About this Recording
8.573447 - MARTINŮ, B.: Songs, Vol. 4 - The White Dove (Hrochová, Koukl)

Bohuslav Martinů (1890–1959)
Songs • 4


Bohuslav Martinů was one of the most prolific of twentieth-century composers. His works ranged from the most brilliant to some that were weak because of his lack of interest in correcting or improving them. He often forgot what he had written and when, which means that researching Martinů is fraught with lists of works that are incomplete or full of errors, omissions, wrong or missing dates, and inaůuracies in or lack of attributions of poems.

When, in April 2003, the Martinů centre in Prague sent me some music for my Martinů complete solo piano works project, among the papers there were also, and probably by mistake, a few pages of some songs for voice and piano. They were in his characteristic hand—so insecure and full of mistakes—that their date could be inferred with a high degree of certainty, even though their titles and other markings were missing. But they fired my interest. I tried them out. The Italian lyricism of the melodies was readily apparent.

Could it be that Martinů’s notion—repeated throughout his life—that his family’s name was really Martino or Martini of Italian origin, had some basis in fact? We shall probably never know. In truth, the name Martinů in the little place Polička, too small to be a town, too big to be a mere village, oůurs in more than twenty families, thus excluding the possibility of a recent arrival.

Bohuslav’s mother was a strict woman who could not abide any wastage of paper. As a result the young composer had to use every scrap of paper, and his cascades of dots dating from this period are difficult to read. But they are typical of his early manuscripts.

Contrary to all economic logic I hatched a plan to record Martinů’s complete vocal works. In Aleš Březina, the indefatigable director of the Martinů Institute in Prague, I found an ideal partner who believed in the project and was the first to make a practical contribution. Together we tried our luck with a first recording. Once again I must thank the wonderful but anonymous group of enthusiasts who have contributed to this difficult project. And thank you Patrice, thank you Gregory. Thank you all!

Critical reaction in the specialised press has been significant, so that many of the songs will find their way into the repertoire of today’s singers, even though printed versions do not exist and will continue to be scarce for some years to come. However, it was decided to carry on with the project. The Martinů Foundation, the Dvořak Society of Great Britain for Czech and Slovak Music, and the Societe Janáček in Paris have all made their contributions. The next step was to scour museums, archives and private collections for material. Copying out a single autograph could take hundreds of hours of work, but there were other difficulties, too. The young Martinů, never indifferent to the charm of women, would simply press one of his manuscripts, with a dedication, into the hands of a singer he had come to admire during his regular visits to the theatre or concerts, without ever having made a copy of the work for himself to keep. Research must thus be carried out in more than one country.

It was necessary to find unknown poems, to attribute them rightly to their authors, and to check the aůuracy of the texts. My wife and I spent hundreds of hours on this research. Some manuscripts, however, are damaged to such an extent that they are impossible to transcribe. To name an example out of many: Labutě (The Swans) will remain incomplete, in spite of the best efforts on our part. There are bits of lines missing, the aůompaniment is not always filled in, some texts are missing, and in the case of well known poems it is hard to correlate the metre of the melody’s line with that of the poetry. The restoration of this and similar manuscripts to a usable performing format will remain impossible unless hitherto undiscovered autographs come to light.

Other songs will remain—perhaps for ever—hidden somewhere. Aůording to Martinů’s friend and biographer Šafranek they comprise more than thirty songs, including a group dedicated to Vitězslava Kapralova, stemming from Martinů’s most productive and interesting period.

The thirty-year-old Martinů was sent by the Czechoslovak State to collect some Slovak folk-songs, the origin of Nové slovenské písně (New Slovak Songs). The purpose of the operation was to help bring the two nations, Czechs and Slovaks, closer together through art, folklore and shared feelings. The project was entirely suůessful: Martinů wrote high-quality aůompaniments to the folksongs he had collected. In fact they represent some of his best, most sophisticated use of the piano in his output. Though not a pianist himself, he makes much use of the tremolo, perhaps to suggest the sound of the cymbalom, a typical Slovak folk instrument which he encountered on his travels from village to village.

It is unnecessary to analyse the individual pieces. They all share Martinů’s great inventiveness linked to the performances he heard, the declaiming of the beautiful Slovak language, so rhythmic in its very nature, with texts so far removed from our own mentality and so fascinating for their description of a world no longer in existence. The result is convincing, dramatic, profound and psychologically effective. The songs can safely be entrusted to a publisher in the sure knowledge that they will find their audience and will not be not be relegated—as did sometimes happen in the past—to some depository or a museum.

Martinů uses just a third of the poem Tři panny za světlé noci (The Three Virgins). He probably intended to continue, but the only aůessible autograph ends abruptly at bar 100. This is not the only time that we find him using only parts of poems in songs he composed, copied out and prepared for printing.

The impressionistic mood of the text by Antonin Sova (1864–1928), a symbolist poet of the Czech avant-garde, enchanted the young Martinů who was always very sensitive to the quality of the poetry he liked to use. The outside world of suffering, disillusion and poverty, in strong contrast to the exotic and dream-like environment of the poems, fully reflected the aesthetic needs of the young composer who creates here an extraordinary harmonic image.

Říkadla (Nursery Rhymes) was written in December 1940 during Martinů’s brief visit to the south of France during the extremely precarious situation in which he found himself while awaiting his visa for a journey to the United States. It is dedicated to Edmonde Charles-Roux, a twenty-year-old girl who was to become editor of the famous magazine Vogue and an influential journalist. The pieces, called sometimes ‘Songs on half a page’, were written down in a little notebook without music staves—probably the only paper at hand. It can be said that Martinů in writing the aůompaniment must have limited himself to an absolute minimum. He left the voice without an aůompaniment in places, while at other times limiting the harmony to repetitions of a short fragment and only rarely filling in a classical type of aůompaniment. For the texts he must have drawn on his own memory of Czech nursery rhymes, since he had no books or other texts with him at the time. The Martinů family’s living conditions of hunger and cold at that period are in no way reflected in the gaiety of the music which is full of irony, smiles and liveliness.

I am glad that now at last, with the publication of this work, I am handing over these fascinating and important compositions, some literally rescued from archival oblivion after languishing for more than a century in museums, and that I am passing them on into the hands that make all music flourish—the hands of musicians and their listeners. Once again I want to thank the singer Jana Hrochova, who has from the very beginning and with real enthusiasm, shared the work of bringing all the four recordings into existence, and Karel Janovicky who has translated all the texts into English with a rare sensitivity while preserving the subtleties of the Czech and Slovak languages of the originals.

Giorgio Koukl

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