On an Ambiguous Note

On hearing the news of Milan Kundera’s death in early July, I dipped back into The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a novel I first read some three decades ago. And though I tend to avoid film versions of books these days, I wanted to see Philip Kaufman’s cinematic adaptation again, since I remembered how much its soundtrack—consisting almost entirely of the music of Leoš Janáček (1854–1928)—contributed to its lyricism and power.

Janáček was born in a Moravian village, and the folk traditions of his native land were essential to his music. He was drawn especially to the sound of the human voice, its rhythms and cadences informing not only his fantastic operas but also his piano music and chamber works: In the Mists, the string quartets, On an Overgrown Path, and the Violin Sonata, all of which figure in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

I’m most fond of the Violin Sonata, which I got to know through an exquisite recording made by violinist David Oistrakh and pianist Frieda Bauer. In Kaufman’s film, the sonata’s rhapsodic opening is heard during a nighttime train ride, and the folk ballad of the second movement—as pure an utterance as anything Janáček wrote—accompanies the scene in which the protagonists, Tomáš and Tereza, first meet. The enigmatic fourth movement is prominent as well, though I realized, only after seeing the movie again, how odd the context happens to be.

Janáček began composing the Violin Sonata in 1914, with war very much on his mind. The fourth movement best expresses this anxiety, with Janáček combining two opposing musical ideas—one melodic and long, the other tense and brief, a kind of breathless flutter—and the work culminates in an agitated passage depicting the Russian army’s entry into Hungary. Another Russian invasion (of Prague in 1968) is at the heart of the movie. The sonata’s fourth movement, however, is not heard in those scenes but during an erotic sequence involving Tereza and Tomáš’s lover Sabina. Why this music here? I thought. But then, Janáček’s Violin Sonata is a work of ambiguity, of ideas unresolved, of pleasurable contradictions. Perhaps it’s no surprise that in a movie about eros and political oppression, an erotic scene would be animated by the music of war.

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Sudip Bose is the editor of the Scholar. He wrote the weekly classical music column “Measure by Measure” on this website for three years.


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