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8.553349 - MARTINU: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4
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Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959)

Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959)

Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4


The Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu was born in 1890 at the country town of Policka in the mountains of Bohemia and Moravia. His father, a shoe-maker by trade, was employed also as town watchman, living in the bell-tower of the church of St Jakob, the highest vantage-point in the town, with the task of keeping Policka from any recurrence of the fire that had devastated it earlier in the century. It was here that Martinu was born in 1890. In his childhood he learned the violin from a local tailor and made a local reputation for himself, giving his first public concert in his home-town in 1905. At the same time he concentrated some attention on composition, although without proper tuition and lacking even the manuscript-paper necessary for the purpose. It was through the generosity of some of the citizens of Policka that in 1906 he was able to travel to Prague and find a place for himself at the Conservatory, where his early composition for string quartet, The Three Horsemen, made a favourable impression. Jibbing at the routine of the Violin School of the Conservatory, however, and preferring to indulge in more varied music-making, Martinu was transferred in 1909 to the Organ School, where he again failed to distinguish himself. Expelled in 1910, he remained in Prague, now concentrating on composition and narrowly qualifying as a teacher.


During the war Martinu taught the violin in his home-town, avoiding military service for which he was medically unfit, and in 1918 he was able to join the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, where he broadened his musical experience, while continuing to compose work after work. At the Conservatory he had enjoyed a brief period of instruction from Josef Suk but in 1923, assisted by a scholarship, he moved to Paris to study with Albert Roussel.


In the following years Martinu's music began to gain a hearing, particularly through Talich in the newly formed Czechoslovakia, Paul Sacher and Ernest Ansermet in Switzerland, Henry Wood in England, Munch in France and Koussevitzky in the United States, By 1931, still in Paris, he had established himself well enough to marry a young dressmaker, Charlotte Quennehen, although he never earned enough to allow even reasonable comfort. The German invasion of Czechoslovakia and the annexation of the country in 1939, coupled with the threat of wider conflict, was both horrifying and alarming. Eventually, in June 1940, four days before the German capture of Paris, Martinu and his wife made their escape, finding their way with considerable difficulty to Portugal and thence to Bermuda and reaching New York at the end of March 1941. In America during the war there were commissions from various quarters. For the Koussevitzky Foundation he wrote his First Symphony and there was a Violin Concerto commissioned by Mischa Elman, with a number of other compositions, including four further symphonies.


After the war Martinu had hoped to return to Prague, where he had been offered the position of professor of composition at the Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. His return to Europe was delayed by illness, after a fall at Tanglewood, where he had been invited to lecture, and any possibility of working again in his home-country was obviated by the accession to power of the Communists in 1948. For some five years he remained in the United States as professor of composition at Princeton, returning to Europe in 1953. Until 1955 he lived in Nice, then moving to Philadelphia to teach at the Curtis Institute for a year, before taking up a position at the American Academy in Rome. After a further period in Nice, he spent his last years in Switzerland, where he died of cancer in 1959.


Martinu was enormously prolific as a composer. often seeming careless of the fate of what he had written. His Second Symphony was commissioned by Czech refugees in Cleveland, to whom it is dedicated, and written at Darien in Connecticut between May and July 1943, to be performed at the end of October by the Cleveland Orchestra under Erich Leinsdorf, together with the newly composed Memorial to Lidice, remembering the destruction of Lidice and its men in 1942 in revenge for the assassination of Heydrich, German deputy-protector of Bohemia and Moravia under the Nazi occupation. The symphony, scored for an orchestra that includes, a piccolo, two flutes, three oboes, three clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano and strings, is relatively light-hearted and lyrical. The latter quality is immediately apparent in the opening bars, a reflection of the composer's own explanation of the work as answering a demand for ordered thoughts, calmly expressed. Nevertheless the music soon moves forward to a dynamic climax, although all ends in final serenity with a symphonic recapitulation initiated by the lyrical first subject. The key structure has some ambiguity, moving from an opening D minor through a minor to a final B flat major. The second movement, scored for woodwind, horns and strings, offers a melody with the modal contours of a folk-song explored in its harmonies often shifting from minor to major. The movement opens in C minor and ends in F major. Material originally intended for the first movement is used to provide a march in place of the more usual scherzo, with a lilting jaunty violin melody, as the C major third movement, with the contrast of a central trio section.


The final rondo is ebullient in its cheerful rhythms, syncopations that almost suggest American influence, or, at the least, the connection that Dvofiak had discovered between America and his native country. The symphony ends its adventurous excursions into various keys in a final D major.


In these years of American exile symphony followed symphony, in annual sequence. Martinu wrote his Fourth Symphony between April and June 1945 and it was first performed at the end of November in Philadelphia by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. This is again a predominantly lyrical work, started in New York as Czechoslovakia was being liberated and completed in June at South Orleans on Cape Cod in Massachusetts as the war in Europe came to an end. It is scored for largely similar resources, with a cor anglais that has a brief moment of glory in the second movement. There is something intensely celebratory and lyrical about the opening movement, which is without a central development section. This is followed by a vigorously energetic scherzo, the bassoons first heard against a forward-moving rhythmic accompaniment. The impetus is interrupted by a much gentler central trio. The slow movement is unusual in its contrasts of instrumental texture, with passages in which two solo violins and a solo cello are contrasted with the main body of strings. The last movement is portentous in its opening but moves on to material of a less threatening kind, leading to final C major triumph. Once again the key pattern of the movements ranges widely, from B flat to D major, with a last movement that starts in C minor. There are elements of bitonality, the simultaneous use of two tonalities or keys, while the composer continues his use of repeated note patterns


Keith Anderson


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