompanied, the cadenza continues through it just a little bit.

There's a sense that it's just for a little while, a chord here, gesture there. And I have a name for this, which is not a standard terminology. I call it the sand in the bed technique, which is you have a dream about the desert and you wake up and you realize it's a dream, but there's sand in the bed.

And how did the sand- I mean, it makes you think, “Whoa, how did that...” So that's the kind of thing that, of course, the explanation might be, if you want one, that you had sand in the bed and that's why you dreamt about the desert and you only noticed it later. But that's not my point. So let's hear the end of the cadenza, that coming in and then the sand in the bed. (music)

Okay. Yeah. So it's a beautiful idea. He could have left that alone or he could have been in something rhythmic. But just those little gestures are quite extraordinary. A couple of great moments that I want you to hear before you hear this entire extraordinary movement. You know, one of the things about this piece, this movement, is that when you hear the whole thing, you hear the manic qualities of it.

I mean, it is an obsessive grief stricken lament. And what saved it from being almost unbearable in a way, is his desire to write it in sonata form. And that probably allowed him to have that vision of, as I said, to define the other key and the contrasting music as a memory of his daughter, and then to put them together as a development and then to separate them out.

So that idea of a form was made realistic for him and the realism benefited by the convention. Now, a great spot, if we can go to about 159, maybe a little bit before that, but not too much. Well, I suppose we have to go to 153. Okay. And what's going to happen, you'll hear, it's the main theme, the chromatic theme.

The strings are just wild with grief. The piano is gigantic. But then the piano hits A major. Can you just play a little bit of that? (music) Right? And the A major is very bright and uplifting in the midst of all this drama. And it's, he's grabs for it, repeats it many times as if to say there is some life affirming aspect to this piece and to my, I'm still alive.

I still have, actually, he still had other daughters, but of course he was going to lose some of them. But in other words, there is still something to live for. And then the chromatic intensity continues in the strings, getting softer and softer while the piano starts to play in A major very gently, which they are not really in. Very gently.

The theme related to his daughter. It's extraordinary. And this is an example of a musical idea based solely on trying to say something that's true that is not purely musical. Now, the whole question of what is true and what is musical, what I mean by this is that it's true to life. He's trying to say something he could say in words, but he's saying it in music.

Many things that music says can never be translated, and this can't really be translated. It can be understood, but you cannot translate it because it would be something else. However, you can understand what he's saying in a way that is not true of every piece of music. So let's let's catch that. (music) Okay? Isn't that extraordinary? It is Beethoven-like in one way, which is actually in two ways, probably three.

But I can only think of two right now. It's like Beethoven in that its repetition is very meaningful. Beethoven will often repeat something over and over and over and one of my favorite examples is in Opus 135, the late string quartet, in the scherzo when you have the cello and, actually, everybody second violin, viola, and cello. Everyone but the first violin going (singing). Do you know that? (singing) Very loudly.

And the first violinist is trying to be heard. What is that about? Well, his deafness, way before Smetana. These people are screaming and you can't hear the melody and then it dies away and it's so realistic. So those are the two ways, the repetition and the realism. That passage is also very Beethoven-like, but it's not about Beethoven's problems, although he would go deaf and also write about the same thing.

Maybe one more passage. There are so many worth looking at. I won't ask them to play this, but the very end is a gigantic chromatic scale, which hopefully you will recognize by then. I only say that because it's you have to come out of yourself and say chromatic scale when you're listening to something that maybe you shouldn't, but you get that, you’ll hear it.

Maybe one more spot. Yes. Back, way back to bar 100. When the violin is again alone, but this time the scream motif covers a much broader range, in a sense, the entire range of the violin. Wouldn’t you say? I mean ,you could play higher, but would you want to? All right, so remember that opening phrase.

And now here's the same opening phrase intensified to the whole range of the instrument. Why? Because it's the only way he can say how he feels. It's grief. It's not about exploiting the instrument. That's a different kind of thing. Paganini exploited the instrument. Wieniawski exploited the instrument. In this passage, Smetana is not exploiting the instrument. He's saying something with the whole range of the instrument that can only be said this way. (music)

Alright. Yeah. Do you see? I mean, what’s great about it is the difference between instrumental technique and saying something between compositional technique and saying something. Now, for example, if you are a music student, you can learn how to write a fugue, but if you don't learn why to write a fugue, you will write what’s derogatorily called an academic fugue, because a fugue can be completely correct and incredibly dull.

Why? Because a fugue inherently means certain things and you need to know what they are. Or at least be either, unconsciously be dealing with it. For example, a lot of counterpoint has to do with worldview. A canon and a fugue can be thought of many different ways. But here's just one way. One way is that since a fugue has a certain amount of imitation and repetition, that has to happen.

You have to, if you want it to be meaningful, you could ask, “What is that about? Is it about the difference between what will happen and what could happen?” In order to be a fugue, it has a built in kind of destiny. It has a definition that the composer has to struggle against or with in order to assert will.

So in a way, fugue is about will and destiny, which is why in a lot of Bach, you feel this huge, profound spiritual aspect because he had not only this will and destiny thing, but he also had, not that he would have used those words, but he also had a sense of divine world order that everything was unified within its diversity because that's what the world is.

It's like DNA. It's not that different, you and a banana. I always say that. But there's a similarity, genetically speaking. And so understanding the the role of what something has to say is really important and then there's this breakthrough which keeps happening in the history of music. I don't mean to say that Smetana did it first, not in the long shot.

One of the earliest composers to only say something and not have a technical language to say it was Gesualdo. And of course we have a big Gesualdo event coming up this year, which I hope you'll come to. But I think it's an April. It's a really serious example. Beethoven is another. All the great composers in a way, and many lesser composers do this.

But I'm talking about when a composer's music breaks through technique in order to say something, that technique can be used to express or can inhibit. And when it's inhibiting, the composer has to break that technique. And that's the history of music. It's breaking the technique to say something personal because you can't say what everyone's been saying because it doesn't feel personal.

Now, that's also the difference between an artist and a really excellent student. It's saying something, it doesn't have to be in words. It doesn't have to be known what it is. But allowing the instrument to speak for you through the composer, if there is one. If you're not improvising, that is. To speak through the composer in some way, whether your technique is freeing you, not inhibiting you. That change from freedom- to freedom from inhibition is the whole point.

And so when something tragic happens and Smetana writes a piece, not only is this a great piece, but it basically, and I mean this only in an artistic way. It has nothing to do with the tragedy of his life. It changed him forever. It made him a better composer because he, for the first time, he broke through a lot of traditions in order to discover how to say what he has to say at that moment.

And he discovers it again after he goes deaf. Beethoven discovered it over and over and over with almost every piece, which is an extraordinary phenomenon. So now we're going to hear this. Unless, did you want to say something about Smetana? It's the worst possible moment.


Speaker 2

Just that I know from hanging around Russians, that Smetana is sour cream. Means sour cream.


Bruce Adolphe

Yes, Smetana and sour cream in Russian.

He mentioned that and I told him I'd ask him that probably at the worst possible moment. I should have bet you. Alright. Alright. So now we're going to hear this movement. And if you hear it just as manic despair alleviated by visions and dreams of the child alive and a desperate desire to affirm life.

And maybe it doesn't quite succeed in this one movement. (music) Yeah. We hope you enjoyed the podcast. Visit ChamberMusic Society.org to watch videos of these lectures, as well as masterclasses and concert performances. And while you're there, check out the calendar of upcoming Chamber Music Society events in New York and around the world. See you next time.