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Essential Martinu

By Gary Barton

Remember the flashback scene in the film Casablanca in which Rick and Dooley, the pianist, are waiting on a railroad platform for Ilsa to show up and get on the last train out of Paris before the Nazi army reaches the city? It is June 10, 1940, and the waiting rooms of every train and bus station are crowded with people trying desperately to escape. This scene is fictional, but the situation was not. Among the actual refugees were an obscure 50-year-old Czech composer and his French wife. Bohuslav Martinu was on the run, branded by Hitler's puppet government in Czechoslovakia as a traitor and hunted by the Gestapo for evading conscription in the army, failing to return to Czechoslovakia as ordered and helping the Czechoslovak National Council since the beginning of the war.

France's fall was so rapid that the Martinus showed up at the railroad station with only a suitcase, leaving behind most of their belongings and a trunk of irreplaceable musical manuscripts. They really didn't know where they were going; like hundreds of others in the station that day, they could only think "south." Finally, Bohuslav discovered a nearly empty, unscheduled train that was about to leave. He and his wife jumped on board and traveled as far as conductor Charles Munch's residence in Villefard near Limoges, where Munch found temporary lodging for them with friends a nearby village. The house was so primitive that their meals had to be cooked over an open fireplace.

The couple then headed for Aix-en-Provence, which was then still a part of free France. In only a few days, however, the entire south of France came under Nazi control through the provisional government of Vichy. Martinu and his wife made an attempt to cross the frontier of France in secret. They were unsuccessful and returned to stay with friends in Aix-en-Provence.

Like Ilsa and Victor Laszlo, the Martinus were desperately in need of the correct travel papers. They applied for exit visas, but after waiting for months their application was denied. The musical community that had agreed to book passage for the couple to America was furious. Since the United States had not yet broken off diplomatic relations with either Vichy or Berlin, this group put pressure on the State Department, which in turn suggested to the French and Germans that they reconsider. After yet another delay to obtain the necessary Spanish transit visa, everything finally fell into place on January 7, 1941. At three in the morning, Bohuslav and Charlotte made their way through the deserted streets of Marseilles to catch a train to Madrid, carrying their single suitcase. From Madrid they traveled to Lisbon. Around this time Martinu wrote, "I should like to stand on a more solid base, this life of eternal waiting, without knowing why or for how long, does not suit me; and the waste of time gets on my nerves. I want to start to work again."

After waiting another three months for space on a ship, the couple finally boarded a steamship headed for America. The Swiss conductor, Paul Sacher, paid for the tickets. They landed in New York on March 31, 1941, where the musical community welcomed a quite noticeably haggard Martinu with open arms. During his 17 years in Paris, the press had paid little attention to him; now, he was suddenly famous and American reporters wanted to interview him.

A friend offered the Martinus the use of a house in Pleasantville, New York. There, the composer met conductor George Szell and showed him the score of his new Sinfonietta Giocosa, an astonishingly optimistic work considering that it was written when Martinu was virtually a penniless refugee. The two men promptly set to revising it for performance the following year. Martinu had considered making one of the movements slow but was feeling so sure that somehow he and his wife would find their way to freedom that he built a three movement work marked Poco allegro (literally moderately cheerful, sprightly), Allegretto poco moderato (same as the first movement but more moderate) and Allegro (cheerful, sprightly).

What accounts for this man's upbeat response to adversity, even peril? The answer may be found over half a century earlier in the belfry of the Church of Saint Jakub in the small eastern Bohemian town of Policka 118 feet above street level. By some accounts it took 192 steps up the dark winding stairs to get to what was the Martinu household (others say 193). There, on December 8, 1890, Bohuslav Martinu was born. To quote Milos Safranak's biography, Bohuslav Martinu: The Man and His Music (New York: Knopf, 1946), "From the stone parapet which encircled the tower just under their windows the Martinu family looked out, from one year's end to another, upon a considerable expanse of the surrounding countryside. Martinu's father was responsible for the belfry as a watchtower along with his bell ringing duties. Policka had been destroyed by fire and the tower had in part been built to overlook the whole community. There were blue woods on the horizon-peaceful woods, friendly rather than romantic; and the pure white vista of winter, when for four long months the ground was covered with snow; and a kaleidoscope of tiny fields, cultivated with neatness and love by the small Czech farmers. From his earliest age little Bohuslav never tired of peering through the star-shaped apertures with which the parapet was decorated and of running from one to another to discover new views of the world below, all framed by these openings…To Bohuslav it often seemed as though the change of the seasons-the arrival of spring, the summer storms, with their lightning and thunder, the autumn winds, and the winter snows-reached him at first hand, direct from heaven, before the little antlike people on the earth below received them."

When Martinu was six, he started to attend school and took his first violin lessons. He practiced diligently and performed what he had learned in public gatherings. Since he did so well and showed such promise, a group of local citizens sent him to the Conservatory of Music in Prague for further study.

