Welcome to our second programme of 2017: "Intimate Letters"
This project is a very special one for us - it marks the first major commission that we have ever produced as an organisation, a work written in celebration of the 100 year anniversary of the great Mancunian writer, Anthony Burgess' birth. The work is named after, and draws its inspiration from, one of his comic novels, "Inside Mr Enderby".
The process of commissioning this work was, as is usually the case, anything but simple. It involved a five way collaboration between the composer, Huw Belling, our librettist and dramaturg, Pierce Wilcox, our soloist, Mitch Riley, the Estate of Anthony Burgess, and our artistic team at Manchester Collective.
Ultimately, this is music that tells a story - it contains moments of exquisite beauty, moments of horror, moments of ugliness. It's been a phenomenally exciting journey for us, deep into the mind of the titular character, Mr Enderby.
Janacek's incredible "Intimate Letters" is also a work of storytelling, however, Janacek is a deceptively unreliable narrator. Through the work, he tells us the story of his relationship with Kamilla Stosslova, the woman who would become his muse for most of his life. Some events are real, some are imagined. The boundaries of fantasy and reality are smudged, and eventually obliterated.
We hope you enjoy the concert, and if you get the chance, come join us for a beer after the show. As always, we love to hear what you think.
janacek: string quartet no. 2, "intimate letters"
Janacek’s life in his 40s was by all accounts a difficult time, both personally and professionally. His son Vladimir had died at a young age in 1890, and in 1903 his daughter Olga died, aged 20. He was extremely close to Olga and the loss suffered eventually led to the breakdown of his marriage. He was also struggling to gain the recognition he felt he deserved back in Prague. It was not until 1916 that he was finally recognised at home with the success of his opera Jenufa – he was 62. In spite of this success, the difficulties in his personal life contined as his wife attempted suicide after learning of an affair.
Janacek used to frequent the spa town of Luhacovice for respite and recovery and it was here he met Kamilla Stosslova – who was to become his muse for the rest of his life. Zdenka – Janacek’s wife - writes of Kamilla:
She gained my husband’s favor through her cheerfulness, laughter, temperament, Gypsy-like appearance, and buxombody, perhaps also because she reminded him of Mrs. Horvatova, although she had none of that women’s demonic qualities or artfulness. She was natural, sometimes almost uninhibited. One couldn’t exactly say she won my husband over, for she didn’t try to… she herself was completely unimpressed by my husband’s fame, and also by his person; sometimes she laid into him quite sharply and at other times he seemed almost ridiculous in her eyes…
Janacek's obsession with this young married woman (38 years his junior) led to a correspondence of nearly 750 letter over the course of 10 years. The early letters are polite and courteous - he thanks her for a gift of bread and goods that she and her husband send him. He writes over and over again, inviting her to concerts, and is often riled that she rejects his offers, sometimes not even answering his letter at all. This elusiveness seems to only intensify his feelings for her:
How can one not want you when one loves you? But I know, don’t I, that I’ll never have you. Would I pluck that flower, that family of happiness of yours, would I make free with my respect for you, whom I honor like no other woman on earth? Could I look your children in the eye, your husband, your parents? Could I walk into your home? You know, we dream about paradise, about heaven and we never get to it. So I dream about you and I know that you are the unattainable sky. You are entire in my soul: so it’s enough for me to want you always.
It seems that over the years Kamilla developed a deep affection for Janacek, but the true extent of their relationship is still a mystery. It gradually become common knowledge that in spite of his infatuation, she would keep him at arms length.
In January 1928, Janacek began writing his second string quartet – initially entitled "Love letters", and then later revised to "Intimate Letters". He writes:
Our life is going to be in [this piece]… I composed the first movement as my impression when I saw you for the first time….Kamila, it will be beautiful, strange, unrestrained, inspired, a composition beyond all…..Its my first composition that sprang directly from things remembered; this piece was written in fire.
It is an explicit chronicle of their relationship – both real and imagined – through the work the lines of reality blur into fantasy.
The quartet starts with a strong, virile theme in the violins, only to quickly come to a stunned stop in an eerie theme in the viola representing “the chilling mystery encounter with something new…”
Janacek’s fantasy was unrestrained – he writes of the second and third movements:
Today I wrote in musical tones my sweetest desire. I struggle with it. It prevails. You are giving birth. What would be the destiny of that newborn son? Would it be ours? Just as you are, laughing with tears in your eyes – that is how it sounds.
I am now writing the third of the Love Letters. I want to make it particularly joyful and then dissolve it into a vision like your image. How could I not be overjoyed remembering the times of being with you when I felt as though the earth was trembling under my feet…. This will be the best [movement so far]… nowif only the last would turn out well, too. Writing this is like the worry I feel about you.
Janacek was burning with impatience to hear this work, so before he sent it to Kamilla he had some musicians play it through for him. He writes of this performance:
You know, feelings on their own are sometimes so strong that the notes hide, run away. A great love – a weak composition. But I want [this] to be a great love – a great composition……I listened to their playing today [and ask myself] did I write that? Those cries of joy, but what a strange thing – also cries of terror after a lullaby. Exaltation, a warm declaration of love, imploring, untamed longing. Resolution, relentlessly to fight with the world over you. Moaning, confiding, fearing….Standing in wonder before you at our first meeting…..Oh, it’s a work as if carved out of living flesh. I think that I won’t write a more profound or truer one.
Janacek’s letters culminated in one of the most profound and raw declarations of feelings of all time.
In August 1928, Kamilla agreed to visit Janacek with her husband and son for the summer, and after a while her husband left on business. On Monday, August 6, the son Otto got lost while they were all hiking and Janacek combed the forest looking for him, pushing himself past exhaustion and getting soaked in a downpour.
The boy found his way back on his own but Janacek caught a cold which he tried to conceal from Kamila. By Thursday, he called the doctor who diagnosed the flu and the onset of pneumonia. The next day, as his health declined and his temperature hit 104, an x-ray revealed an inflamed lung and by Saturday he realized he was dying. He became unconscious on Sunday morning and died peacefully on Sunday night, August 12th.
His last diary entry on August 10th after a feverish night reads:
And I kissed you.
And you are sitting beside me and I am happy and at peace.
In such a way do the days pass for the angels.
belling: inside mr enderby (35 mins)
The wonderful thing about commissions is that you never really know what you're going to get.
When we first started chatting with Huw about this new work (over a year ago), we originally discussed a formal song cycle - a series of short musical numbers that formed a set of character studies of Enderby, the central character.
Over time, this structure evolved - we are calling the finished piece a dramatic work for singer and string quartet rather than a song cycle. The narrative arc of the work concerns the transformation of the Enderby character; we witness him undergo the realisation that his poetry is mediocre and derivative, rather than brilliant and original. Suffice it to say, he doesn't take this epiphany well...
Listening to new music is a little like going on a voyage, or exploring a new land. There is no guarantee that everything that you see is going to be pretty - such adventures usually involve elements of surprise, of horror, or of nose-wrinkling confusion.
As new-music adventurers, the only thing that is required of us is that we keep our eyes and ears open. Take in the sights, breathe in the strange new air, and enjoy the incredible experience of witnessing something brand new, something untouched that has never before been heard.
The wikipedia bit
If your appetite for information has not yet been satiated, we have some Wikipedia goodness for you in the section below. Check it out.