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8.573387 - MARTINŮ, B.: Songs, Vol. 3 - The Rose (Hrochová, Koukl)

Bohuslav Martinů (1890–1959)
Songs • 3


Bohuslav Martinů was born at Polička (Bohemia) on 8 December 1890, in a bell-tower where his father was employed as watchman. In his childhood he learned the violin from a local tailor, giving his first concert in his hometown in 1905. In 1906 he became a violin student at the Prague Conservatory, but some four years later, after having been relegated to the Organ School, he was expelled. His principal interest continued to centre on composition, and he pursued this right through the war, which he spent as a teacher in Polička, before joining the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra as a violinist in 1918. Although there had been an abortive period of instruction by Josef Suk at the Conservatory, it was not until 1923 that, assisted by a state scholarship, he moved to Paris as a pupil of Albert Roussel and studied composition in earnest.

Over the ensuing years Martinů’s music began to gain a hearing, not least through Vaclav Talich in Czechoslovakia, Paul Sacher and Ernest Ansermet in Switzerland, Henry Wood in England, Charles Munch in France and Serge Koussevitzky in the United States. In June 1940 he and his wife fled Paris four days before the German army marched into the city, reaching New York during March 1941. In the United States he was the recipient of several commissions from the Koussevitzky Foundation, while various other organizations commissioned further large-scale works. After the war he planned a return to Prague, having been offered a professorship at the Conservatory, but was prevented from doing so by serious illness as well as the rise of the Communist Party, and in 1948 he became a professor at Princeton University. He then lived in Nice for two years until 1955, when he moved to Philadelphia to lecture at the Curtis Institute before returning to Europe to teach at the American Academy in Rome. He spent his final years in Switzerland, dying in Liestal on 28 August 1959.

While well regarded for a number of significant choral works, not least the 1954 oratorio The Epic of Gilgamesh [Naxos 8.555138], attention has rarely been paid to Martinů’s vocal music. Songs with piano actually make up a fair proportion of his output until 1930, with many of them remaining unpublished or only recently made available in print, and they cover the range of styles and genres in which Martinů composed during that time. This latest volume consists of three collections, together with a selection of individual songs from an early date.

The Songs On One Page (1943), all of them to traditional and folk texts, is a notable example of Martinů’s periodic concern to pair his compositional thinking to its very essentials. The Dew opens the sequence with its plaintive evocation, then Unlocked By A Word is a lively take on the old adage that mothers should lock up their daughters. A Ride to my Beloved finds the protagonist poignantly contemplating the unknown, while Footpath offers a much jauntier account of heading onward. At Home with Mother engagingly contrasts easy life at home with the hardships to come, whereas A Dream of the Virgin eloquently draws parallels between the wonders of nature and Christian iconography. Finally, Rosemary finds the girl wistfully bidding her sweetheart to visit her home so her parents might offer her in marriage.

As the title suggests, the Songs On Two Pages (1944), again to traditional texts, are longer though hardly more developed instances of creative economy. Moravian Girl opens the set with a touching tribute to the beauty and fidelity of its subject, then The Neighbour’s Stable evokes the fine black horse that the neighbour’s son will be riding on his hunt. Hope finds the woman tearfully contemplating the return of her unfaithful beloved, whereas The Night Watchman finds the man of the title going about his business much to the annoyance of the nearby lovers. Secret Love is an elegiac reflection on its very impossibility, while The Wayside Cross liltingly depicts the encounter of a girl with her lover at prayer. Finally, Lads of Zvolen engagingly evokes the young men and woman in the Slovakian town of that name.

The cycle Niponari (1912), to texts by Japanese lyric poets, is among the most significant of Martinů’s early pieces—not because it offers much evidence of a personal idiom, but through its moving from late-Romantic indulgence towards a sparer and more impressionist manner. The Blue Hour launches the collection by drawing parallels between the onset of night and the dream of love, then Old Age (much the longest of the songs) likens the presence of snow to a gradual whitening of the hair, its sombre vocal line amply complemented by the flowing intricacy of the piano part. Reminiscence has the poet engaged in bittersweet contemplation as to the passing of spring, while A Lifetime Spent Dreaming ominously contrasts the dying of flowers with the passing of life. Footprints In The Snow has the protagonist imagining the path of one departed with not a little agitation, whereas A Look Back (with its atmospheric piano preamble) draws its fatalistic analogy between the passing of summer and the absence of happiness. Finally, By The Sacred Lake is a more unequivocal picture of life’s transience.

The Two Songs To Negro Folk Poems (1932) are striking examples of Martinů’s concern to reflect contemporary issues (an interesting parallel to Ravel’s settings of Evariste de Parny in Chansons madécasses and Zemlinsky’s settings of Langston Hughes in his Symphonische Gesänge). Lullaby has the mother comforting her unhappy child to the effect that the colour of his skin is immaterial in the face of God’s love, with the music given impetus by the blues-inflected contour of the vocal line and the peremptory rhythmic repetition of the piano part. Longing takes this evocation of the ‘deep South’ further with its vividly syncopated piano writing, allied to the high-flown rhetoric and frequent recourse to vocalise of the vocal line.

The remaining songs shed a fascinating light on Martinů’s song-writing from the outset of his career. My Mother (1911), to words by Josef Sladek, agitatedly contrasts a sailor’s tribulation at sea with those of his anxious mother. It Is All Gone (1912), once again to words by Sladek, wistfully contrasts the protagonist’s fondly remembered past with that of the unknown future which awaits him. Oh, Speak (1910), to words by an unknown poet, draws a parallel between the aging of the outer person and the dying of the soul in an elaborate setting that is imploring and fatalistic by turns. Blue Eyes (1910), to words by Vaclav Martinek, favours a rather more positive view of those life-enhancing qualities that are (or at least can be) evoked by the poet.

The Rose (1912), to words by Augustin Mužik, draws (not too explicit) comparison between a plucking of the flower in question with the ‘coming of age’ of the protagonist’s sweetheart. Shine, God, Shine (1912), to words from a traditional source, offers a rumination on a house such as the author recollects with not a little trepidation. The Right Tally (1911), to words by Robert Mužik, finds the young man in a fanciful though not unduly earnest dialogue with his surroundings while out walking with his loved one. Marry Me Off, Mother (1912), to words by Kazimierz Prezerwa-Tetmajer, finds the girl imploring her mother to find her a husband before she is too old in another setting tinged with humour. Lastly, Song about Hanička (1912), to words by Josef Kalus, finds a deserting soldier encountering the woman whom he marries forthwith.

Richard Whitehouse

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