About this Recording
8.557919 - MARTINU, B.: Piano Music (Complete), Vol. 3 (Koukl)
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Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959)
Complete Piano Music • 3

 

Bohuslav Martinů was born in a church tower in Policka, a small Bohemian town about eighty kilometers north of Brno, in what is now the Czech Republic. He began composing precociously at the age of ten, after beginning his study of the violin two years earlier. Although he attended the Prague Conservatory, he failed to complete his courses. While a young man, he worked as an orchestral violinist in Prague before moving to Paris in 1923 in order to study with Albert Roussel. He moved to the United States at the beginning of the 1940s to escape the spreading Nazi occupation of Europe. Martinů was a prolific composer. He wrote over four hundred pieces of music, some eighty of which were for the piano. Even though they constitute such a large portion of his work, the reputation of his works for solo piano has typically been overshadowed by that of his orchestral and chamber music.

This third CD of Martinů's music for solo piano represents the most mature style of his work. It begins with his two masterworks for the genre: the Fantaisie et toccata and the solitary Sonata. These works, like pillars, serve respectively as alpha and omega among the solo piano repertoire of his "post-Parisian" or "American" period, when Martinů's presence as composer and mentor was felt most strongly in the musical life of New York and New England.

To this, the beginning of the Second World War on 1 September 1939 marked a singular turning-point in Martinů's life and career. Early the following year, he and his wife Charlotte fled from Paris to Aix-en-Provence, owing to the inclusion of his name in Nazi blacklists, and the imminent invasion of Paris by approaching German armies. He left Paris with only four of his own scores, but busily composed new music while he was waiting for the necessary visa for emigration to the United States. The Fantaisie et toccata (Fantasy and Toccata), H. 281, was one of these works, composed in Aix-en-Provence during August and September 1940. It is dedicated to the Czech pianist Rudolf Firkušný, who was with Martinů at the time, similarly awaiting transport to America. Firkušný gave the first performance of the work at the Town Hall in New York on 2 February 1943.

The lengths of each part of the Fantaisie et toccata were unprecedented for Martinů's solo piano music, which consists mostly of relatively short movements that one could call "occasional" if taken out of context of the collections in which they are found. In this respect, it is matched only by his late-career Sonata.

The Sonata, H. 350, is Martinů's largest and last major work for solo piano. It was composed in Nice from 26 November to 17 December 1954, between his Symphony No. 6 and Piano Concerto No. 4 ("Incantations"). It is dedicated to Rudolf Serkin, but had its première on 3 December 1957 in the Czechoslovakian city of Brno with Eliška Nováková, the wife of Jan Novák, a Moravian composer who studied with Martinů for some five months while in New York then returned to Czechoslovakia to settle in Brno. The two continued to correspond until Martinů's death in 1959.

Although Serkin did not officially give the first performance, he actually did perform the Sonata the very next day, 4 December, in New York City. He was a close friend to Martinů and championed the Sonata, often programming it in recitals before Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata.

The three volumes of Etudes and Polkas were written between 27 July and 28 August 1945, while Martinů was living at Cape Cod, in the quiet retreat of South Orleans, Massachusetts. The collection is one of five works he completed while staying there, including the Czech Rhapsody for violin and piano, the Sonata for Flute and Piano, the orchestral scherzo Thunderbolt P-47, and the Symphony No. 4 which he had begun in New York. Rudolf Firkušný gave the première of the Etudes and Polkas at Carnegie Hall in New York City on 18 January 1946. The first six pieces constitute Book I, with five piece each in Books II and III.

The genre of dance music called "polka" originated in nineteenth-century Bohemia, and is still a common idiom in Czech folk-music. A common mistake is to assume the word refers to Poland ; instead, it comes from the Czech word p u lka, which literally means "a half", in reference to the rhythm of the music.

While these Etudes and Polkas do have occasion to hark back to Smetana, Dvořák, and Czech folk roots, they neverthless bear the individual, distinctive voice of a mature Martinů, filled with both a post-War optimism and a longing for a native land to which he would never return.

As if a retrospective comparison to the Etudes and Polkas, and commentary on Martinů's development as a composer, the final work on this disc, the Trois danses tchèques (Tri ceské tance, or Three Czech Dances), returns the listener to 1926, during Martinů's Paris era, when he could easily travel back and forth between that city and his homeland. They reveal their strong folk roots in their individual titles: Obkrocák (a social round-dance with stepping movements), Dupák (a "stamping" dance), and Polka. These dances are not to be confused with the Three Czech Dances for two pianos, H. 324, written for the piano duo Ethel Barlett and Rae Robertson in 1949, which is not a transcription of the earlier solo piano work, but different music entirely.

As for his long years in the United States, Martinů's impact upon the American classical musical scene was significant enough for him in 1955 to be elected to membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters. The following May he left America for the last time, finally settling in Switzerland, where he died in 1959.

Mark Gresham

 


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