In my music library is a paperback by the British writer Nigel Cawthorne titled “Sex Lives of the Great Composers.”

The great Czech composer Leos Janacek isn’t featured, but he should have been. Unhappily married, he consoled himself with a series of affairs that were found extremely shocking at the time. His most famous opera, “Jenufa,” concerns infanticide, and is still horrifying. And although he composed a famous Slavic Mass, he was an uncompromising atheist.

This weekend, the DaPonte String Quartet is playing Janacek’s second quartet, written in 1928, when the composer was 74. Titled “Intimate Letters,” it is his last completed work.

(The last of the DaPonte’s three-concert series, which also includes Mozart and Beethoven, is this afternoon at 3 p.m. at the United Methodist Church in Brunswick.)

The 1928 quartet has been referred to as Janacek’s “manifesto on love,” and depicts the composer’s long relationship with Kamila St?ov?who was 38 years younger and married to someone else.

They exchanged more than 700 letters, and Kamila is thought to have inspired many of Janacek’s works after their first meeting in 1917. Like that of Brahms and Clara Schumann, their affair is said not to have been consummated, but one wonders after passages like this: “You stand behind every note, you, living, forceful, loving. The fragrance of your body, the glow of your kisses – no, really of mine. Those notes of mine kiss all of you. They call for you passionately.”

The third movement, or “letter,” according to one musician, sounds like a lullaby for the son the couple never had.

Throughout the four-movement quartet, the viola (played by Kristin Monke) personifies Kamila. The part was originally scored for viola d’amore, but the antique instrument, probably chosen because of its name, could not provide quite the timbre that Janacek wanted.

The composer never heard his quartet performed in public. It was given its premiere after his death in 1928 by the Moravian Quartet.

Although it has an unmistakable voice, Janacek’s music is impossible to place in any tradition. It is tonal, but with emphatic dissonance at times. Much of it, like Bartok’s, is modeled after the folk songs that the composer collected, but he also used the rhythms of speech and animal sounds, such as bird calls.

An amusing vignette of the composer has him chasing after a flock of birds, whose songs he had been attempting to transcribe, calling out: “Speak to me, please speak to me! I must have your music, I must have it!”

My favorite among the operas is “The Cunning Little Vixen,” based on a newspaper comic strip – actually a serial comic novel with many illustrations.

Its plot, about the adventures of Vixen Sharp-Ears, is the perfect vehicle for Janacek’s strong pantheism, and its final scene, where the forester and the frog come to understand each other, is one of the supreme moments in music. It transmutes tragedy, the death of the Vixen, into an uncanny kind of victory.


Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

[email protected]


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