From winding stairs to whippoorwill
August 28, 2015
Anyone who was born in a church tower, squandered opportunities for music education as a naughty teenager, lived through two world wars, rose to be one of his country’s greatest composers, and left footprints either side of the Atlantic gets my attention.
I was reminded that today marks the death, on 28 August 1959, of Bohuslav Martinů who assumed the mantle of the leading Czech composer of the twentieth century, following the death of Leoš Janáček in 1924.
Born in the small town of Polička in 1890, Martinů’s life divided into spells in Prague, Paris, the United States and a return to Europe. His vast output of around 400 works displays a similar fragmentation. He wrote generously in numerous genres and today we dip into those formats, styles and stages of his development. Where to start? At the top of those winding stairs that led from the church tower where Martinů was reared down to street level. The 193 steps were probably good enough reason for the young musician to spend his evenings practising the violin, acquiring a skill that was to later bring him a temporary living as a member of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.
But Martinů’s intention in life from the start was to become a composer. The blue touch paper was lit when he was only 12 years old with the completion of his first composition, Three Horsemen, for string quartet (8.553782). It’s straightforward music, maybe naïve in parts, but a clear calling card for what was to follow.
Following the end of World War I, Martinů was based in Prague. Determined to escape the musical conservatism he sensed in the capital, he moved in 1923 to Paris where, now in his early 30s, he began to flex his wings, assimilating trends of the time and the place, including jazz and neoclassicism. His highly original Sextet for Piano and Winds (8.572467) was written in 1929, and the influence of jazz is perhaps most clearly heard in the fourth movement, titled Blues.
First performed the following year, 1930, the score for the ballet La revue de cuisine (8.572485) is one of the supreme examples of Martinu’s jazz style. The unlikely plot begins as follows:
“The forthcoming marriage between Pot (Le chaudron) and Lid (Le couvercle) is jeopardised by the adventurous Whisk (Le moulinet) to whose magic Pot has succumbed. Pot is so captivated that Lid falls off him and rolls into a corner of the kitchen.” And, yes, it gets more surreal as the show goes on. Here’s an extract from Duel: Tempo di charleston.
Also in 1930, Martinů completed what might have been his First Piano Trio, but what was instead called Cinq pièces brèves (8.572251). Written in an appealing and virtuosic neo-classical style, it was admired by no less than Stravinsky himself. Here’s the closing section which hurtles towards an unequivocal close.
When the German armies began to close in on Paris in 1940, Martinů made his way to the United States. It was a difficult and circuitous journey, rewarded on arrival by the encouragement he received from Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in the form of several commissions for new orchestral works. But we’ll dip into Martinů’s American years first with an extract from his Flute Sonata of 1945 (8.572467). The composer found it difficult to settle anywhere for long, and lived in various locations across New England, including in Cape Cod where this sonata was written. The locality left a footprint in the finale: Martinů was intrigued by the call of the whippoorwill, a bird indigenous to the area, and incorporated its song several times during this movement. Here’s the vivacious close to the work.
On a larger scale, Martinů completed his Piano Concerto No. 3 (8.572206) in New York in 1948. There’s little to offend the ear here, and much to charm, as Martinů seems to be building as much on the past European piano concerto tradition as decorating it with his own contemporary hues. This upbeat ending to the first movement sets the scene.
Martinů returned to Europe in 1953 and died in Switzerland in 1959. He completed his sixth and final symphony, titled Fantaisies symphoniques (8.553348), in Paris in 1953. He confessed that the work held a personal meaning for him, as Symphonie Fantastique had had for Berlioz, but he never divulged what this was. The second movement finds him exploring various effects in orchestral timbre, including divided cello and double bass sections and clustered semitones. Tremolo violins and cellos, plus tonal clusters on flutes introduce the movement.
Finally, an extract from The Epic of Gilgamesh (8.555138), Martinů’s oratorio for soloists, choir and orchestra, written in France in 1955. It tells of the confrontation between Gilgamesh, the legendary ruler of Babylon around 2700 B.C., and Ishtar, the Goddess of Love. It’s a long way in time and distance from those 193 steps leading to a bell tower in a small town near the Czech border with Moravia, but a suitable signing-off point with this extract.
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