It’s 10 o’clock on a Sunday night. I just got home from a Chamber Music Yellow Springs concert at First Presbyterian Church. It’s raining, has been for hours, and I want nothing more than to sleep.
Instead, I’m sitting on my couch, in heels, grilling a sandwich, and writing this with the window open, because I know I won’t sleep until I do.
String quartets make me regret my instrument choice. Not only can string players swear while practicing (instead of having to halt air flow, curse breathlessly, and resume—a habit that has lately gotten me in trouble in lessons) and play whole entire chords at once, they also get all the coolest literature (to anyone who says string quartet isn’t the most metal instrumentation: Grieg String Quartet No. 1 in G Minor). Growing up in a small Oklahoma school district, orchestra wasn’t an option; it was band or bust. I’m not even sure I would’ve picked orchestra if I had the option. I only joined band because my friends did, and I’m pretty sure I never would’ve been friends with people who picked orchestra.
Tonight, twelve years after that decision, I sat in that worship hall watching Calidore String Quartet, knowing entirely I would’ve been their friend.
These tickets came to me by way of a text message Saturday night. I had other plans, cancelled them, and was offered an extra ticket I had a hard time giving away. Here, I hope, those people I offered it to will find remorse and redemption.
The previous owner of the tickets said: “The Janáček will be one to see. I couldn’t do the Haydn or Beethoven without…” *pantomimes nodding off*. Most of this statement was true.
The concert started with the Haydn Quartet in D Major, Op. 64, No. 5, “The Lark,” which was by no means a snoozefest. It was the most Haydnian music you could ever imagine, with luscious melodies and comedic interjections that sometimes go right over the audience’s heads. Honestly—and no offence to Franzie here—you could forget the music entirely with this group. I’d be alright watching them on mute; I’d still feel in the silence. The three lower voices (second violin, viola, and cello) were perfectly in sync. They were the company dancers, choreographed and rehearsed at the barre in front of a wall of mirrors by a tough-love Austrian lady. It was a beautiful, wordless conversation. So mesmerizing I overlooked entirely the soloist of the group, the first violin. He was in a world of his own, moving in and out of the company’s shapes—or rather, above, since he was the Lark. I have nothing to say about Haydn’s music because I didn’t listen to it: I watched it. The audience begged to clap.
The concert closed with Beethoven’s Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 127, which was plain mean. I understand why this was programmed here: It’s the longest piece, it would have to stand on either side of the intermission alone, and it’s common practice to have the longer single piece at the end. But, as an audience member, it was exhausting. I wrote no notes on this one other than “why,” and “there was exactly 1 sexy moment in the entire piece,” referring to the second movement, Adagio, ma non troppo e molto cantabile, which was s e v e n t e e n m i n u t e s l o n g . This note was taken at minute 8, which in adagio time is more accurately hour 2. In true Beethoven fashion, the last movement was covered in false endings that just moved to another key, which is when I realized Beethoven is an asshole.
None of this matters, though, when I mention the Czech composer Leoš Janáček’s Quartet No. 1, “Kreutzer,” who stole my heart like a true Russian aristocrat and crushed it.
You may recognize the name as an affectionate reference to Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9, dedicated to violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer (probably also why Beethoven was programmed, but I’m still bitter), which inspired the Leo Tolstoy novella of the same name. This quartet is a dramatization of this novella.
The story follows Pozdnyshev, a misogynistic, hard-hearted man who doesn’t believe in love or gender equality, and his ill-fated marriage of passion and vicious fighting. He possibly loved his wife in the early years, most likely for her beauty and status, and this optimism for their future shows in the hopeful melody of the first movement. It is glorious, like a ship just leaving the docks, but lacks genteel manners needed for longevity. The dance melody of the second movement is celebratory, yet leaves something behind, a fog over the courtyard. The performers are happy, too, but it’s bittersweet: They know the ending.
The third movement shows the dark side of their home life: Passionate material love interrupted by hatred. Now the performers have transferred fully from musicians to thespians, telling the story with every part of their body, not just the instruments. Here, Pozdnyshev’s wife has taken up piano and began playing the Kreutzer Sonata with a violinist she soon falls in love with. The first violin and cello share a new melody, sweet and knowing—the love and music making shared in infidelity. It is interrupted by screeches of rage by the second violin and viola when Pozdnyshev learns of his wife’s adultery. He is telling his story on a train afterwards, and the fourth movement is reflective of the first, a shadow of itself. The performers lean back in their chairs, broken. They all ask for forgiveness with Pozdnyshev, who has been convicted of his wife’s murder.
What is it about live music that makes it so easy to fall in love with the performers? (I will call it love, despite Pozdnyshev’s fellow passengers contesting him on what makes true love; they surely would argue what I felt couldn’t possibly equate love, but I tell you that is all it could be. After all, as Pozdnydshev said, “What is love?”) Live music is itself a shared experience, a strong unifying one; a great performance is also vulnerable, and inspires the audience to be just as open and raw. I feel like I was laid bare and examined, despite never making eye contact with a single member of the quartet, and I’m unashamed. It is impossible to not instantly fall into a deep, temporary love right there on the poorly-cushioned pew. I selfishly hold this in me, and choose to ignore this experience wasn’t mine alone and is (to some extent) shared with other members of the audience. By intermission, I’m thankful no one took the extra ticket to break this illusion.
It is now 11 o’clock. It is still raining. My sandwich is gone. I will go to bed dreaming of Russia and my life as a string musician.