String Quartet in No.2 G Major, Op.8
If reputation could be likened to a horse race, then in the “19th Century Czech Composer’s Derby” Antonin Dvorak would cross the finish line several lengths ahead of his nearest rival, Bedrich Smetana, and then, after an even greater distance, would come Zdenek Fibich, far behind in third place. But reputation must not be confused with quality. Fibich (1850-1900) is no third rate composer. His music is of very high quality, and totally undeserving of the near obscurity into which it has fallen.
The fall into obscurity can explained by the fact that Fibich lived during rise of Czech nationalism within the Habsburg empire. And while Smetana and Dvorak gave themselves over entirely to the national cause consciously writing Czech music with which the emerging nation strongly identified, Fibich’s position was more ambivalent. That this was so was due to the background of his parents and to his education. Fibich’s father was a Czech forestry official and the composer’s early life was spent on various wooded estates of the nobleman for whom his father worked. His mother, however, was an ethnic German Viennese. Home schooled by his mother until the age of 9, he was first sent to a German speaking gymnasium in Vienna for 2 years before attending a Czech speaking gymnasium in Prague where he stayed until he was 15. After this he was sent to Leipzig where he remained for three years studying piano with Ignaz Moscheles and composition with Salamon Jadassohn and Ernst Richter. Then, after the better part of a year in Paris, Fibich concluded his studies with Vincenz Lachner (the younger brother of Franz and Ignaz) in Mannheim.
Hence Fibich, in contrast to either Dvorak or Smetana, was the product of two cultures, German and Czech. He had been given a true bi-cultural education. And during his formative early years, he had lived in Germany, France and Austria in addition to his native Bohemia. He was perfectly fluent in German as well as Czech. All of these factors were important in shaping his outlook and approach to composition. And this outlook was far broader than that of Smetana and Dvorak, who in their maturity, exclusively took up the Czech cause and never let it fall. Such an approach was too narrow and constricting for a man like Fibich, trained at the great Leipzig Conservatory by colleagues and students of Mendelssohn and Schumann; too narrow for a man who had sojourned in Paris and Vienna; a man who understood that German, along with French, was clearly one of the leading languages of Europe. And Fibich could plainly see that writing opera and vocal works (his main areas of interest) in Czech would limit their appeal. What he did not appreciate was that writing such works in German would profoundly affect the way in which he and his music were regarded by Czechs. In his instrumental works, Fibich generally wrote in the vein of the German romantics, first falling under the influence of Weber, Mendelssohn and Schumann and later Wagner. It seems, that like Tchaikovsky, Fibich did not wish to write music that merely sounded nationalistic, but unlike Tchaikovsky, for the most part, Fibich succeeded. And therein lies the reason that Fibich has never been held in the same regard by his countrymen as either Dvorak and Smetana or even Janacek.
Fibich’s String Quartet No.2 in G Major, Op.8 was composed in 1878 and is the only one of his three works for string quartet that was published during his lifetime. In four movements, the opening movement, Allegro moderato, is genial in mood. His clear gift for melody is very apparent not only here but throughout the quartet. Initially, there is nothing at all suggestive of Bohemian or Czech melody, and yet as the movement develops, careful listening reveals that here and there, snippets of such melody are present. The main theme of the magnificent second movement, Adagio, is solemn and prayer like, sung by all the voices in a choral fashion. The lovely and lyrical second theme utilizes Czech folk melody. It is meticulously put together with a great deal of soft filigree work in the upper voices. The main theme to the Allegro scherzando which follows is a whirling dance characterized more by energy than by melody. In the second part of the scherzo, the first violin is given a characteristically Bohemian fiddle passage. The somewhat more relaxed trio section is a folksong which provides good contrast. In the finale, Allegro vivace, the main theme, as well as the second subject, are based on Czech folk music. After a whirling, pesante introduction, the buoyant and syncopated main theme is presented. This quartet should be of interest to professionals and amateurs will find it much to their taste as well.