Speaking of Czech quartets, here’s another one that divides opinion: Smetana’s second. The first quartet, called From My Life, is very famous. The autobiographical content, especially the story about Smetana’s tinnitus and its depiction as that screeching high ‘E” in the last movement, makes it easy for audiences to ‘get a handle’ on it. In fact, the Smetana quartet No.1 is widely said to be the first (1876) chamber example of program music.
The second quartet of 1883, however, is often disregarded as a piece from a sick Smetana past his prime. Here, ironically, biographical knowledge works against the piece. Written when the man was very sick with neurological syphilis, hard of hearing, prone to hallucinations and having trouble recognizing friends and family, how could it be anything worthwhile?
But music is powerful that way – it doesn’t require sanity or rationality to ‘work’. Smetana himself admitted in his letters he himself had trouble understanding the first movement’s form. And yet this first movement is glorious for its ambiguity of form and harmony. The entire quartet is very episodic, full of contrast, and lacking in any traditionally satisfactory ‘resolution’ to the ideas it churns up - in fact, lasting merely 18 minutes for all four movements, it’s as if it raises more questions than it answers. The ‘questions’ though are of such high quality that this is a work definitely worth listening to.
Below is a video of the 2nd movement, played by the great Pražák Quartet, an ensemble with over 30 recordings to their name. There are also terrific recordings by the Wihan Quartet, Panocha Quartet, and Talich Quartet. So the work’s not neglected in the discography, but a concert outing is rare and so a lot of people simply have never heard it.