Jan Levoslav Bella (1843 - 1936)
String Quartet in C Minor
String Quintet in D Minor
Jan Levoslav Bella was born in 1843 in Liptovsky Sv. Mikulas, a town of some 2800 inhabitants and a centre of Slovak nationalism. The eldest child of a teacher, he showed an early inclination for music, encouraged by his parents in a musical household. With the assistance of the Bishop of Zips he was able to study from the age of ten at the Catholic school in the historic town of Levoca (Leutschau), a place that after 1867 became greatly subject to Hungarian influence. He remained here for six years, receiving a good general education, and in music acquiring further practical ability as a violinist, pianist and organist, as well as in choral singing and theoretical musical studies. He owed much here to his teacher Leopold Dvorak, whose first name he took at confirmation, later to be changed into its Slovak form of Levoslav. He completed the last two years of his studies in Banska Bystrica (Neusohl), where he began his theological studies, while developing his musical interests, writing liturgical music and profiting from the cultural opportunities the place offered. There followed two years of study at the pazmaneum in Vienna, where he involved himself in the musical reforms of the Cecilian movement and conducted the choir of the pazmaneum, which performed in its own chapel and in the University Church. Vienna also offered opportunities of contact with some of the leading musicians of the time, including Simon Sechter, from whom Schubert had once sought lessons and with whom Bella was now able to study.
In 1865 Bella returned to Banska Bystrica, where he was ordained priest the following year. As a member of the cathedral clergy he was able to devote himself to music, teaching singing and music at the theological seminary and writing liturgical music, in addition to secular vocal and instrumental compositions. It was here that he met Ede Remenyi, the Hungarian violinist with whorn Brahms had undertaken his first concert tour in 1853. In 1869 Bella moved to Kremnica (Kremnitz), where wider opportunities offered, taking the position of city director of music, with its manifold duties. Here, in 1870, he conducted a concert to commemorate the centenary of the birth of Beethoven, concentrating his attention very largely thereafter on the great classical composers, while himself writing works on a larger scale, in particular compositions for solo voices, chorus and orchestra, some of which were performed in Vienna. Travel in Germany revealed to him the repertoire of romantic and neo-romantic music and literature, the music of Schumann and the writing of Heine and of Chamisso. He also turned his attention increasingly to Slovak music.
1881 marked a turning-point in Bella"s career, when, leaving the priesthood, he took a position as Stadtkapellmeister and cantor in Hermannstadt (Sibiu), now in Romania, a much larger city than Kremnica, with a considerable German population. In 1882 he married and in an active career enjoyed considerable success as a conductor, with a proficient orchestra and choir, and the possibility of opera. He was able to direct performances of contemporary works and was an important figure in music education in the city, during the forty years he spent there, establishing links with the leading musicians of the time, including Brahms, Hans von Bülow, Dohnanyi, Joachim and Richard Strauss, in addition to Liszt, with whom he had had an earlier connection. It was in Hermannstadt that he completed his own opera Wieland derSchmied (Wieland the Smith), first staged in Bratislava in Slovak translation in 1926. He retired in 1921, when he moved to Vienna to live with his daughter, spending the last eight years of his life in Bratislava, where he died in 1936.
Bella"s String Quartet in C minor is a work very much in the later nineteenth century tradition of such works. The first movement opens with an energetic theme based on the descending notes of the triad and this is followed by the necessary modulatory passage, which, in this case, explores remoter keys on the way to E flat, the key of the Iyrical second subject. There is a mysterious passage played on the fingerboard, before the central development, with its many changes of key. The third section of the movement is introduced by the return of the second subject, now in C major, and continuing the accompanying cross-rhythms of its first appearance. The mysterious linking passage played on the fingerboard leads now to the return of the strongly marked opening subject. The slow movement, an Andante in A flat major, starts with a gentle melody in the best classical tradition, followed by a journey through stranger keys, before the emergence of a secondary E flat major theme, played by the first violin with semiquaver accompaniment from second violin and viola. The cello now leads the way back to the first theme, heard now from the second violin. Remoter keys are touched on before the second theme re-appears, now in D flat. The first theme returns and there are other unusual shifts of key before the end of the movement. Viola and cello start the Scherzo, answered by the plucked notes of the violins. The first violin carries the melody of the A flat major Trio, with at first a pizzicato accompaniment. The Trio returns in C major, reverting to an ominous C minor as the sinister Scherzo theme returns. The last movement opens with a solemn introduction, through which touches of sunlight appear before the cheerful C major Allegro molto. The mood darkens in an A minor episode and are turn to the music of the introduction. The Allegro molto intervenes, followed by the dactylic secondary theme, now in C minor, but gathering momentum for the return of the bright Allegro molto. The cello starts a double fugue, followed in ascending order by the other instruments, leading before long to a positive C major conclusion.
Bella"s String Quintet in D minor, for two violins, two violas and cello, again follows the traditions of the day, although, like the C minor Quartet, it includes many unusual shifts of key. In the writing there is some doubling, so that the texture is not always in five rather than four parts. First violin and second viola join together in the statement of the first subject, followed by subtle shifting of key, until the establishment of a D major theme. A tragic recitative passage leads to the return of the chromatic first theme. The mood lightens with the B flat major Scherzo, dominated by the opening rhythmic figure. The Trio, in E flat major, makes much use of antiphonal scale passages. The third movement, a G minor Adagietto, opens in canon, as the first violin is followed by the second, the first viola and then by second viola and cello together. Distinct reminiscences of Schubert are heard before the polyphonic possibilities of the first theme are explored. The first violin adds its own embellishment in accompaniment of the Schubert theme, now with material derived from the opening material. The first violin soon takes the lead in the last movement in a principal section that re-appears between contrasting episodes, in one of which an element of the first movement is briefly recalled. The quintet ends in a gentIe D major, introduced by the secondary melody, but answered by the characteristic rhythm of the recurrent principal rondo theme.