Martinu – (Czech Music Series)


 One day in about 1956 I went to the Royal Festival Hall for a Royal Philharmonic Society concert of 20th century music conducted by Rafael Kubelik. I cannot remember the whole programme but I do remember it contained Hindemith’s Philharmonic Concerto which, like the rest, was disappointingly dull. There was no inkling musically as to whether the various composers came from Serbia or Golders Green. And then came the final work of the concert, the first performance in England of The Frescoes of Piero della Francesa by Martinu. It started with a deep orchestral surge followed by a tapestry of multi-divided strings over a piano obligato, then full wind and percussion. It was spacious and electric and suddenly the concert had come alive. I was hooked and have been ever since.

 Martinu is the last of the five composers in this series by Matthew and differs from the others in a number of ways. First of all, from 1923 onwards he was to live the rest of his life as a Czech émigré in France and in the USA, first by choice, later by circumstance. Thus for much of his output of the twenties and thirties he gets linked with the French school. Secondly, he was a prolific composer with some 400 opus numbers of every type and genre. Here often lies the problem. It has led a number of commentators to describe his output as uneven (as if every work by Beethoven or Shostakovich were a masterpiece). Even more unjustified is a critical habit of labelling Martinu as derivative, a charge that simply overlooks, indeed ignores, the composer’s striking originality. The other adjective frequently encountered from the critics is “eclectic”. The trouble is that one is left wondering whether their programme notes have been reproduced from the same common source. Anyway what I ask you is wrong with being eclectic?

Martinu’s life was as remarkable as his music. He was born in 1890 in Policka in the Bohemian-Moravian highlands, where his father was a cobbler, firewatcher and church bellringer. The family home was a single room at the top of the church tower. Policka had been a mediaeval town but in 1845, following a disastrous fire, it had burnt down and its ancient facades destroyed. Thus it was that the bell ringer was appointed fire watcher. In the small room of the tower of the church of St. Jacob, Bohuslav was born with the sound of church bells ringing joyously all round him.

The young Bohuslav, who was tall, thin, and weakly, often had to be carried by his father up and down the 193-step staircase. He spent the first twelve years of his life looking at his village from this bird’s-eye perspective. The memory of this view of the world was to impress itself upon his mind and remained with him all his life, strongly influencing his ideas of composition. As he was to write later in life, it was “not the small interests of people, the cares, the hurts, or the joys” that he saw from that great height, but “space, which I always have in front of me.”

Bohuslav was surrounded by music as the sound of the organ from the church below penetrated the tower. He was a dab hand with a one string violin and the local tailor, Josef Cernovsky, who was a music teacher on the side, was to realize the boy’s potential with the violin and encouraged him to try composing. The people of Policka believed that they had in their midst another Jan Kubelik (star violinist of his day and father of Rafael). With the backing of sixteen wealthier citizens the town council agreed to finance Bohuslav’s violin studies in Prague. Lewisham and Greenwich councils could learn a thing or two! So at 16 he entered the Prague Conservatoire, taken to Prague by his mother with his violin and an early quartet,the Four Horsemen, written when he was twelve, and as delightful as the young Mozart.

But things did not go as well as were expected of him. He did not see himself pursuing a career as a solo violinist even if he did have the ability. He displayed little interest in the rigid teaching or the hours of practice required and was far more interested in exploring and learning on his own, attending concerts and studying scores. He read books on every subject and composed daily. He imposed on himself a personal discipline for hard work. His interest undoubtedly lay in composition but he was not a member of the composition class. He dropped out of the violin course and moved to the organ department because it taught composition. Unfortunately you don’t go to an organ department without having some interest in the organ and Martinu was finally dismissed in 1910 for “incorrigible negligence”. Martinu, not only then but for a number of years to follow, sought further tuition and guidance, even when his compositions began to receive acclaim. It was as if he knew his talent but lacked that extra degree of self confidence.

