About this Recording
8.557914 - MARTINU, B.: Piano Music (Complete), Vol. 1 (Koukl)
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Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959)
Complete Piano Music • 1


Bohuslav Martinů was born in a church tower in Polička, a Bohemian village about eighty kilometres north of Brno, in what is now the Czech Republic. A precocious child, Martinů began to compose 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.

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 been overshadowed by that of his orchestral and chamber music.

The pieces included here were all written between 1920 and 1938. Except for the Foxtrot of 1920, written in Polička, all were composed during Martinů's Parisian era, before he emigrated to America in 1940. In these one can hear a variety of expression as he developed into his mature personal style.

There are two short works from 1920 by Martinů entitled Foxtrot, H. 126 and H. 123. The one recorded here, H. 126, is a delightful short gem which is clearly inspired by the best of American rags and two-steps. This youthful work uses direct diatonic harmonies, but with its few simple twists of harmonic direction still sounds wonderfully fresh today.

The five Fables are among the early works written after Martinů's arrival in Paris in 1923. The titles of each movement do not represent actual fables in the sense of stories but, after the folk-like opening A la ferme (On the Farm) are abstractions of different animals that might typically appear in such a story, a rabbit, monkeys, a chicken, and an angry bear.

Although they were both written in 1927, Le Noël (Christmas) and the Trois esquisses (Three Sketches) are remarkably different. Le Noël is charmingly attractive in a recognizably French manner, while the Trois esquisses are highly abstracted snapshots of popular dance idioms of the Americas, blues, tango, and Charleston.

Martinů's Eight Preludes for Piano were written in 1929 as two sets of four preludes but were published the following year by Alphonse Leduc as a single set of eight. The publisher also appears to have created the "En forme…" titles, as Martinů's scores were marked only with the tempi, with which two of the appended titles, the third and sixth, are somewhat at odds. All eight are dedicated "à Mademoiselle Charlotte Quennehen", who became Martinů's wife two years later. These preludes show both the influence of American jazz-related idioms, as seen from a European perspective, and an enriched diatonic harmonic language.

Although Martinů was clearly influenced by American idioms during his earlier years, one might wish to speculate on his reciprocal impact upon American composers visiting Paris at the time, such as David Diamond with whom Martinů had subsequent ongoing contact. The diverse influences of American jazz, Martinů's Czech roots, his profound encounters with Stravinsky's music, and, most importantly, Albert Roussel's rôle as mentor, quickly merged into the fully matured compositional style of his Parisian period, of which the Esquisses de danses (Dance Sketches) of 1932 are a good example.

In 1938, while spending the summer at Vieux Moulin, Martinů wrote Fenêtre sur le jardin (Window on the garden). The title is taken from the simple fact that while staying there in a small detached cottage, the room in which he composed had a window through which he could see a garden full of roses given to his wife Charlotte by the artist Jan Zrzavý. It was not long after that a phone call from Rudolf Firkušný, warning them of the impending Nazi invasion of Paris, encouraged the Martinůs to leave France. They made their way first to Portugal, and ultimately to the United States.

Martinů has the following to say of his own music: I think the greatest danger facing contemporary music is that it seeks, through analyses and explanations, to justify itself; it seems afraid of not appearing sufficiently 'contemporary' or 'modern'. All this can only end in creating a mental attitude which is not at all favourable to the composer in giving free play to his ideas. It can only restrain him from expressing himself fully, completely, and honestly. We play continually with the words 'modern' and 'contemporary,' and by doing so we complicate for ourselves the creative process, which is, in itself, quite mysterious and complicated. To chase after novelty, at any price, is obviously not a good system. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the desire to seek new musical expression. New musical expression should arise from the subject-matter, should be the result of a composer's personality and experiences, it should not be the result of unusual technical means. Technical means are the artist's private business. The technique comes out of the work itself; not from the technique. Music is not a question of calculation. The creative impulse is identical with the wish to live, to feel alive. [1943]

Mark Gresham


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