The string quartet as tone poem?
Bedřich Smetana’s first String Quartet in e is just that; entitled Z mého života [From my life] its music conjures for us scenes from the life of its creator: his youthful passion for his art (with the hint of a dark fate to come); his early life as an itinerant pianist and joy in the dance; his love of his first wife; and, finally, at the end of the Czech nationalistic celebrations of the finale, the arrival of the dark fate itself, in the form of tinnitus – precursor of the nemesis of deafness and mental illness that was to consume him.
According to the composer the Second Quartet in d, in terms at least of extra-musical narrative, continues the autobiography from where the first ended:
The new quartet takes up the tale where the first leaves off – after the catastrophe. It expresses the whirlwind of music in the head of one who has lost his hearing
The quartet’s rapid changes of mood and fragmentary nature seem, with hindsight, almost prophetic (think of the two quartets of Janáček that were to follow), and played with sufficient understanding and emotion, this second quartet becomes a most deeply felt human document.
Here are both pieces performed by the distinguished ensemble named in memory of the composer: