Krása: Tanec. Passacaglia and Fugue

Since Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time became well known after World War II, more and more music composed in Nazi prison camps has come to light, and has been performed and recorded. Understandably, most of these works have come from the hands of Jewish composers, who had been rounded up along with their co-religionists throughout Europe. One such composer was the Czech Hans Krása (1899-1944). Although Krása formally studied only piano, he gained some reputation as a composer during the 1920s, being performed by Zemlinsky in Prague and Koussevitzky in Boston and New York. During the 1930s, Krása developed his style through his operas, about which he wrote an explanation of his style:

If I state that I was influenced by Schoenberg, by that I wish to emphasize the fact that I am trying all the more to avoid the emptiness which is so favored. I try to write in such a way that every bar, every recitative and every note is necessarily a solid part of the whole. This logic, without which every composition has no spirit, can, however, degenerate into mathematic-scientific music if the iron law of opera is not heeded, namely that the sense and aim of opera is the singing. I am sufficiently daring, as a modern composer, to write melodic music.

Krása’s public career was cut short when he was interned at Terezin in 1941. That camp was set up to look like a “self-governing” place of detention, where the arts were nurtured. This was for the benefit of the Red Cross and other agencies that inspected the facility from time to time. Krása’s 1938 children’s opera Brundibár (Bumble-Bee) was performed there in 1943, and he was permitted to compose more, producing works for small orchestra, string quartet, and the Tanec and Passacaglia and Fugue for string trio. In reality, Terezin was merely a way-station for prisoners on their way to Auschwitz, where Krása was transferred late in 1944 for immediate extermination.

As an introduction to Tanec and the Passacaglia-Fugue, the thoughts and words of cellist-conductor Kenneth Woods cannot be topped:

Krása’s called his first string trio, completed in 1944, Tanec, or “Dance,” but the title seems intentionally misleading. The churning ostinato with which the cello begins the piece is just the first of several bits of music tone-painting that evoke the sound-world of trains, in an atmosphere that ranges from eerie nostalgia, to barely contained menace, to explicit violence. The main dance theme, heard first in the violin, is frequently poised on the edge of mania, finally tipping over the edge on the work’s final page.

The Passacaglia and Fugue from later that same year was Krása’s final completed work. Krása takes these two ancient forms, in which the rules of rhetoric are traditionally engaged to give structure and lucidity to the exchange and development of ideas among independent voices, and profoundly deconstructs them. Rather than contrapuntal engagement leading towards reason and clarity, both the Fugue, and the Passacaglia that precedes it, essentially ‘fail’, as discussion degenerates into argument and argument descends into violence.

The primary theme of the work, the repeated figure that forms the structure of the Passacaglia, is first heard in the cello, but also often present is the “dance” theme of the earlier Tanec. The Passacaglia opens in gravely austere beauty, but in the course of the variations that follow, the emotional temperature gradually rises until all hell breaks loose. After a desolate codetta, the viola begins the Fugue, on a speeded up version of the cello’s Passacaglia theme. The contrapuntal exchanges gradually become more rapid and intense, until, in the coda, the developmental process breaks down. Rather than engaging in reasoned dialogue and perpetual development, the music becomes violent and primitive. The cello repeats the passacaglia/fugue theme obsessively, fortissimo, all pretense of development abandoned, while the violin and viola scream out the “Tanec” theme and the work drives headlong to a terrifying conclusion.

Prokofiev: Cello Sonata in C Major, Op. 119

Both Shostakovich and his elder colleague, Sergei Prokofiev (1881-1953), had a tenuous relationship with the Soviet Union’s leader, Joseph Stalin. Every few years the politically cultural Stalin would hear some work by one of these composers, and he would explode with anger, often writing a scathing review in the newspaper. This had a devastating effect on the careers of any composers whom Stalin (or his “committees”) cast in a bad or questionable light. Who would then touch any of their music or write about any of them in a positive way? In 1948, one of Stalin’s Central Committees came out with a condemnation of “formalism” in Soviet music. Both composers were named (among others), and both were shattered. Some of their music was actually banned.

The aging Prokofiev issued a formal written admission of guilt and an apology. He continued to compose, and his music regained favor with the public. In 1949, he completed his Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 119. Ironically, in March 1953, both Prokofiev and Stalin died on the same day.

In Prokofiev’s sonata, the movement tempos progress from andante, through moderato, to allegro. The first movement presents the composer’s notable lyrical gift, with soaring melodies for both instruments in the first third. Suddenly, a faster tempo and more agitated mood takes over, eventually melting into the opening tempo and development of themes. Now, however, the music is more fantastic/mystical for a time. Toward the movement’s end, the mood becomes temporarily heroic and virtuosic, only to end in a threefold “amen.”

Despite its moderate overall tempo, the central movement is the sonata’s scherzo. Playful at times, a comical mock march at others, the varying humorous modes are foils for the central romantic-style lyrical theme. It sprawls and seems to take over, only to be punctuated by a telescoped reprise of the movement opening antics.

The spirited finale summarizes, in some ways, the preceding two movements. There is even a quotation from the first movement. Some listeners also perceive Armenian elements here and there — possibly a reference to the sonata’s dedicatee, Levon Atovmyan, who was Prokofiev’s Armenian patron. The piano plays a significant role in winding up the sonata, seeming at times to dominate the cello. However, in the final moments, the cello is again ascendant, leading to a triumphant ending for both cello and piano.

Dvořák: Piano Quartet in E-Flat Major, Op. 87

Few works in the chamber music field have been attended with such contradictory criticism as has Dvořák’s second piano quartet.  Commentary on the work has ranged from the destructive (“Dvořák seems temporarily to have lost his grip of the chamber-music medium.”) to the most laudatory (“. . . a masterly and striking composition . . . It is both grateful to play and stirring to hear.”)  The quartet, written a mere two years after the composer’s triumphant Piano Quintet, perhaps suffers by comparison to the former chamber work.  Dvořák composed the Piano Quartet quickly (July 10 – August 19, 1889), immediately following the completion of the opera, The Jacobin.  Then, less than a week after finishing the quartet he set to work on his Eighth Symphony.

There are some unusual features in the Piano Quartet that could conceivably stir a controversy.  One of these is the composer’s emphasis on the piano, brought forth at odd moments.  The work shows an obvious mastery of the pianistic idiom, but this is sometimes displayed in a crude manner.  Then, there is the matter of diversity of flavor and musical style.  In the first movement, the dramatic moodiness of the first theme is anything but typical of chamber music.  This leads to a melodramatic-sounding development section, which focuses rather heavily on the piano.

The remainder of the work is somewhat more conventional.  The tripartite second movement features a lyrical cello melody that is surely among Dvořák’s loveliest.  This contrasts with a dramatic middle section.  The quartet’s third movement is a gracious waltz rather than the traditional scherzo.  With its splashes of oriental scale work and reflection of the cimbalom (a hammered dulcimer), it contains more true Czech spirit than any other movement.  The finale is a vigorous country dance in the good-humored tradition of Haydn.  Also Haydnesque is its commencement in E-flat minor, arriving at the major home key only toward the midpoint.  Thus, we have the spirited conclusion to one of the most unusual and original-sounding chamber works of the late 19th century.

Notes by Dr. Michael Fink, copyright 2018