In those days Prague was a crossroads of culture. One could hear works by Strauss, Bruckner, Debussy, and even Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Bartók performed in its concert halls. Martinu’s compositions during this time, largely influenced by the impressionism of Debussy, were beginning to be received with favourable response among many of Prague’s musicians. The outbreak of the first world war was to bring this to an end. Martinu was not fit for service and returned to Policka where he was not exactly flavour of the month. He had become a school teacher and continued composition. He would return to Prague as the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra had become depleted and his close friend, Stanislav Novak, who was the orchestra’s leader, invited him to play as a deputy.

After the war he led the second violins where he learned to master the composition of music for a large orchestra. His Czech Rhapsody for solo, chorus, and orchestra written to celebrate the independence of Czechoslovakia was given a performance by the orchestra in 1919 and was hailed. Martinu had consciously positioned himself within the Czech nationalist tradition of Smetana, Dvořák and Josef Suk (with whom he briefly studied). It at least restored his kudos in Policka. Another great influence in these years was Vaclav Talich, the great conductor of the day with the Czech Philharmonic. His repertoire with the orchestra was varied and modern and from this Martinu was learning his compositional ropes from within the orchestra. Talich was also in a position to introduce Martinu’s output which included notably a Debussyan dreamy, exotic song cycle, Nipponari and a comedy ballet, Who Is the Most Powerful in the World? The answer is a mouse….but I do not have the space to explain.

His Prague period produced unbelievably some 145 works few of which are played today. Yet here lies perhaps the source of Martinu’s individuality. The creative tension between Martinu’s Czechness (the Czech Rhapsody) and the more cosmopolitan influences would continue throughout his life, and provide a key to his wonderfully quirky musical language. However, Martinu’s modern style which included elements of jazz as well as impressionism did not match the more pre-war conservative styles in Prague where he completed his first string quartet, and two ballets, Who is the Most Powerful in the World? and Istar.

After a European orchestral tour, Paris became a magnet for Martinu and the mecca for the new modernism. Having received a small scholarship from the Ministry of Education he left Prague in 1923 and arrived in Paris where he found lodgings. Within days he was ringing the doorbell of the composer, Albert Roussel (1869-1937) , whose individualistic style he respected. There followed every week a series of discussions between them and informal meets

which would continue until Roussel’s death in 1937. Roussel was helpful in influencing Martinu to focus and order his composition, and in particular to concentrate mentally on developing his own style as opposed to instructing him in any specific style. They both of them possessed individual styles of their own but both completely different in character, comme de la craie et du fromage, excusez-moi mon français.

 During his first Paris years, Martinu immersed himself in all the latest avant-garde developments: dadaism, cubism, surrealism and, inevitably, neo-classicism and the music of Stravinsky. Works from his early years in Paris include a surrealist opera, Les Larmes du Couteau (The Tears of the Knife), and a jazzy ballet score, La Revue de Cuisine, which features dancing kitchen utensils. Martinu’s keen humour was also evident in The Revolt (1925), a ballet in which musical notes call a strike, critics commit suicide and Stravinsky takes refuge on a desert island. Ballets were his favourite medium for experimentation, including also The Butterfly That Stamped (1926), Le Raid Merveilleux (1927) as well as La Revue de Cuisine (1927), and Les Larmes du Couteau (1928). Martinu’s use of jazz is natural and he himself claimed that jazz rhythms were similar to those of Moravian folk music. Use of or flirtation with jazz can be found in Kurt Weill, Darius Milhaud, Ravel and Constant Lambert but none, not even Gershwin, came more naturally than Martinu in the 1920’s. La Revue de Cuisine, after a dark opening, contains a tango and a Charleston that are great fun sounding as if Bix Beiderbecke himself had joined the group. Yes, I would have that on a desert island rather than the company of Stravinsky.

At the same time Martinu was continuing to compose chamber music for various combinations including the second string quartet which Matthew will discuss. This starts as a serious troubled work but in the last movement builds momentum which may owe a little to Roussel. His reputation was also spreading with orchestral works such as Half Time – (Martinu was keen on watching football) – and La Bagarre (“The Brawl”).The latter, a symphonic allegro, was the first of his works to be played in the USA and conducted by Koussevitsky who was to commission further works from Martinu over the years, notably the first symphony in 1942. The work depicts the movement of the crowd. Later Martinu would add a postscript to the score “In memory Le Bourget”, an allusion to the landing there by Charles Lindbergh after his solo trans-Atlantic flight – but in fact the work was completed a year before the Spirit of St Louis took off.

