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FECD-0018 - MARTINU: Symphony No. 5 / Oboe Concerto / Estampes

Bohuslov Mortinu ,

Bohuslov Martinu


For someone regarded as the most significant Czech composer since Janacek, Bohuslav Martinu spent surprisingly little of his professional life in his homeland, forced as he was by musical apprenticeship and then historical events to remain an artist in exile for most of his career. He was born in Policka on the border of Bohemia and Moravia. His youthful talents on the violin gained him a place at the Prague Conservatory and later (1913-23) in the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Throughout this time he composed with impressive facility, accruing over 120 compositions by the age of 30. A self-taught composer, he returned briefly to the Conservatory for guidance in Josef Suk's composition class.


In 1923 funding enabled Martinu to escape the German-Romantic stranglehold over the Prague Conservatory and study with Albert Roussel in Paris, thus profiting from that city's rich musical life, which in the 1920s boasted Stravinsky, Les Six and jazz. These influences inevitably permeated Martinu's music, from the Petrushka-Iike tone poem Half-time (1924) to overtly jazz-inspired works from the late 1920s such as the ballet La Revue de Cuisine (1927) and the big band-Iike Le Jazz (1928) for orchestra. Martinu's discovery of Baroque composers around 1930 led to a more acerbic and motivic style. Simultaneously, his pieces looked towards Czech literature and folklore for inspiration. Such a 'Czech' work, the ballet Spalicek, scored a big success by winning the Smetana Prize. In Paris Martinu composed over 60 scores, some quite daring and of variable success.


Early in 1939 the horrifying German invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia deeply shook Martinu. He would never see his homeland again. His Paris years came to an abrupt end when the Nazis took the city in the spring of 1940. Blacklisted, Martinu and his French wife were obliged to leave, and a year later crossed the Atlantic.


Arriving in New York in 1941, the 50-year old composer had to establish himself in a new land with an unfamiliar language. New York's fast pace and angular skyline was alienating for a composer raised in a picturesque Bohemian village. The composer suffered frequent bouts of depression, not helped by the war in Europe. Koussevitsky, who had already conducted Martinu's works in Boston, assisted by commissioning the First Symphony (1942) and inviting him to teach at the Tanglewood Summer School (later teaching posts were held at New York's Mannes School of Music, Princeton University and Rome's American Academy). The five symphonies of the 1940s firmly established Martinu in America, and betrayed an organic lyricism quite removed from his earlier neoclassicism.


The Communist takeover of Prague in 1947 sealed Martinu's dream of returning to Czechoslovakia, though he would make several trips to Europe. In 1955 he took American citizenship but settled in Switzerland from 1957 until his death two years later. In 1979 his body was reburied in the family grave at Policka.


Whilst hardly the most influential composer of his generation, Martinu forged a musical individuality matched by few of his peers. Aspects of his mature style were established by the 1930s, and it was arrived at through a highly personalized distillation of the composer's generous musical sympathies. These included Czech folk song, French Impressionism, Stravinsky and neoclassicism, the English madrigal, the Baroque concerto grosso, and 1920s jazz. His Baroque-like prolificacy, about 400 works including 16 operas, 30 concertos, and 70 chamber works, is inevitably uneven in quality, but there is admirable consistency in the works of his last three decades - many of which still await mainstream exposure. Although capable of expressing real tragedy in music (witness for example the Double Concerto of 1938) Martinu, despite his bouts of isolation and depression, was essentially a creator of joyous and life-affirming music.


- Marco Shirodkar



Symphony No.5


The following commentary is reprinted from the original First Edition Records LP release.


Martinu composed his Fifth Symphony in 1946 as a tribute to the Czech Philharmonic. This was a gesture of gratitude in more ways than one for not only had this excellent orchestra been instrumental in furthering the cause of Czech national culture through performances of native composers, it also provided a home for Martinu during his apprentice years - he spent the decade 1913-1923 at the second desk of the violin section. Following the First World War, Martinu began to gain local recognition for his own music but it was not until the Thirties that his compositions acquired both an international style and an international reputation. Many elements of the musical currents that Bartok and Stravinsky had charted out were absorbed in Martinu's stream of ideas - the use of thematic cells or fragments in place of the lengthy melodic lines of the Romantics for example, or the full-scale return to the aesthetic and technique of Baroque music. We find the same driving rhythms, angular melodies, linear part writing and alternating blocks of texture which characterize the Baroque style from Bach and Handel to Bloch and Honegger in the music of Martinu as well. That sort of writing was quite fashionable in the Thirties, but it persists in the music dating after Martinu's return to Europe following a period of exile during World War II.


The Fifth Symphony is a transitional piece linking the stark and abstract style of Martinu's early maturity with the more expressive and introspective works of his final years, particularly those twin masterpieces which mark the summit of his achievements - Fantasies Symphoniques (Symphony No. 6) and the Three Frescos. Turning our attention for the moment to the matter of form, we may notice here a loosening of the rigid structure of the composer's prewar music. There are, of course, musical elements that return, but the overall plan is guided more by principals of musical drama rather than formal symmetry. The slow introduction that begins the first movement, for example, reappears midway through fragmentized and compressed as a kind of development section The main body of the Allegro is divided into the traditional two thematic groups - a jazzy fanfare tune and a more reserved and expressive string idea which is echoed by the winds and piano. These elements are not reprised in the traditional fashion; instead the composer blends that develop- mental return of the introduction into a new section which features a great deal of the jazzy first theme. Soon more lyrical material enters leading to the second theme itself but even here, the emphasis is not on a rehashing of the earlier section but instead a preparation of the final dramatic stroke - the return of the slow introduction as a summation and conclusion of the movement.


