Theme & Variations for String Quartet
The Theme & Variations for String Quartet, which dates from 1883, is the last work that Fibich wrote for String Quartet. That Zdenek Fibich (1850-1900) is not as well known as either Dvorak or Smetana is primarily due to the fact that Fibich lived during rise of Czech nationalism within the Habsburg empire. 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. This was due to the background of his parents and to his education. Fibich’s father was a Czech but his mother was an ethnic German Viennese. He received both a Czech and a German education. He studied at the famous Leipzig Conservatory as well as in Paris. Hence Fibich, in contrast to either Dvorak or Smetana, was the product of two cultures, German and Czech. He was perfectly fluent in German as well as Czech. These factors were important in shaping his outlook and approach to composition. Fibich understood that German, along with French, were the leading languages of Europe and he 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.
The Theme & Variations were not published until 1911, eleven years after his death. While one can find hundreds of examples of a movement within a string quartet which consists of a theme and set of variations, there are very few stand-alone works which are in this format. Besides this work, only Joseph Rheinberger’s superb Op.93 and Arthur Foote’s delightful Op.32. (both of which we publish) have ever achieved any real concert success. The theme Fibich uses is based on a folk tune. Nine relatively short variations follow. Light and rhythmic variations alternate with lyrical and melancholy ones. There is both a canon and a fugue among the variations. This fine work clearly shows off Fibich's technical ability as well as his expressive power. (Our sound-bite presents the theme and parts of three variations)
As far we know, this work was never reprinted and has been unavailable for more than half a century. It can be used as an encore or where a shorter work between two bigger ones are needed. Amateurs will certainly find it pleasing as well.