About this Recording
8.223839 - BELLA: String Quartets

Ján Levoslav Bella (1843 -1936)

String Quartet in E minor

String Quartet in B flat major

Notturno for String Quartet

Ján Levoslav Bella was born in 1843 in Liptovsky Sv. Mikulás, 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 there 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 Dvořák, 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 Banská 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 Pázmáneum in Vienna, where he involved himself in the musical reforms of the Cecilian movement and conducted the choir of the Pázmáneum, 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 Banská Bystríca, 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 whom 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 Protestant 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, Dohnányi, 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 der Schmied (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 E minor, written in 1871, in common with his other compositions in this form, is firmly in the nineteenth century tradition of such works. The first movement, marked Allegro risoluto, begins with a strongly stated first subject, from the first violin, leading to a gentler poco sostenuto G major second subject and a closing theme. The development makes chromatic exploration of other keys, rhythms and thematic material before the final recapitulation. The C major Adagio has its principal theme implied first by the viola, before its fuller statement by the first violin, which subsequently, in a cadenza-like passage, leads to an E major più mosso passage, accompanied by semiquaver sextuplets from second violin and viola. There is a shift of key to E minor before the original key and thematic material re-appear, the first violin now leading into an A major version of the subsidiary theme, which finds its way, through A minor, to the C major tonality of the movement. The third movement is in G major, its scherzando first section followed by a lilting D major, with ostinato accompaniment. A G minor section of Slovak provenance has its own contrasting passage in D, thematic material that moves to the key of B flat before a return to G major. The trio, marked Meno mosso and dolce, is in F minor and relatively short, to be followed by a repetition of the longer scherzo and a brief coda. There is an eight-bar Largo introduction to the last movement, with a con moto principal theme, followed by a secondary theme. A slow passage re-introduces the principal theme, but it is primarily from the secondary theme that a fugal subject is derived, first stated by the cello and followed by the other instruments in ascending order. This leads, before any extensive fugal development, to the triumphant and emphatic E major conclusion.

Bella wrote the last of his string quartets, the Quartet in B flat major, in 1887. The first subject of the opening Allegro molto is initially shared by both violins, to be continued by the first and soon contrasted with an F major secondary theme, marked dolce. The movement is in broadly classical form, with a following section in B flat minor that returns in recapitulation in B minor. The E flat major Andante sostenuto has a principal theme that frames contrasting material in C major. This is followed by a forceful G minor Allegro of initial harmonic ambiguity. The second violin at first carries the opening melody of the A flat major trio section which moves to G sharp minor before the return of the scherzo. A busy first violin theme starts the last movement rondo, with its contrasting F major and B flat minor episodes.

Bella’s Notturno for string quartet is a late work, the manuscript bearing the date 1930. There is still chromatic exploration of material in the opening Moderato serioso, which moves from C minor to a final C major Arioso. The A minor second movement is marked Larghetto and moves briefly to A major before the original key and theme are restored. Lively figuration marks the violin parts of the C major opening of the Allegro commodo, echoed by the lower strings. There is a folk-song theme for the cello, with light off-the-string accompaniment, before the final Andantino con moto that leads to an A major conclusion in a work of some harmonic ambiguity.

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