I have a confession to make. I don't know a whole lot about the background of the pieces we play. Music history has never been my great love. My interest is captured more by the music itself and less by the reasons and composers behind it. I have found, though, that I enjoy the rehearsal and performance process more when I know about the pieces. As usual, I didn't know a whole lot about the pieces on our upcoming quartet concert so I did some research. I know that there are program notes available for this concert written by a much better writer than myself, but I thought I'd share some of what I've found anyway.
Smetana is not a terribly well-known composer. His most-played composition is Ma Vlast (My Country) which is a series of tone poems for orchestra. Of these, his greatest hit is Die Moldau which depicts a river. Smetana's first string quartet is also programmatic and is subtitled, From My Life. Youth, love, drama, Smetana gets it all in there. He even manages to musically portray his battle with a persistent ringing in his ears and subsequent loss of hearing. In fact, Smetana was completely deaf when he wrote this string quartet.
If Puccini had found the fountain of youth, 2008 would have marked his 150th birthday. To honor this event we will play Crisantemi (Chrysanthemums). In Italy, chrysanthemums are associated with death and funerals. Puccini wrote Crisantemi upon hearing of the death of an Italian nobleman. I am aware that playing a piece that was meant for a funeral is an odd choice to celebrate someone's birthday. Given the tragic nature of his most famous operas (La Boheme: people die. Tosca: people die. Mme Butterfly: people die. Turandot: people die.) I think Puccini would be pleased by our choice.