One of the pieces we’re playing in Luxembourg tonight is a piano trio arrangement of Janacek’s first string quartet, known as ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ after a short story by Tolstoy. The story recounts how the narrator becomes jealous of his wife after she forms a musical partnership with a violinist, and in a fit of jealous rage he kills her. In Janacek’s string quartet, the moment of the murder is generally thought to be depicted by music given to the viola player.
I’ve been discussing the work with a violist friend who performed the work many times with his string quartet. Once, they made it the subject of a ‘workshop’ for a group of senior managers from the business world. The managers were interested in how ‘leadership’ and ‘shared responsibility’ work in the ultra-collaborative field of chamber music. After explaining the background to Janacek’s quartet and performing it, the quartet split up and went off into different rooms to ‘workshop’ it.
One of the participants asked my viola-playing friend how he prepared mentally for the act of ‘murdering’ someone. My friend said that he didn’t prepare in that way; he just tried to feel the music’s inner momentum as he played it. But he agreed to explore the idea of identifying with the task of ‘being the murderer’. They discussed whether it was possible to convey the right feeling to the audience if one was not possessed by the right feeling oneself. They talked about the fictional narrator’s state of mind, what it must feel like to be so worked up, what would be the trigger for an actual moment of violence, and how it would influence one’s playing if one really captured such a psychological state.
Afterwards, this discussion preyed on my friend’s mind. When he next joined his quartet to play the piece, he felt a terrible tangle of emotions. As he put his bow on the string, his arm was shaking with tension. He felt hostile to the musicians around him. He felt strangely detached from the performance, and when it came to the moment of ‘the murder’ he was so agitated he could scarcely control his playing. He said it was a powerful experience, but not an empowering one. And it taught him something about the paradoxes involved in performance.