Last Saturday evening the Vega String Quartet — violinists Domenic Salerni and Jessica Shuang Wu, violist Yinzi Kong and cellist Guang Wang — performed music by Haydn, Janáček and Beethoven at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts at Emory University. It was both the final Emerson Series concert of the season and the series’ Danielle K. Rabel Memorial Concert. The Vega String Quartet has been an ensemble-in-residence at Emory University since 2006.
The concert opened with Franz Joseph Haydn’s Quartet No. 30 in E-flat major, Op. 33, No. 2. Sometimes referred to as “The Joke,” it is the second of six “Russian” quartets written in 1781 that were dedicated to the Grand Duke Paul of Russia who would later become Emperor Paul I.
Haydn implements his primary “musical joke” in the work’s final Rondo movement, beginning with a grand pause near the end that makes the listener wonder if it is over. Then the opening theme returns with increasingly long rests interrupting it every few bars, making the audience less certain of where the end will actually come. When that finally seemed assured, the Vegas stood, as if to bow. The audience began applauding, then the musicians played the actual final chord.
The String Quartet No. 1 of Czech composer Leoš Janáček closed the first half of the program. It was inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s novella, The Kreutzer Sonata, which was itself inspired by Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9, familiarly known as the “Kreutzer Sonata,” because Beethoven dedicated it to the French violinist and composer Rodolphe Kreutzer. However, Kreutzer never played Beethoven’s piece. It was originally dedicated to violinist George Bridgetower, who premiered it with Beethoven, but immediately after the concert, over a few drinks, Bridgetower insulted the moral behavior of a woman whom Beethoven adored. Enraged, Beethoven changed the dedication.
Needless to say, as a title for Tolstoy’s story, The Bridgetower Sonata would not have had the same ring to it. So we can thank Beethoven for his passion of the moment. That theme actually brings us directly to Tolstoy’s story, which inspired artists other than Janáček, including visual artist René François Xavier Prinet, whose famous 1901 painting, Kreutzer Sonata, was also based on Tolstoy’s novella. It has also inspired multiple adaptations for theater, film, radio and television.
Tolstoy’s novella itself, which was published in 1889, was certainly controversial for its era. It was swiftly censored in Russia, but became circulated in mimeographed form. An English translation eventually reached America and was banned. In 1890 the U.S. Post Office prohibited mailing of serialized versions printed in newspapers. Even president Theodore Roosevelt called Tolstoy a “sexual moral pervert.” The ban on the sale of the novella was eventually struck down by courts.
In the midst of its deep first-person examination of jealousy and rage, Tolstoy argues for an ideal of sexual abstinence. Pozdnyshev, the narrating main character, relates the events of his deteriorating marriage leading up to killing his wife, a amateur pianist, when he believed he had caught her in an adulterous relationship with a male violinist — with whom she played Beethoven’s “Kreutzer Sonata,” naturally. Clearly, Tolstoy would have been uncomfortable with the Beatles’ song, “All You Need is Love.”
Janáček’s music is mostly dark and brooding, punctuated by raging emotional outbursts, in its juxtapositions of melodic and rhythmic fragments. The first movement, with its opening rising motif, sets the melancholy tone of the whole. The second is a grim scherzo. The third quotes a slow theme from the opening movement of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, as if heard in the mind of the obsessively jealous Pozdyshev. In the fourth movement, we hear a reprise of materials from the first movement and a tearful theme in the first violin, bringing the drama to a direful conclusion.
After intermission the ensemble turned to Ludwig van Beethoven and his String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131. The composer’s own favorite among his late string quartets, it spans 40 minutes in seven movements played without pause. Written in 1826, over two decades after his “Kreutzer Sonata,” it was very avant-garde for its day, but now one of the great landmarks in string quartet repertoire. Thankfully, the Vega Quartet chose it to end the concert, as its emotional depth offered necessary healing after Janáček’s more emotionally dark and disturbing work.