In 1926 Martinu visited a marionette theatre in Pigalle where he found himself next to a young lady, Charlotte Quennehen, a French seamstress at a couturiers. They teamed up and lived together for five years and found that two could live in poverty as happily as one. Still, no way could Martinu take Charlotte with him to visit his widowed mother in Policka. Having at the age of 40 first obtained his mother’s consent, he and Charlotte married in 1931. She was the stabilising factor in the relationship although there were difficulties from time to time. For his social life Martinu mixed with the Czech speaking artists and writers in Paris. He would continue to visit Czechoslovakia regularly where his works were being performed . After 1938 he was never able to return there.

 With the 1930’s Martinu began concentrating more on his neo-classicism or perhaps better described as neo-baroque, concentrating extensively on the concerto and particularly also concertante works, the concerto grosso, although only one work is so called. Earlier in his Prague years he had discovered the English madrigal and a number of works concentrate on its influence, particularly instrumental works for two violins or violin and viola. His concerti grossi have something of Bach about them such as the Tre Ricercare. His orchestration has becomes leaner; the music less 19th century influenced, emotionally restrained but more motoric. The piano begins to form an omnipresent accompaniment from within the orchestra, a prominent feature in Martinu’s orchestral style.

 In 1932 he entered for the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge prize a string sextet which he wrote within a week. Out of 145 entrants he came first putting him more on the international map. He was also able to put the thousand dollar prize money to the purchase of his own Pleyel piano.

 In 1935 he was awarded a Czechoslovak State Prize for The Miracle of Our Lady, a compilation of four operas, based on French and Flemish religious legends around Mariken of Nimegue. What was now emerging as a source for his inspiration were Czech tales and legends derived from his Policka years and his own roots. This would synthesize into his neo-classical style. More famous was his opera, Juliette, or The Key to Dreams, which was first performed at Prague that same year. Based upon a surrealist play by Georges Neveux, it is set in a town where “the thread of memory has been cut” and only one character has any sense of the past. In an enchanting, dreamlike fantasy an ice cream vendor appears with his kiosk selling his wares in the middle of a forest but it all ends up in a Kafkaesque Ministry of Dreams.

 By the late thirties, Martinu was identifying himself with fellow Czechs in France opposed to the growing threat from Germany. The prevailing mood began to reflect in his music particularly the Concerto for Double String Orchestra Piano and Timpani which was written for the conductor Paul Sacher and completed on the very day the Munich treaty was signed. This work reflects not only the gathering storm but also his feelings for Vitzlava Kapralova. She was a talented, young Czech composer-conductor who had arrived in Paris in late 1937 to study with Charles Munch but who also sought to study with Martinu. Their relationship soon developed beyond that of student-teacher, and at one point they planned to move to America together. It had caused a strain in his relations with Charlotte which she capably handled. His relationship with Vitzlava began deteriorating in late 1939.

 With the outbreak of war, young Czechs were joining up. At nearly 50, Martinu was too old for active service, but he produced The Field Mass, a work dedicated to the Czechoslovak Division in France. This was for open air and not church performance and included, in addition to baritone and male chorus, two piccolos, two clarinets, three trumpets and two trombones; harmonium, piano timpani and percussion including sistrum altar bells. A harmonium is a miniature organ used for church parade whilst a piano can usually be pushed out from some nearby bistrot or barracks. The work is a mixture of part of the mass, Bohemian folk poetry, poems by Jiri Mucha (who was soon to marry Vitzlava) and passages from psalms. The combination of war poems and the mass anticipates some of the ideas in Britten’s War Requiem although the scale is demonstrably smaller.

