Capturing the brash melodies of ‘Monkey Mountains’

Pavel Haas
Pavel Haas

Summer is still in swing, but Thursday in Putney, Vt., Yellow Barn offers an appealingly offbeat what-I-did-on-my-summer-vacation report: the String Quartet No. 2 by Czech composer Pavel Haas (1899-1944). Subtitled “From the Monkey Mountains” — a nickname for the hilly countryside the composer visited, inspiring the work — the quartet is resourcefully pictorial, evoking birds and horses, creaking carriage wheels, and rambunctious late-night frolics. But recent scholarship suggests Haas was also influenced by modernist assertions that such sharply-observed pleasure was not just a summer-getaway souvenir, but the proper purpose of art itself.

Composed in 1925, the quartet was Haas’s first major work after completing his studies with the Czech master Leoš Janácek, and it echoes Janácek’s folk-like melodic penchant and his idiosyncratic approach to rhythm — motives and textures moving among distinct rhythmic strata, each layer casting its own distinct mood. But Haas was also attuned to post-World War I avant-garde musical currents. The quartet’s illustrative exploits — gently heady avian flurries; heavy, groaning glissandi standing in for beast and vehicle; high, keening moonlight; the finale’s rowdy, rhumba-tinged dance-band thump, enhanced by the audacious addition of a percussionist — tweak conventional string writing (and conventional propriety) into something bright and visceral.

Haas’s goal, perhaps, went beyond mere effect. In a 2016 paper, musicologist Martin Curda connected Haas’s quartet to the Devetsil group of Czech avant-garde artists that flourished in the 1920s — in particular, the theory of Poetism, promulgated by Devetsil writers Karel Teige and Vítezslav Nezval. Equally informed by postwar anti-Romanticism and leftist materialism, Poetism rejected the 19th-century burden of academic craft for “an art of living and enjoying,” as Teige wrote: “Nothing but the immediate data of sensibility. Nothing but the art of wasting time. Nothing but the melody of the heart.” Senses partitioned by modern assembly-line life could be reintegrated into “lyrical and visual excitement over the spectacle of the modern world.” The brash immediacy of Haas’s postcards parallel the Poetist ideal — in Teige’s words, “a harlequinade of emotions and ideas, a series of intoxicating film sequences, a miraculous kaleidoscope.”


Today, Pavel Haas is mostly remembered as a tragic figure, a victim of the Nazi regime who wrote a handful of pieces while imprisoned at the Theresienstadt concentration camp before being killed at Auschwitz. But the second quartet happily, bullishly reveals Haas’s capacity for pointed delight, finding radical hedonism in the sounds of summer days and nights.

Yellow Barn presents music by Toshio Hosokawa, Bedrich Smetana, Harold Meltzer, and Pavel Haas, Aug. 3, 8 p.m., at Big Barn in Putney, Vt. Tickets $9-$18. 802-387-6637,

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Matthew Guerrieri

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at