However, Martinu became very interested in the theatre, books and composing and began to neglect his violin studies. He was ultimately expelled for participating in a tour with a country orchestra to augment his meager income. He succeeded in being readmitted, but after a short time was expelled again "for incorrigible negligence." Still very interested in composing, Martinu wrote several works that were inspired by literature, but none was particularly successful. He then tried to pass a state examination so that he could teach violin in schools, but he failed every subject. He also was unsuccessful in his attempt at the exam for composition because when he was asked, "Can a composition start with the bare interval of a fourth?" he answered without hesitation, "Yes."

From 1913 to 1925, Martinu played with the Czech Philharmonic. He avoided conscription into the Austrian Army because of poor health, and returned to teach in Policka. In 1920, after the war's end, he returned to Prague and his old job. Then one day, while playing Roussel's Poem of the Forest, he suddenly realized where his loyalties lay and he resolved to move to Paris. Once there, he arranged to study with Roussel. This new life seemed to be the answer to all his questions. The very air breathed liberty and Martinu suddenly felt free. These were the days of the famous performances by the Ballets Russes under Sergei Diaghilev that featured works by Stravinsky and the group of composers called "Les Six." Milos Safranek tells us that Martinu was put off by most of the avant-garde music, considering it novelty for novelty's sake, but he did openly admire the works of Arthur Honegger.

This takes us roughly back to where we began. Martinu at first had a hard time in the United States, as he spoke no English. However, a commission from Serge Koussevitsky led to his first symphony and he contracted with himself to write one such composition each year. Although he longed for his homeland and always planned to return to Czechoslovakia, the political situation there made him an exile. He eventually became a United States citizen.

After a very prolific (if not profitable) creative life, Martinu was able to travel a bit and in 1948 spent a holiday in Switzerland and France. He held the composition chair at Princeton University for several years (he also taught at the Berkshire Music Center and the Mannes School of Music) and from 1953 to 1955 lived in Nice. In 1958, Martinu was admitted to a hospital in Basel, Switzerland, where he was diagnosed with cancer. He died in Liestal, near Basel, on August 28, 1959.

Martinu was the recipient of several awards, including first prize from the Elisabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation in Washington for Spalicek and two Guggenheim Foundation Fellowships.

Aside from CD liner notes, information on Martinu is scarce. Harold C. Schonberg in his book entitled The Lives of the Great Composers makes no mention of him. I am indebted to biographer Milos Safranek. Thanks also to Robert Angus, Nicholas Slonimsky for his entry on Martinu in Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, and the author of the entry on Martinu in the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

The Essential Martinu

Here are some recommendations for a basic Martinu library. The earliest surviving work, Tri jezdci (The Three Riders), which was written when the composer was 12 years old, is available with the Martinu Quartet performing on Naxos 553782. Also included are Quartet for Strings No. 1, dated 1918, and Quartet for Strings No. 2, from 1925. You'll notice, as the notes suggest, the influence of Ravel and Debussy in the first, whereas we hear a beginning to the composer's exploration of tonal colors in the second.

Quartets for Strings Nos. 4, 5 and 7 are also available played by the same ensemble on Naxos 553784. The fourth and fifth were composed in Paris before WW II; number seven was written in the United States. Although in some ways more "difficult" on first listening than the earlier works, these three quartets show an increasing use of Czech and Moravian resources.

I also found a CD of assorted chamber works that includes Quartet for Piano and Strings No. 1 (1933), Quartet for Oboe, Violin, Cello and Piano (1947), Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano (1955) and Quintet for Strings (1927) (Naxos 553916).

One of the delights of attending Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra concerts with regularity is the exposure to the music of composers with which one is not familiar. I had never heard a Martinu symphony until Thomas Schippers programmed Symphony No. 4 in the mid 70's. This work uses the piano in a very unique way and I was immediately taken by it. I came to know Symphony No. 1 after having my car washed at the place on Central Parkway that used to sell cut-rate cassettes near the cashier. One day, as I was rummaging through them, I found a recording of this work.

Martinu wrote all of his symphonies while residing in the United States. A beautiful set of all six is available on Supraphon 110382 with Martinu's old employer, the Czech Philharmonic, conducted by Václav Neumann. Other fine performances by the Bamberger Symphony Orchestra, Neeme Järvi conducting, can be found on the Bis label, 362, 363 and 364.

Out of the ordinary is Fantasie for Theremin, Oboe, Piano and Strings, which can be found on a disc titled Music from the Ether: Original Works for Theremin (Mode 76). You may remember the theremin as the strange- sounding instrument in the Beach Boys' hit, "Good Vibrations."

Also enjoyable is Bouquet of Flowers, which is a cycle of compositions to folk texts for choirs, soli and small orchestra. Karel Ancerl conducts on Supraphon 3672.

Martinu wrote a tremendous amount of music, some of it of uneven quality. Of his operas, Julietta (The Dream Book or Book of Dreams depending on whose translation you use), is mysterious and beautiful and perhaps the most accessible. It's available on Supraphon 108176. The ballet Spalicek (The Chap-Book) also affords some delightful fairy-tale music (Supraphon 110752).

This is just a starter set of recommendations. I urge you to explore the music of this important 20th century Czech composer. I think that after a bit you'll find yourself enjoying his music very much.

Many of the recordings mentioned above may be purchased at ArkivMusic.com, where a portion of your purchase can benefit WGUC.


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