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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

On the Fringe: Martinů

Another “fringe” composer today as we look at the life and work of Bohuslav Martinů. From time to time you’ll hear works by Martinů in concerts or on the radio, but he really is one of those composers whose life and works are largely obscure to most of us, myself included. As with most creative artists, Martinů lived a fascinating life and created some fascinating music, and the story definitely deserves to be told.

Bohuslav Martinů was born in 1890 in the small town of Polička in Bohemia, right in the centre of what is now the Czech Republic. For the first 11 years of his life, Martinů and his family lived at the top of the church bell tower. His father was a cobbler and made extra money working as a fire-watcher from the tower and ringing bells for services. From 1902 the family lived in a house in the centre of the town, which, after living in a bell tower, must have seemed incredibly quiet!

Bohuslav Martinů, aged 6 or 7 (1897)

Martinů’s early training was as a violinist. His studies at the Prague Conservatory from 1906, though, were disappointing. He was expelled from the organ course after a year for “incorrigible negligence”. Thereafter his development as a musician was more or less ad hoc and at his own hands.

Martinů’s urge to compose was evident when he was a child, but his first real outpouring of music came around 1910, when he was 20. This is his Elegy for violin and piano, composed in 1909. It demonstrates one of the constants in Martinů’s music: a sense of nostalgia. This longing for a past - real or imagined - tinges so much of his music with a sense of sadness and it’s evident even in this early work. [listen]

In addition to works for his own instrument, Martinů was composing orchestral music, songs and chamber works as well in these early years, and all these genres would remain part of his output for all his creative life.

During the first world war Martinů returned to his home town of Polička to live with his family. Supporting himself by teaching the violin, Martinů spent much time developing his craft as a composer during these years. One of the major works he produced was the overtly nationalistic Czech Rhapsody. It was performed in 1919 in the presence of the legendary patriot and philosopher Tomáš Masaryk, who the following year was elected President of a newly-independent Czechoslovakia (as it was then called). This performance did a lot to enhance Martinů’s reputation in Prague. The Czech Rhapsody is a cantata scored for baritone, choir and orchestra and it made a huge impression at its first performances. The dramatic conclusion, hailing the foundation of Czech nation, would have stirred all who heard it. [listen]

After the war Martinů played as a casual violinist in the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, eventually becoming a permanent member in the early 1920s. With the orchestra he toured Europe and thereby made his first trip to Paris, a city that would soon become his new home. Whilst playing the violin for a living, though, he continued to compose almost obsessively. In fact his whole life was marked by a need to continually compose, and in the early 20s, among many other works, he produced some ballet scores. The best known of these is a one-act comedy ballet called Who is the most powerful in the world? [listen]

Having enjoyed Paris on his orchestral tours there, Martinů received a small scholarship in 1923 to enable him to return and study in Paris with the composer Albert Roussel. (Read more on Roussel here.)

Albert Roussel (1913)

From this time onwards, even though he made regular return visits to Prague and to his home town, Martinů never again lived in Czechoslovakia. Paris, on the other hand, was a riot of artistic innovation in the 20s. Studies with Roussel were supplemented by hearing jazz, and the music of Stravinsky, as well as encountering Milhaud and the other members of Les Six.

A work which directly grew out of his Parisian experiences was La Bagarre. This composed in 1926, and Martinů associated the work with Charles Lindbergh’s first ever trans-Atlantic flight in 1927 by means of a fulsome dedication in the score. The title of La Bagarre means “fight” or “tumult”, and the piece was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1927 under the baton of Serge Koussevitzky. This was the means by which Martinů’s name was made in America. [listen]

In 1925 Martinů’s second string quartet appeared, a work which was another great success for the composer. It is regarded by many as one of his first mature masterpieces. The third and final movement reflects clearly the brilliance of his years in Paris while at the same time suggesting folk music of his native country. [listen]

Les Halles street market, Paris (1920s)

In 1926, Martinů started a relationship with Charlotte Quennehen, a dressmaker whose income did much to alleviate his impecunious state. His compositional pace, though, never seemed to slacken and during the 1920s he produced a large amount of music. In 1928 he composed one of his many jazz-inspired works, appropriately tiled Le Jazz. Considering how new jazz was in 1928, this is a daring work indeed and actually rather fun, especially as it requires members of the orchestra to sing! It comes about five years after Milhaud’s influential and jazz-inspired work La Création du monde. [listen]

Bohuslav Martinů and Charlotte Quennehen

Jazz was only one of a number of important influences on Martinů’s style. Another was Neoclassicism. (An earlier post is entirely devoted to Neoclassicism.) In looking back to the Baroque - as many composers did for inspiration in the 1930s - Martinů used his own unique mix of nostalgia, folk idioms, and sparkling orchestration to create new works in forms inspired by the 18th century which were quite individual. The Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra was premiered in London under the baton of Sir Malcolm Sargent in 1932. In its structure it reflects the Baroque concerto grosso, but the musical language is anything but an imitation of Bach. This the last movement. [listen]

The folk music side of Martinů’s muse is very much in evidence in one of his choral works of the 30s, the Old Czech Nursery Rhymes for unaccompanied female voices, written in 1931. The words are traditional but Martinů’s setting is very much his own. This is the last of the six songs in the set. [listen]

The year Martinů wrote these songs - 1931 - was also the year he married Charlotte Quennehen, with whom he had been living for five years. It was to be a rocky marriage, but Charlotte remained with Martinů despite the difficulties and his infidelities.

