Jan Levoslav Bella
String Quintet in d minor for 2 Violins, 2 Violas & Cello
Bella's String Quintet in d minor received high praise when it appeared and more recently from The Chamber Music Journal. It dates from 1868 and, though it is an early work, it nonetheless shows the hand of a mature composer, and one who was on the cutting edge of the new developments of his own time.
Jan Levoslav Bella (1843-1936), for the first 76 years of his life was an Austrian, he spent his last 17 as a Czechoslovak, and today, he is posthumously a proud son of the Slovak Republic. He was born in the small town of Liptovsky St. Mikulas in what was then the Habsburg Empire. He studied both music and theology locally and was ordained as a priest in 1866. He then traveled widely in Germany where he was influenced by the music of Schumann and Liszt. In 1881, he left the priesthood and married, taking a position as City Music Director (Stadtskapellmeister) in Hermannstadt (now Sibiu, Romania), a town with a sizeable German population in what was then part of the Hapsburg Empire or Austria-Hungary. He held this position until he retired in 1921. Although, he is virtually unknown today, he was well-known and on friendly terms with many prominent musicians such as Richard Strauss, Liszt, Brahms, and Ernst von Dohnanyi, whose works he championed and performed. Though the bulk of his compositions consist of choral music, he did not ignore chamber music, writing four string quartets, two of which were often performed by well-known ensembles, and also a viola quintet. It can be said that Bella was attracted to the German neo-romantic school rather than the nationalism and dramatic naturalism of Smetana and Dvorak.
The opening movement, Allegro appassionato, begins softly with a yearning theme played over a tremolo which creates considerable drama. The lovely second theme, with its echoes of Schubert and Bruckner, quickly rises to an intense dramatic climax, before Bella develops it on a grand scale in the tradition of Schubert's late works. The second movement, a Scherzo, begins in a light and delicate fashion, its fetching melodies effortlessly moving forward like a skater over ice. It is followed by a contrasting trio section. The marvelous Adagietto which follows begins in canonic fashion. The heavy theme moves slowly and in a deliberate fashion and as it is developed we hear distant echoes of Schubert's Death & the Maiden Quartet, also in d minor. The powerful climax is approached in, what was for the time, a very modern fashion, anticipating Richard Strauss by more than 2 decades. The finale, Presto, begins somewhat pensively before the first violin breaks loose in a Hungarian flurry. A series of attractive and lyrical melodies successively follow on each others heels the last being a particularly striking duo between the violins to a rhythmic accompaniment.
This is a first rate work which does not sound like any of the other quintet from its time. It deserves to be in the repertoire, heard in concert and on the stands of amateurs. Our edition is the only edition which can truly be called a performing edition as the two prior editions paid no attention to the problem of page turns, especially in the scherzo. We remedied this problem and have also corrected several errors which appeared in those prior editions.