The MCO understands the importance of music education, which is why we’ve developed a unique instructional resource for teachers and parents. Written by music educator Beryl Peters, Ph.D, MCO’s Listening Guides provide a clear and thorough analysis of the repertoire featured in our concerts. They offer a perfect primer to the great works of Bach, Beethoven, Britten and beyond for K-8 and 9-12 students — with engaging historical anecdotes and simple theory for younger students, and more complex information for older students. Indeed, just about anyone can learn a thing or two from our MTS Future First Listening Guides … so dig in!

(arr. Michael Oesterle)

Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) composed his String Quartet No.1 in 1923 when he was around 69 years old. The string quartet was a commissioned work subtitled “after Tolstoy’s ‘Kreutzer sonata.’” The String Quartet was inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s tragic novella, Kreutzer Sonata which recounts the disturbing and dark story of a man who murders his wife, a pianist, whom he suspects of having an affair with a violinist. Tolstoy titled his novella after Beethoven’s violin sonata No.9, dedicated to Rudolph Kreutzer, a renowned violinist of the time. The wife and supposed lover play Beethoven’s sonata together at a key moment in the story. The String Quartet No. 1 has been called a wordless opera because of the way that the unfolding music captures the intense dialogue, emotions, and turmoil of the characters in Tolstoy’s novella. The Manitoba Chamber Orchestra program notes for this work contain more details about this story.


Manitoba Music Curricular Connections

9-12 Making: The learner develops competencies for listening by listening critically with discrimination and purpose to:

  • situate and contextualize music (e.g., cultural/ ideological/historical/social contexts, music style, genre, tradition, or praxis, etc.)
  • support enjoyment and understanding of music
  • make and interpret music expressively and creatively
  • inform analysis, interpretation, judgement, appreciation, and evaluation

K-8 Understanding Music in Context: Demonstrate awareness of the intended meanings and/or purposes of music encountered in own performance and listening experiences

9-12 Connecting: The learner develops understandings about the significance of music by connecting music to diverse contexts.

When you listen to this transcription of the String Quartet No. 1 by Janáček, you will hear a highly unique four movement work that captures the emotional and psychological circumstances expressed in Tolstoy’s novella Kreutzer Sonata. You will hear Janáček use motifs, rhythms, tempos, and instrumentation in innovative, varied and expressive ways to create a sense of conflict and tragedy and intensely emotional and turbulent speech-like dialogue.

The following questions can help you listen to this work:

1 Form in music refers to the musical architecture or the way the music is structured. Although this string quartet transcription is structured in four movements, you will not hear traditional forms such as sonata or rondo form that Haydn uses in the Cello Concerto in D major also on this program. Although Janáček titles his work in four movements, the work is one of continuous development of various rhythmic and melodic fragments of sound.

Can you hear the way that changes in tempo help to distinguish the four movements below:

  1. Adagio, Con moto (slowly, with motion)
  2. Con moto (with motion)
  3. Con moto, Vivace, Andante, Tempo I (with motion, fast and lively, moderately slowly—walking pace; tempo 1)
  4. Con moto (with motion)

The form used within each of the four movements also does not follow conventional kinds of musical structure and development. Themes are not presented in their entirety to be developed in predictable keys and ways as in Haydn’s time. Janáček sometimes presents a theme or theme fragment only to interrupt its development with sudden exclamations of sound from other instruments. Can you hear this kind of treatment at the opening of each of the first three movements? What is the effect of this kind of musical structure?

2 The original String Quartet was written for 2 violins, viola, and cello. What instruments can you hear in this transcription for string orchestra? How many performers are playing onstage?

Can you hear the highly charged conversations that take place between various instruments and sections of the orchestra to create a feeling of intense emotional dialogue and conflict? For example, listen to dialogue between first violins and cellos at the beginning of the third movement. When do you hear individual instruments or sections and when do you hear the orchestra playing together? Which instruments are given the predominant motifs heard in this work?

3 Janáček uses expressive elements (musical elements that express certain feelings or dispositions) to capture the dark, disturbing emotional extremes and tension expressed in Tolstoy’s novel and in the characters. The composer uses rapidly changing tempos (the speed of the music) and accelerando (increases in tempo) to suggest restless, changing energy and actions and varying emotions.

Does the string quartet begin quickly or slowly? Can you hear when the music suddenly changes tempo after only a couple of bars? Can you hear when the tempo of the music changes and gets faster or slower in other sections of the string quartet transcription? Do you hear the dramatic accelerando effects in the second Con Moto movement? Can you hear when Janáček repeats the same motif at different tempos? How do the changing tempos affect the mood of the work? Various sources have identified more than 50 changes of tempo in this work!

Dynamics (the volume of the music) are also used to create expressive effects. When do you hear music or small motifs played loudly? Quietly? When do the dynamics change dramatically and what effect does that create? When does the music get suddenly louder (crescendo) or quieter (decrescendo)?

Other expressive elements and special effects that create different moods throughout the work include the use of tremolo (rapid back and forth movement of the bow on the same note), sul ponticello (playing with the bow on or near the bridge), pizzicato (using the fingers to pluck the strings), muted strings (fitting a small device called a mute on the stringed instrument to alter and mute the sound of the instrument) and harmonics (overtones that are high in pitch). Can you hear the use of tremolo and sul ponticello in the second Con Moto movement? Do you hear the use of a tremolo and pizzicato that creates a frenzied, emotionally charged mood in the final, fourth movement?