In 1940, with the German army only days away, Martinu had to be persuaded to leave Paris. His vociferous wake up calls had put him on a black list with the Germans. He arranged for storage of his scores and he and Charlotte joined the chaos on the French roads and rail in June 1940. He had planned to go to a friend in Nevers but it had been heavily bombed. He had had a standing invitation to stay with Charles Munch but his house turned out to be overrun with refugees from Alsace and the Martinus took up occupation on a campsite. Then news broke that Vitzlava had died in hospital in Montpellier which struck a new low for Martinu. Eventually they found a place in Aix en Provence and would travel by bus to Marseilles to try to get an exit visa for America from there. However this was dangerous. Technically Czechoslovakia no longer existed and Martinu, whether he liked it or not, had become a citizen of the Third Reich and the Pétain government had agreed to apprehend any German on the blacklist.   During this time Martinu was still producing scores, writing anywhere and everywhere including on buses. There was the Fantasia and Toccata for piano solo written as were his piano concertos for Rudlof Firkusny; a cello sonata and his Sinfonietta giocosa (originally called Sinfonia Gaie for chamber orchestra and piano. One wonders how he could have produced such felicitous music against the background of the deprivation he was undergoing. Because he could not get out from Marseilles Munch procured two tickets for a steamship leaving Lisbon in December. The Martinus were left with having to make their way across Southern France, Spain (still covered in snow) and finally getting to Lisbon to find their ship had left. Eventually they were able to get on a later sailing for New York. Behind them lay Martinu’s ravaged second homeland with Policka now a more distant memory.

Arriving in America in 1941, Martinu had to work hard to establish himself. In common with other émigré composers he would need to cope with lack of knowledge of English and lack of funds. However he did not suffer from lack of friends. Rudolf Firkusny was there to greet him off the boat. Koussivitsky who had commissioned a number of others to write in memory of his wife Natalie was soon to commission a first symphony from Martinu. Of the American years the outstanding legacy would be the six symphonies. The first five were written in successive years from 1942 to 1946. The sixth written in 1952 is set apart from the others.

With the first symphony there is an inevitable comparison with Brahms as he had taken twenty years in writing and putting off his first. However Brahms wanted to write a symphony but was overawed by the task and would constantly feel the shadow of Beethoven in the way. One can feel the inner struggle in his first symphony. Not so with Martinu. The symphony was not a form that he had avoided or postponed but one in which he had had no previous ambition. He had hitherto concentrated upon concertante forms. Now at over 50 he set to in making a start. The first symphony was written in four months, by Martinu standards an incredible long period, and received its first performance in 1942. What emerges is a richer orchestral sound than previously. The various elements previously mentioned have come together including the prominence of the piano, references to Czech themes such as the Wenceslas hymn, used also in his sixth symphony. From his earlier interest in madrigals he introduced a novel form of development of mutating cells, each musical idea developing into the next, curiously but co-incidentally the method of composition employed at the same time by Edmund Rubbra in Britain.

At annual intervals, four more symphonies were to follow. If the first symphony had reflected the troubles and struggles of the last two years the second symphony was to be cast in a lighter pastoral mood , as Brahms also had done. There the comparison ends. The second symphony was dedicated to his fellow Czechs of Cleveland and performed in 1943.

Back in 1942 Rheinhard Heydrich, the Reich Protector of Bohemia and author of the plan for the Final Solution was attacked by Czech and Slovak partisans and died of his wounds. The reprisals were horrendous, the killing of all the males of Lidice whilst most of the women and children were deported to concentration camps. Martinu was overcome with the horror. He and other composers were asked to write a work in commemoration. He originally intended a three movement triptych but only completed the middle section and felt it complete as it was. “In Memoriam, Lidice” is an orchestral work of less than eight minutes which contains the foreboding, the tragedy, the hope, the horror and the expression of pain of the event. It is one of the most harrowing and yet moving works to experience. Its mood undoubtedly spilt over into the third movement of the first symphony but also it can be felt in the third symphony which is cast this time in only three movements. It was written between the 2nd May and 14 June 1944. It is a work which is in some ways Martinu’s Eroica. He said of it that it contained a tragic tone and was written in a period when he felt home sick. A week before its completion, news broke of the D-Day landings and for a brief moment there is a change of mood, when a distinct gleam of joy, of hope shines through and the rhythm of the opening of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, not fate so much as a V for Victory. However the mood slips back and the symphony ends on a rather ambivalent piano chord – where do we go from here?

