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8.553782 - MARTINU: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 / Three Horsemen

Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959)

Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959)

String Quartets Nos 1 and 2

Tri jezdci (Three Horsemen)


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. He tended to avoid revision of his compositions and in consequence the vast quantity of music that he wrote is often of uneven quality and varying style, although he came, in the 1930s, to make increasing use of Czech thematic material and to be identified with his native country. Nevertheless there were influences to be absorbed in Paris during the seventeen years he spent there.


One of the earliest of Martinu's compositions is Tri jezdci (The Three Horsemen), a work for string quartet that is based on a ballad by Jaroslav Vrchlicky on the subject of the three riders, the three Czech noblemen who brought home the news of the burning of Jan Hus. The work was written in 1902 and is the earliest of Martinu's surviving compositions, a reminder of his association with a local student quartet in Policka. It is in three short, connected movements and is relatively straightforward, if not naive, in its graphic treatment of the underlying narrative.


Martinu's first formal string quartets, now lost, were written in 1912 and 1917 respectively. The quartet known as String Quartet No. 1 was composed in 1918 on the suggestion of a quartet formed by musicians of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, with Stanislav Novak as leader and Ladislav Cerny as second violin. Martinu had shared a room with Novak, as a student, and it was through his friend's later good offices that he was able to join the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, of which Novak subsequently became leader. The manuscript parts were preserved by Ladislav Nernv and the revised score of the first three movements survived as the one-time property of the Sevcik Quartet. The work opens in the key of E minor, a viola proposing a melody of pentatonic contour over sustained notes from the other players. The melody is taken up by the second violin, imitated in canon by the viola. This takes on an even more Bohemian complexion as it proceeds, shifting in tonality from E minor to a final E flat major. The slow movement, against a seemingly French accompanying texture, offers again a theme of pentatonic outline, shifting here from B to F sharp major. The third movement is a scherzo, with a rapid 514 trio, shifting in tonality from an apparent A flat major to G, while the final Allegro con brio, with its Ravel-like textures and melodic contours, and assured string-writing, moves, more naturally, from C minor to a final C major.


Martinu's String Quartet No.2 was written in Paris in 1925 and reflects something of the effect Roussel had had on his work during the previous two years. It is dedicated to the Novak-Frank Quartet and was published in 1927. There is an introduction to the first movement, which slowly unwinds, a prelude to a brusque Allegro vivace, in which the first theme is heard at once, to be developed contrapuntally. A secondary theme of greater serenity appears with elements of the introduction and the principal theme. The cello explores the possibilities of the triplet element heard before, followed by the viola, while a dotted rhythmic figure assumes further importance. The viola eventually leads the way to an abridged recapitulation. The tonality of D had dominated the first movement and has initial importance in the following Andante, although here it must compete with contradictory neighbouring tonalities, heard in the dissonance of the second section of the movement, which itself frames music of greater serenity at the heart of the movement. Finally the mysterious music of the first section returns. A lighter mood starts the last movement, with its clearly marked sections suggesting rondo form. A scherzando section leads an effective melody, a violin cadenza and the return of the principal theme. There are further contrasts as the movement proceeds, with a return of the secondary thematic material, all framed by the main theme, to be followed by a brief and dramatic coda, ending firmly in G major.


Keith Anderson

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