The emotional life of composers is often an important source of inspiration. It becomes an incentive to writing wonderful, emotional music that strongly impresses the audience.
The last decade of the life of the Czech composer Leoš Janáček was marked by a strong affection, which he cherished for almost 40 years younger Kamila Stösslova. The situation, however, was not favorable for the artist: both he and Stösslová were married, and to make matters worse, the composer’s passion was reciprocated. Though the odds were against them, Kamila was a source of inspiration for Leoš, and he shared ideas for new works in letters written to his beloved. He also did so when composing the String Quartet “Kreutzer Sonata”, inspired by the novel by Leo Tolstoy. Violent, often contradictory emotions experienced by the protagonists became the basis for creating one of Janáček's most personal, stormy and poignant works. The Serenade op. 6 by Josef Suk is very different from the Janáček quartet: cheerful, elegant and graceful. Suk studied composition with Antonín Dvořák. The teacher’s sympathy for his student meant that he often went to his mentor’s house and fell in love with his daughter Otilie. The feeling was mutual, and in 1897 the couple got married. The Five Melodies op. 35 by Sergei Prokofiev are songs without words originally intended for voice and piano. Prokofiev’s arrangement for violin and piano gained great popularity, but the Wrocław audience will listen to yet another version of the work. It will be a setting for string orchestra arranged by Joseph Swensen. The programme will also include the Lydian Music of the Wrocław-based composer Grażyna Pstrokońska-Nawratil, a work which she completed in 2003.
The Slavic theme of our program tonight is obvious, but the most striking thing about it is the absence of the two most famous Slavic composers, Dvořák and Tchaikovsky!
But first, allow me to introduce you to the composers who’s works we will play for you this evening, in the order in which they were composed.
Josef Suk (1874–1935) was Dvořák’s favorite student and son-in-law. The Serenade for Strings by Suk written in 1892 is his most often played work. One can clearly hear Dvořák’s influence in this wonderful piece. (It was written over a decade after Dvořák’s delightful work of the same name.) Suk develops and expands upon Dvořák’s transparent classical harmonic palette employing a more self-consciously sophisticated chromaticism and an unashamed sensual Romanticism. Although his Serenade for Strings is quite an early work, Suk never surpassed it in quality and sadly, his later works have been almost entirely ignored.
Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953) wrote his Five Melodies for Voice (or Violin) and Piano in 1920. Although Tchaikovsky was a huge source of inspiration for Prokofiev, and the two composers had much in common, (particularly in their shared love for writing for the ballet), Five Melodies betrays an even larger debt to Claude Debussy. It is this more revolutionary harmonic aesthetic which inspired me to orchestrate the transcendently beautiful piano part.
Leoš Janaček (1854–1928) wrote the first of his two string quartets, entitled “Kreutzer Sonata” in 1923. It was inspired by a story by Leo Tolstoy about romantic entanglements among musicians and the terrible suffering which so often results. Janacek manages to express all manner of psychological trauma in this music but the work is also filled with love and longing. Playing this quartet with a String Orchestra seems to highlight the sensual aspects of this extraordinary music.
Grażyna Pstrokońska-Nawratil (b. 1947) is one of the most fascinating composers of our time, associated with Wrocław. For me, Grażyna’s music is pure emotion, in abundance! (I can think of no other composer whose music I would describe in this way.) Lydian Music was composed in 2003 for the Wratislavia Chamber Orchestra and is based on the Lydian Quartet (a work composed in 1994). According to the composer, “The individual phases refer to the ancient tragedy (stasimon, epeisodion, kommos, exodus). The song is dedicated to the memory of a sincere friend, an outstanding composer Andrzej Krzanowski. Andrzej liked quotes, that’s why in the last phase I recall the echo of Epitaphium written by Seikilos in II century B.C., which sounds cheerful.”
I think it is now safe to say that none of the pieces we play tonight would exist if it weren’t for Dvořák and Tchaikovsky. I’m also quite certain that if it weren’t for Dvořák and Tchaikovsky’s influence on American music life, particularly in New York City, I would not be the musician I am. Tchaikovsky left an indelible impression on New York City when he conducted some of his greatest works at the opening concert of Carnegie Hall in 1891 (the year of Prokofiev birth). He was one of the few celebrated European composers to make the long trip to America in those years and his presence in New York was a huge boost to the city prestige and self-confidence. This resulted in a burst of energetic ambition on behalf of great art in New York. Dvořák actually lived in New York City from 1892–1895 when he was the Director of one of America’s first Music Conservatories, the National Conservatory of Music. It was, at that time the modest center of a budding music culture but through Dvořák’s leadership, passion, enthusiasm and vision he not only transformed the school, he changed the future of America’s music life forever. After the unfortunate closure of the National Conservatory, it was the Juilliard School who dedicated itself to fulfilling Dvořák’s dreams for America. Juilliard would become one of the world’s most respected and prestigious Music Conservatories. It was also the school I attended for 15 years from the age of seven.
Joseph Swensen, November 2019