 The fourth symphony completed in April 1945 comes with the end of the war in Europe and the liberation of Czechoslovakia. It is powerful and joyous. Back in Prague a search was taking place for someone to take over as principal of the conservatoire from Novak. His advice was to send for Martinu. At last, Martinu was preparing to go home. He indicated his readiness but red tape and events were to dictate a different outcome. In 1946 he would write his fifth symphony and the Toccata e Due Canzoni. The former is the most neo-classical of his symphonies which pitter-patters in seemingly unchanging rhythms but which in fact are constantly developing. It is to Martinu in many ways what Sibelius’s sixth symphony was in that composer’s cycle. The Toccata was commissioned by Paul Sacher for chamber orchestra with an important almost solo piano part. It was whilst writing it that the Martinus partied with friends in Berkshire. Gathered on the high unfenced portico of the house, Martinu stepped back and fell two floors and broke his skull. It resulted in loss of memory and deafness in one ear. It did not stop him from continuing the composition but the mood change is pretty well noticeable. His slow recovery caused him to delay his planned return during which time the communist takeover occurred. Martinu was persona non grata with them, his music not being acceptable as socialist realism and the iron curtain came down for him.

 Thus it was that Martinu was to stay on in the United States, not altogether happy but it had given him a home, recognition and a job. He composed a great deal and taught at the Mannes College of Music from 1948 until his return to Europe in 1953. In 1952 he became a naturalised American citizen which actually enabled him to

take up a position at the American Academy in Rome whilst being able to resettle in Europe. However, taking into account it was now the McCarthy era he would be forbidden to enter any country in the Soviet bloc. He remained as prolific in his output as before. Apart from the symphonies, he continued to write extensively including further concertos for piano, cello and violin, this time round with greater orchestral sonority than during his French neo-classical period.

 His sixth symphony was written in America especially for Charles Munch. It took shape as a free fantasy to include three pianos. However, that fantastic idea was dropped and it became the only one of his symphonies not to include a piano. Like Sibelius’s seventh, it was not conceived as a symphony but a symphonic fantasy. It is full of sharp contrasts, of jagged shapes, buzzing sounds and melodies from previous works including Juliette which gives it a feel of other worldliness. He finished it on returning to France in 1953, not to Paris but to Nice. He was to lecture not only in Rome but also at the Curtis Institute back in the States.

 During these next few years Martinu wrote an almost innumerable number of compositions. His writing now becomes more lustrous, rich textured and has been described as neo-impressionist. This particularly applies to the Frescoes of Piero della Francesa. These mediaeval paintings left a lasting impression on Martinu when he stopped at Arezzo whilst touring Northern Italy in 1954. In similar vein and even more impressionistic are the Parables (1957) and Estampes (1958) written in what can only be described as glorious panoramic sound. These three works could be called his seventh, eighth and ninth symphonies. Despite the onset of cancer nothing could stop Martinu from producing masterpiece after masterpiece in his last year. Amongst these works was a choral work, Gilgamesh, based on an Assyrian historical legend; the opera The Greek Passion, a story of a village passion play, written by Nikos Kazantzakis, better known for Zorba the Greek. He composed right to the end in August 1959 having moved to a house in Switzerland on the estate of Paul Sacher. His last legacy included two of his most felicitous works, the Variations on a Slovak Theme for cello and piano and his delightful nonet.

 Martinu died in Switzerland. Only later did the Czech government lay claim to his genius. His body was to be disinterred and reburied at Policka (where the body of Charlotte Martinu would later join his) in sight of the tower of St Jacob, finally resting where he had started, the circle complete. Behind him he left an unmatched collection of compositions including a cycle of symphonies as great as the best of the twentieth century. He was a loner who never gave up. In his own words

 “The artist is always searching for the meaning of life, his own and that of mankind, searching for truth. A system of uncertainty has entered our daily life. The pressures of mechanisation and uniformity, to which it is subject, call for protest and the artist has only one means of expressing this, by music.”

This note as all the others in this series was written for the Matthew Taylor Lectures at the Blackheath Music Appreciation Group. Lionel J Lewis ©