Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Symphonies of Bohuslav Martinů

Bohuslav Martinů ( b. December 8th 1890 - d. 28th August 1959) was a brilliant Czech composer of a vast quantity of music, including six symphonies which were written against the backdrop of World War II (1939-45) and its aftermath. With their bohemian lyricism, highly original orchestral colouring and exciting rhythms, Martinů's six symphonies, composed at the height of his mature style, are the crowning glory of his musical genius. Among the greatest of all twentieth century symphonies, they encapsulate the human condition yet emerge triumphant, joyous and life-affirming. 

Born in the village of Policka in Bohemia, Martinů had an isolated childhood, seldom descending the hundred plus steps of the bell-tower of his family's living quarters. He took lessons from Joseph Suk who was the son-in-law of the 'founding father' of Czech music, Antonin Dvorak (1841 -1904) and played second violin in the Czech Philharmonic during the years 1918 - 22, an experience which provided him with a privileged insight into the co-ordination, workings and performing capabilities of an orchestra.

Living in Paris in the 1920's Martinů became familiar with the very latest in art, including Surrealism. He experimented with many forms of music, his La revue de cuisine (1927) was a jazz-inspired success. Continuing his musical studies with Albert Roussel, Martinů eventually settled for the clear and concise form of Neoclassicism, as first developed by Stravinsky in the 1920's. The political scenario of the 1930's however necessitated that he fled Paris only days before the Nazi occupation of the city. It took him nine long arduous months to finally reach the haven of America, catching one of the very last available passenger ferries before the war prohibited the crossing the Atlantic sea. 

Like his fellow compatriot before him, Dvorak who found enormous success in America with his New World  symphony (1893) Martinů also found fame in America. He'd been writing music for over 30 years before he came to write symphonies, relatively late in life and in his 50's, but then following a commission he wrote a symphony in each of five consecutive years. In the 1940's all the major American orchestra's performed Martinů's symphonies throughout the cities of the United States. 

From the opening bars of the first movement of Martinů's first symphony (1942) the craftsmanship of a skilled composer conjuring a unique orchestral colouring can be heard. It's worth remembering that the Czech music tradition with its rich folk-melodies and inventive rhythms was proudly independent from the Viennese school which dominates much Western music. Martinů made frequent reference to Moravian folk-melodies, resulting in music distinctively coloured by the inventive rhythms and the lyrical, bohemian rhapsodies of his Moravian homeland. His first symphony has been described as, “epic, tragic and energetic”.

The American composer and music-critic Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) also stated of Martinů's first symphony, in words which are applicable to all of his symphonies -

'The shining sounds of it sing as well as shine; the instrumental complication is a part of the musical conception, not an icing laid over it. Personal, indeed, is the delicate but vigorous rhythmic animation, the singing (rather than the dynamic) syncopation that permeates this work. Personal, and individual too, is the whole orchestral sound of it, the acoustical superstructure that shimmers consistently.There's a calm, pastoral mood pervading both the first and second symphonies, the composer describing his second symphony (1943) as “lyric, poetic and vivid”.

Martinů considered his tense, highly-dramatic and angst-filled third symphony to actually be his first proper symphonic work, having had Beethoven’s Eroica in mind when he wrote it. “It is a work of revolt,” he once claimed, “of manly defiance, of grim yet firm determination, challenging fate.” Its first movement reflects the anxieties and fears experienced by many during the World War, the composer himself describing it as 'dramatic and Bohemian'.

Martinů described his fourth symphony (1945) as - “impressionistic, cosmopolitan, colourful and joyful”. Its probably his most accessible and satisfying symphony to listen to and easily the most frequently performed and recorded of all his symphonies. There's an extraordinary rapid change of mood from triumph to despair in its opening bars in a string glissando phrase slightly reminiscent of a moment in a Hollywood Film noir film where the heroine's dreams are suddenly dashed. (00: 55 - 01:10 on the clip below)

A high-quality clip of the scherzo from the  4th symphony. (Below)

Martinů described his fifth symphony (1946) as 'visionary'. Its said to hover somewhere between the joyous optimism of the fourth symphony and the angst-fuelled energy of the third symphony.

No decent recording of Martinu's 5th symphony is available online. The music-critic Robert Layton however, wrote of Martinů's Fifth symphony

'The Fifth is the last of the purely 'abstract' symphonies:...Martinu has an almost classical view of the limits imposed by the symphonic discipline. In a sense the Fifth is the most classical and perfectly balanced of the symphonies: the perspectives are precisely judged and the control over detail and its relation to the work as a whole is complete; there is no trace of the slight sentimentality that clouds the slow movement of the Fourth. It is filled with the life-enhancing power we find in his very best work and its statement is wholly affirmative'.

Martinů's sixth symphony (1951-53) followed after a five-year gap after the fifth symphony. It was written after he had a serious fall from mezzanine floor, sustaining injuries to his head which affected his hearing, causing him to suffer from vertigo for some time afterwards. This major traumatic incident of 1946 marks a turning-point  in Martinů's music away from the structured, dispassionate form of Neoclassicism, to a far-freer expressiveness, loosely termed as Neo-Impressionism. Martinů described his sixth symphony as a “song of longing and hope”. Its opening movement may depict the sensation of vertigo -

The  music-critic Robert Layton stated of the sixth symphony-

'the detail in the musical landscape (of) this work unfolds is richer in colouring and immediate in impact. At times the Fantasie symphoniques has the visionary quality, the enhanced awareness of colour, the vivid contrasts and more brilliant hues that are said to come from taking mescaline : certainly there is a proliferation of textures, exotic foliage and vibrant pulsating sounds that have no parallel in the earlier symphonies. ...the opening of the second movement unleashes an extraordinarily imaginative, insect-like teeming activity'. 