The second movement is a more static conception. Here we may discover why Martinu is so often praised for his mastery of orchestral color. It is a kind of mosaic technique - blocks of pure wind or string sonority mixed together but never totally losing their own identity. Soon the violins reach up to a long sustained high G; as did Bruckner and Sibelius before him, Martinu seems to be building an architectural space  - a cathedral-Iike range from extreme lows to highs. Now a lengthy passage for flute and strings brings an orchestral climax featuring that fantastic rippling texture which Martinu uses so effectively. These two sections are now recalled one at a time in a more expansive form. The first makes use of those high Gs in a powerful statement for full orchestra. An unusual interlude for trumpets and strings prepares the way for the flute passage which is given, this time to the solo violin. Notice how smoothly the stately ending is designed to lead directly into the key of the third and final movement.


Once again Martinu has welded two strong contrasting tempos into a single movement - a sober fugal-Iike introduction and a bright and persistent allegro much in the favor of a gigue. For contrasting interludes, we have a typical Martinesque theme - a few notes, off-the-beat accents, with sustained tension-building harmonies, and a reminiscence of the slower opening. Following this slower middle section, the dance-Iike atmosphere reappears to be worked up with a whirlwind finish.





The following is reprinted from the December 29, 1950 Louisville Orchestra Carnegie Hall world premiere program notes.


The Intermezzo opens with a dashing introduction. The violins have a dainty theme in 6/8 time, interrupted by orchestral interjections with strong cross accents. Woodwinds play a dance-like theme and the piano repeats it. The tempo slackens and the trumpet takes the lead with a folk dance; a still slower section allows the violins to sustain a Iyric folk song with a Slavonic cast. In the transition to the return to the first part the trumpet again comes forward, again the delicate theme is heard and the accents off-beat, but faster, and the vociferous Coda rushes to the close.


- Fanny Brandeis



Oboe Concerto


The following commentary is reprinted from the original First Edition Records LP release.


The twenty-one years since his death have not diminished the vigor and vitality of the music of Bohuslav Martinu, the remarkable Czech composer whose career took him from his native country to Paris, to Portugal in the face of the Nazi terror, and finally to America. In his music, Martinu combined the rich rhythms and harmonies of his native Bohemia with a thoroughly remarkable modern technique. The year 1955 proved to be one of the most important in his life. It began with the Boston premiere of what would become one of his most popular orchestral works, Fantaisies Symphoniques (his sixth symphony), a piece still in repertory throughout the world. And it was in that same year that Martinu completed his sparkling concerto for oboe and orchestra.


Marion Gibson, principal oboist of The Louisville Orchestra, was soloist for the Orchestra's first performance of the work on January 11, 1980. She "played like an angel," wrote William Mootz in The Louisville Courier-Journal, and Times critic F.W. Woolsey called her performance "a triumph of elegant musicianship and virtuosity." The three-movement work is utterly charming and approachable, marked throughout by a delightful Czech atmosphere. Sprightly frolicking yet wistful, the first movement is a charming pastorale, a delightful show-piece for the soloist. The sad shimmering second movement features the soloist in a poignant melodic search over the brooding piano background. The oboe's nervous journey alternates with serene orchestral interludes. Finally, soloist and ensemble merge. A folk dance initiates the lively final movement, as bright as a clear cloudless day in the Czech countryside. The movement features a sensitive cadenza-Iike excursion by the soloist before the orchestra interrupts. Somehow, a few clouds have appeared. But only for a moment. The movement romps to a triumphant little finale.





The following commentary is reprinted from the original First Edition Records LP release.


For me, these Estampes ("prints" or "etchings" in French) are three pictures of Switzerland, where the work was composed.


Estampes I - Andante begins with very thin scoring that gives a vague, misty impression. The  clarinet carries a theme, in a disconnected way, with swirls of sound from winds and strings, and an accompaniment by harp and piano. The piano has an icy sound, and later, when the violins have a more sustained melody, the piano's glittering figures suggest that this is a winter scene, clouds veiling the mountain's summits.


Estampes II - Adagio is completely romantic, and the strings are expressive with a rich sound - the beginning is broad, and this Estampes may represent an extended landscape, moors with distant hills. The cor anglais (English horn) and a solo viola sing a lugubrious melody. Then all changes: Allegretto; oboe and clarinet in unison play a Rans de Veches, the ancient, ever-varying Swiss melody used to call the cows when the herd is scattered, sometimes sung, sometimes played on the Alp-horn. If the name is mystifying, remember the piping of the shepherd at the beginning of the third set of Tristan? The clarinet opening of the last movement of Beethoven's Pastorale Symphony? Two examples of a Rans de Veches brought into opera house or concert hall.


Estampes III - Poco Allegro is in holiday mood - perhaps this is a picture of a village festival. There are bravura fanfares, a march-Iike theme, and the horn and trumpet sound jubilant. It is more rhythmic than melodic, and accelerates to a joyous fanfare at the end.


- Fanny Brandeis

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