A few days ago I gave a presentation to the Daria Book Club in Salt Lake City of my mystery, Death and the Maiden. As you can easily guess, the inspiration for my book was Franz Schubert’s incomparable string quartet of the same name. I was very pleased to be assisted in my presentation by the talented young Rosco String Quartet, who enthralled the audience with a compelling performance of the central slow movement.
However, my book was also inspired by a quartet which might not be as popular as “Death and the Maiden,” but is one of the most beautiful and deeply poignant composition ever written. That is the String Quartet in E Minor, “From My Life,” by the 19th century Czech composer, Bedrich Smetana.
What makes it such a gem? To begin with, it has all the components of great music: It is the product of superior craftsmanship and chock full of the gorgeous melodies, rhythms, and harmonies of eastern European traditional music. The third movement is truly one of the most gorgeous pieces of music ever written.
Beyond that, it is unique in all music because of its autobiographical nature. From one movement to the next, Smetana lays out the foundational chronology of his life: his early struggles, his devotion to Czech national music, his love for his wife, and the joy from the international recognition of all his efforts. What tears at the heart, though, is that at the very climax of this triumph the music is incised by a searing high E played by the first violin, which represents the pitch Smetana heard in his head, the result of the syphilis that was destroying his mind. Smetana knew that he was gradually going deaf, blind, and finally insane when he wrote this quartet, and it is all foreshadowed in the music from that point until the end of the composition.
Just think about that for a while. Who among us would have the courage, the skill, and the honesty to create such a devastatingly beautiful epitaph for our own lives?
I hope you’ll enjoy listening to these Abramyan String Quartet’s live performances of both Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” and Smetana’s “From My Life.” They were life changing experiences for us to play them and I hope you’ll feel the same as listeners.
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