In a letter to a friend, Janáček wrote that “I was imagining a poor woman, tormented and battered to death by her husband, just like the one the Russian writer Tolstoy describes in his Kreutzer Sonata.“ What expressive elements help to create a sense of torment and despair in the music?

4 How is rhythm used in this string quartet transcription? Is this the kind of music that you can easily tap a steady rhythm or beat to? Can you hear that Janáček uses a very wide range and variety of rhythms that he repeats, contrasts and combines? Do you hear the way that Janáček uses rhythmic fragments to create the impression of speech patterns? Can you hear short rhythmic patterns (motifs) repeated at the opening of the work? Do you hear the propelling rhythmic patterns rapidly repeated or repeated at different tempos to create feelings of great intensity? Can you hear the use of ostinato (a continuously repeated melody or rhythmic pattern) anywhere in this work? How are rhythms used to create a sense of drama and conflict in this work? Can you pick out a polka sounding rhythm in the second Con Moto movement?

5 How is melody or pitch used in this string quartet transcription? Is this the kind of music that you can easily pick out a melody to hum or sing? Can your ear pick out short melodic motifs heard throughout the work? Can you hear when these short melodic fragments are repeated, contrasted with each other, and combined in different ways? Do you hear short melodies repeated using an ostinato effect? Can you hear these short motifs rapidly repeated or repeated at changing tempos? Do you hear high sounds or pitches? Do you hear low sounds or pitches? Can you hear when the short motifs move higher or lower in pitch?

Do you hear the rising quality of the opening melodic motif of this work that seems to suggest the beginning narration of Tolstoy’s story? Can you pick out this theme again at the beginning of the fourth movement in the low strings? Do you hear short melodic fragments played and traded by certain instruments or sections of instruments?

If you have ever heard Beethoven’s Kreutzer Violin sonata, you might recognize, as some listeners do, fragments of a theme from the first movement of this sonata in the third movement of Janáček’s String Quartet. Some listeners identify the violin sonata’s first movement, slow, lyric second theme at the beginning of Janáček’s String Quartet third movement (bar 8). The supposed Beethoven theme is distorted and repeated with increasing intensity to suggest tension and conflict, perhaps on the part of the husband in Tolstoy’s novella.

Janáček marks a melodic fragment in the fourth movement and played by the first violin "like in tears". How does Janáček use melody and expressive elements to create the feeling of tears at the close of this work?

6 What different kinds of textures do you hear in this work? Do you hear how Janáček uses the instruments to create a minimalistic effect rather than the fuller orchestral sound created in Haydn’s Cello Concerto in D major that is also on this program? Janáček does not use traditional approaches to harmony or instrumental texture in this work but instead paints a mosaic of sound with various sound effects, instrumental colours, melodic and rhythmic fragments, and interruptions of sounds.

7 What kinds of instrumental timbre do you hear? Timbre refers to different qualities of sound, for example the kinds of sounds that the string instruments make when they play together. When does the timbre of the music change because certain instruments are added or taken away? Can you hear different qualities of sound created by different instruments playing with the expressive techniques and effects such as sul ponticello described above?


Reflections and Responses (K-8 Valuing; 9-12 Responding)

Grades 9-12 Responding

The learner develops and uses critical reflection and thinking for music learning:

  • the learner generates initial reactions to music experiences
  • the learner critically listens to, observes, and describes music experiences
  • the learner analyzes and interprets music experiences
  • the learner constructs meanings about music experiences

Grades K-8 Valuing

Students analyze, reflect on, and construct meaning in response to their own and others’ music:

  • students analyze their own and others
  • musical excerpts, works, and performances
  • students form personal responses to and construct meaning from their own and others’ music

1 What is your immediate response to this music? Does this music sound like any other music you have heard before? What does this music make you think of?

2 Various sources have pointed out that Janáček was interested in women’s rights and felt that women were treated unjustly in his society. If you listen to Janáček’s work with that perspective in mind, how does Janáček create compassion for Tolstoy’s female character and explore psychological turmoil and issues of morality and justice through the music? What feelings did it seem that Janáček was trying to communicate to his audience in this work? What music elements seemed to be important to him?

3 What adjectives might describe the mood that you felt when listening to this work? Can you identify what musical elements may have created that mood for you? When did the mood change and why?

4 What musical elements did you enjoy or find interesting? What effect did the melodic fragments or short themes have on you? Did the rhythms, dynamics, or tempos used by Janáček capture emotional intensity and turmoil for you or did they create a different emotional response? What feeling were you left with at the end of the fourth movement? Was Tolstoy’s story resolved for you?

5 Were there parts of the work that you did not enjoy? Why or why not? Can you identify which music elements made you enjoy or not enjoy the music?

6 Different people often have different responses to the same music. Ask someone else who heard the same music about their response to this transcription of Janáček’s String Quartet No.1.

7 Is there other music by Janáček that you could listen to and compare to the sounds and experience of this transcription of the String Quartet No. 1? Perhaps you could listen to Janáček’s String Quartet No. 2, subtitled ‘Intimate Letters.’ The Manitoba Chamber Orchestra is premiering an arrangement of this string quartet at the 3 June 2015 final concert of the season.