Jan LevoslavBella (1843 - 1936)
String Quartetin C Minor
String Quintetin D Minor
Jan Levoslav Bella was born in 1843 in Liptovsky Sv. Mikulas, a town ofsome 2800 inhabitants and a centre of Slovak nationalism. The eldest child of ateacher, he showed an early inclination for music, encouraged by his parents ina musical household. With the assistance of the Bishop of Zips he was able tostudy from the age of ten at the Catholic school in the historic town of Levoca (Leutschau), a place that after 1867 became greatlysubject to Hungarian influence. He remained here for six years, receiving agood general education, and in music acquiring further practical ability as aviolinist, pianist and organist, as well as in choral singing and theoreticalmusical studies. He owed much here to his teacher Leopold Dvorak, whose firstname he took at confirmation, later to be changed into its Slovak form ofLevoslav. 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 theplace offered. There followed two years of study at the pazmaneum in Vienna,where he involved himself in the musical reforms of the Cecilian movement andconducted the choir of the pazmaneum, which performed in its own chapel and inthe University Church. Vienna also offered opportunities of contact withsome of the leading musicians of the time, including Simon Sechter, from whomSchubert had once sought lessons and with whom Bella was now able to study.
In 1865 Bellareturned 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 liturgicalmusic, in addition to secular vocal and instrumental compositions. It was herethat he met Ede Remenyi, the Hungarian violinist with whorn Brahms hadundertaken his first concert tour in 1853. In 1869 Bella moved to Kremnica (Kremnitz),where wider opportunities offered, taking the position of city director ofmusic, with its manifold duties. Here, in 1870, he conducted a concert to commemoratethe centenary of the birth of Beethoven, concentrating his attention verylargely thereafter on the great classical composers, while himself writingworks on a larger scale, in particular compositions for solo voices, chorus andorchestra, some of which were performed in Vienna. Travel in Germany revealed to him the repertoire of romantic andneo-romantic music and literature, the music of Schumann and the writing of Heineand of Chamisso. He also turned his attention increasingly to Slovak music.
1881 marked aturning-point in Bella's career, when, leaving the priesthood, he took aposition as Stadtkapellmeister and cantor in Hermannstadt (Sibiu), now inRomania, a much larger city than Kremnica, with a considerable Germanpopulation. In 1882 he married and in an active career enjoyed considerable successas a conductor, with a proficient orchestra and choir, and the possibility ofopera. He was able to direct performances of contemporary works and was animportant figure in music education in the city, during the forty years hespent there, establishing links with the leading musicians of the time,including Brahms, Hans von B??low, Dohnanyi, Joachim and Richard Strauss, inaddition to Liszt, with whom he had had an earlier connection. It was in Hermannstadtthat he completed his own opera Wieland derSchmied (Wieland the Smith),first staged in Bratislava in Slovak translation in 1926. He retiredin 1921, when he moved to Vienna to live with his daughter, spending thelast eight years of his life in Bratislava, where he died in 1936.
Bella's StringQuartet in C minor is a work very much in the later nineteenthcentury tradition of such works. The first movement opens with an energetic themebased on the descending notes of the triad and this is followed by thenecessary modulatory passage, which, in this case, explores remoter keys on theway to E flat, the key of the Iyrical second subject. There is a mysterious passageplayed on the fingerboard, before the central development, with its manychanges of key. The third section of the movement is introduced by the returnof the second subject, now in C major, and continuing the accompanyingcross-rhythms of its first appearance. The mysterious linking passage played onthe fingerboard leads now to the return of the strongly marked opening subject.
The slow movement, an Andante in A flat major, starts with a gentlemelody in the best classical tradition, followed by a journey through strangerkeys, before the emergence of a secondary E flat major theme, played by thefirst violin with semiquaver accompaniment from second violin and viola. Thecello now leads the way back to the first theme, heard now from the secondviolin. Remoter keys are touched on before the second theme re-appears, now inD flat. The first theme returns and there are other unusual shifts of keybefore the end of the movement. Viola and cello start the Scherzo, answeredby the plucked notes of the violins. The first violin carries the melody of theA flat major Trio, with at first a pizzicato accompaniment. The Trio returnsin C major, reverting to an ominous C minor as the sinister Scherzo themereturns. The last movement opens with a solemn introduction, through whichtouches of sunlight appear before the cheerful C major Allegro molto. Themood darkens in an A minor episode and are turn to the music of theintroduction. The Allegro molto intervenes, followed by the dactylicsecondary theme, now in C minor, but gathering momentum for the return of thebright Allegro molto. The cello starts a double fugue, followed inascending order by the other instruments, leading before long to a positive Cmajor conclusion.
Bella's String Quintet in D minor, for two violins, twoviolas and cello, again follows the traditions of the day, although, like the Cminor Quartet, it includes many unusual shifts of key. In the writingthere is some doubling, so that the texture is not always in five rather thanfour parts. First violin and second viola join together in the statement of thefirst subject, followed by subtle shifting of key, until the establishment of aD major theme. A tragic recitative passage leads to the return of the chromaticfirst theme. The mood lightens with the B flat major Scherzo, dominatedby the opening rhythmic figure. The Trio, in E flat major, makes muchuse of antiphonal scale passages. The third movement, a G minor Adagietto, opensin canon, as the first violin is followed by the second, the first viola andthen by second viola and cello together. Distinct reminiscences of Schubert areheard before the polyphonic possibilities of the first theme are explored. Thefirst violin adds its own embellishment in accompaniment of the Schubert theme,now with material derived from the opening material. The first violin soontakes the lead in the last movement in a principal section that re-appearsbetween contrasting episodes, in one of which an element of the first movementis briefly recalled. The quintet ends in a gentIe D major, introduced by thesecondary melody, but answered by the characteristic rhythm of the recurrentprincipal rondo theme.