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Hyperion Records

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Spring Evening, Ice Break (1897) by Hugo Simberg (1873-1917)
Finnish National Gallery / Central Art Archives / Pirje Mykkänen
Track(s) taken from CDA67845
Recording details: July 2010
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by Jeremy Hayes
Engineered by Ben Connellan
Release date: May 2011
Total duration: 27 minutes 58 seconds

String Quartet No 1 in E minor 'From my life'
composer
1876; 'Z mého zivota'; commissioned by the Czech-German Music Society of Prague

Largo sostenuto  [8'44]
Vivace  [5'57]

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
While completing Má vlast, his public statement on a now deep-seated nationalism, Smetana embarked on a pair of string quartets. The mirror image of the orchestral poems’ extrovert sentiment, Z mého zivota (‘From my life’) is a markedly private work, ‘purposely written for four instruments which, as in a small circle of friends, talk among themselves about what has oppressed me so significantly’. But given that the composer Ludevít Procházka’s Prague-based Czech-German Chamber Music Society prompted Smetana to write the quartet, Smetana knew from the outset that private thoughts would soon enter the public sphere. Writing to his friend, the musicologist Josef Srb-Debrnov, he detailed what he hoped to achieve:

My intention was to paint a tone picture of my life. The first movement depicts my youthful leanings towards art, a Romantic atmosphere, the inexpressible yearning for something I could neither express nor define, and also a kind of warning of my future misfortune. The long persistent note in the finale owes its origin to this. It is the fateful ringing of the high-pitched tones in my ears, which, in 1874, announced the beginning of my deafness. I allow myself this small joke, though [my loss of hearing] was ultimately disastrous.
The second movement, a quasi-polka, recalls the joyful days of my youth when I composed dance tunes and was widely known as a passionate lover of dancing.
The third movement (the one which, in the opinion of the gentlemen who play this quartet, is unperformable) reminds me of the happiness of my first love, the girl who later became my first wife [and whom Smetana sadly lost to tuberculosis, caught in the harsh Gothenburg climate].
The fourth movement describes my discovery that I could incorporate national elements in my music, and my joy in following this path until it was terminated by the onset of my deafness, the outlook into a sad future, the tiny rays of hope of recovery; but remembering the promise of my early career, a feeling of painful regret.

There can be no doubt about the sincerity of Smetana’s feelings. Having wished for wider recognition and eventually realizing that his reputation would come through the Czech National Revival, Smetana had become its most vocal devotee. Lauded as the father of Czech music, his deafness cruelly consigned him to an increasingly hermitic existence. The sudden interruption of the quartet’s vivacious finale is an eloquent depiction of creativity cut down. The melancholic (if consoled) lullaby that follows, with its whispers of past glories, tells of his painful acquiescence.

from notes by Gavin Plumley © 2011

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