Layton summarizes Martinu's symphonies thus-

'The Fourth and the Sixth symphonies open up new worlds of sound: the Fifth consolidates territory already won and is less exploratory than either. Both the Fourth and the Fifth have recourse to direct sectional repetition, This way of treating material argues an approach to form which has its origins in the eighteenth century dance suite:.........It has been argued that Martinů was content with his discoveries, that he made little effort to expand the frontiers of his world experience. Up to a point this is true, for he did repeat himself in many of his works. But the finest music in these symphonies glows with an inner warmth and love of life, inimitably expressed'.

The Czech music critic Aleš Březina assessed Martinů thus -

'In the majority of cases, Martinů was not the first one to turn the music world’s focus in a new direction; rather, he would act as the perceptive and inquisitive observer of the music scene, one ever ready and willing to expand his compositional vocabulary and his catalogue of genres. His capacity to combine experimentation with a musical idiom very much his own places Martinů amongst the 20th century’s most exciting, as well as most innovative, composers'.

Its generally acknowledged that Martinů's vast output is startlingly uneven in quality and that he repeated himself in many of his works. However, although many works by Martinů are seemingly of a highly improvised, uncritical and unrevised nature which echo stylistic traits similar to contemporaries such as Bartok, Prokofiev and Stravinsky, Martinů distilled the very essence of his musical genius into his six symphonies which are lyrical, colourful and exciting works; he's also one of the few predominantly cheerful voices in 20th century music. The best of Martinů's music is mercurial in its ever-changing moods and rhythms, and often Mozartean in character. (Mozart was one of the few Viennese composers to influence the musical world of Prague of his day). Martinů's music shares with Mozart's a fondness for the structure and formality of 18th century music, in particular music of the dance, as well as  sharing a piquancy in its writing for woodwind.    

In a rare American Radio interview Martinů stated that the three main influences upon his music were Czech national music, the English madrigal and Debussy.  He also stated of his art-

'The artist is always searching for the meaning of life, his own and that of mankind, searching for truth. A system of uncertainty has entered our daily life. The pressures of mechanisation and uniformity to which it is subject call for protest and the artist has only one means of expressing this, by music'.

Martinů's near pathological compulsion to compose resulted in a vast catalogue of both highly original and hastily composed, unrevised music. Altogether he wrote almost 400 individual works in some 40 years. In addition to the six symphonies, there are five piano concertos as well as concerti for varied combinations of instruments.  His  large output includes - the opera Juliette, Key to Dreams (1937) the tense and thrilling Double concerto for Strings, Piano and Percussion (1938) a charming Concerto for Harpsichord and small Orchestra (1935) in Neoclassical style, seven string quartets, the first piano quartet (1942) with its remarkable last movement opening bars of jazz-blues improvisation, and the hauntingly beautiful late work Chamber music No. 1 ('Les fetes nocturnes') (1959) a sextet for clarinet, harp, piano and string trio (1959) all of which are well worth hearing. 

Due to the politics of the 'Cold war' and the 'Iron Curtain' of the Soviet bloc, Martinů sadly was never able to return to the Moravian homeland he loved. Increasingly homesick, he spent the last few years of his life as an exile in various European cities, dying from cancer aged 68 on the 28th August, 1959. Martinů's legacy however lives on in his unique music, in particular his symphonies. Its a legacy far greater than many realise, for among those who took music-lessons from him was the quintessential American songwriter, Burt Bacharach (b. 1928).


Martinů : Symphonies (3 CD's) Royal Scottish National Orchestra  / Bryden Thomson Chandos 1991 Re-mastered 2005  - a rich recording sound, but bit plodding though.

Martinů: Symphonies (3 CD's)  Bamberg Symphony Orchestra / Neemi Jarvi  Brilliant 1987
A ridiculously low-priced bargain on Amazon for 3 discs and for many years the best available recording and interpretation until .....

Martinů: Symphonies (3 CD's) Jiri Belohlavek / BBC Symphony Orchestra Onyx 2011
GRAMOPHONE AWARD WINNER 2012 simply the best interpretation and recording currently available.

'You won't find a more persuasive champion than Belohlavek, who has the music in his blood. His skill at unravelling Martinů's rhythmic and textual knots-evidenced time and again in these live performances by the BBC Symphony Orchestra - is such that you immediately sense the stature of the music. The best place to start is the Fourth Symphony: in Belohlavek's hand it sizzles - especially the Allegro vivo, a motorised march that generates fabulous momentum. **** --Financial Times,30/07/11


The Symphony 2: Elgar to the Present Day editor Robert Simpson pub. Penguin 1967 chapter 30 - Martinů  and the Czech tradition by Robert Layton. 
Brilliant Box-set notes - Stig Jacobsson
Chandos Box-set notes - Jan Smaczny

Wikilink -  Bohuslav Martinů

Catalogue of  Bohuslav Martinů's compositions

To follow:    Orchestral and Chamber music of Bohuslav Martinů