Even though he was not permanently based in his home country, Martinů’s music was still regularly performed, and sometimes even premiered, there. Vaclav Talich conducted the premiere of the second piano concerto in 1935, and the opera Julietta in 1938. Right from the start of his career Martinů found much to say in the medium of opera; his 16 operas span virtually his whole creative life. Julietta, his ninth opera, is based on an expressionistic play by Georges Neveux which deals with dreams and desires. In 1937, while composing the piece, Martinů began an affair with the young composer and conductor Vítězslava Kaprálová which lasted for quite some time. As for the opera, though, it was a huge success at its premiere in Prague; this is the conclusion of the first act. [listen]

In 1938, a time of increasing tensions across Europe, Martinů spent his last holiday in Czechoslovakia. In September of that year he went to Switzerland and composed the Double Concerto for two string orchestras, piano and timpani. This was composed for Paul Sacher and the Basle Chamber Orchestra. This is an immensely powerful work, reminiscent of Bartók’s famous Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste composed for the same performers two years earlier. It’s also impossible not to hear in Martinů’s dense and anguished score an expression of the political turmoil of the times. [listen]

The Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and, as he was too old for military service himself, Martinů was named a cultural attaché by the Czech opposition. He assisted many artists who were escaping Czechoslovakia and coming to Paris as refugees. Late in 1939, as a gesture of support for young Czechs in France who were volunteering for military service, Martinů composed his moving Field Mass, a setting of texts in Czech from the Psalms and the liturgy. [listen]

Despite her affair with Martinů, Kaprálová began another affair with the Czech writer Jiří Mucha and married him two months before she died of tuberculosis in 1940.

During the war the Nazis blacklisted Martinů’s music in Czechoslovakia, meaning a major loss of income for the composer. As the Nazis approached France in 1940, Martinů and his wife fled, initially to Aix-en-Provence, and eventually to Lisbon, where they sought passage to United States. They left Portugal for America in March 1941.

Bohuslav Martinů (1945)

Martinů made what living he could in the US - mostly teaching - but his poor knowledge of English made things difficult for him. He suffered from depression, but he eventually found the will to compose again. Koussevitzky, who had so much admired Martinů’s music when he premiered La Bagarre in 1927, now helped him again by arranging a commission for him to write his first symphony. Living in the suburbs of New York and feeling desperately homesick, Martinů found it hard to work on a symphony, but eventually he managed to get started and once he did, the work was completed within four months. Martinů described the first symphony’s character as “calm and lyric”, although this shouldn’t be taken to mean it lacks energy and power. The opening of the second movement is a case in point. [listen]

Serge Koussevitzky

After the success of his first symphony, Martinů wrote four more in quick succession, at the rate of about one per year. After the end of the second world war he was offered a professorship in Prague but despite the fact that he accepted it, he remained in the US for another seven years and never returned to Czechoslovakia to take up the post. He had seriously injured himself in a fall and had also been suffering from tinnitus, headaches and depression. The deteriorating political situation in Czechoslovakia after the war had also made him reluctant to return.

In addition to this, he embarked on another affair, with the young American composer Roe Barstow, which lasted for some six years. For at least part of this time Martinů separated from his wife Charlotte, but they never divorced.

Times Square, New York (early 1940s)

Among Martinů’s post-war works which were interrupted by the turmoil in his life is one of the most famous, the Toccata e Due Canzoni, which was completed in 1946. Scored for chamber orchestra with an obbligato piano part, it’s not quite a piano concerto, in the same way that Berlioz’ Harold in Italy isn’t quite a viola concerto. The three movements are, as the title would suggest, a toccata and two canzonas, and the references to early music are clear in the crystalline neo-classical vein of the music. [listen]

By 1948 Martinů was composing large quantities of music once again. In that year he spent some time in Switzerland before returning to New York to take up teaching posts there. In the following few years he produced, among other works, his Sinfonia Concertante, the second piano trio and two operas for television. The white heat of his rate of working is evident in the fact that the beautiful Rhapsody Concerto for viola and orchestra was composed in about a month in 1952.

A Czech composer of an earlier generation - Dvořák - played the viola and often gave it melodies associated with Czech folk culture. Now Martinů does the same in writing a work which is not only superbly written but which contains some of his most heartfelt yearnings for his homeland. [listen]

Bohuslav Martinů

In his final years Martinů wrote some of his finest music, including The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca, the oboe concerto (written for the late Jiři Tancibudek in 1955), a series of folk cantatas, the sixth symphony and the oratorio Gilgamesh. Perhaps the most striking of his late works is his final opera. Based on the novel Christ Recrucified by Nikos Kazantzakis, the opera is called The Greek Passion. It was written with the support of a Guggenheim Fellowship and he corrected the proofs more or less on his deathbed. He didn’t live to see the premiere of this opera which deals with passionate religious and personal emotions in a Greek village. the text was set by Martinů in English and it’s a superbly powerful work which deserves to be better-known. [listen]

Bohuslav Martinů lived in Switzerland for the last two years of his life. He was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1958 and died in August 1959 at the age of 68. Over a composition career lasting more than half a century he left nearly 400 works and as always with composers of such a high calibre, his music amply repays open-minded enquiry.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in March, 2008.

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