Martinu, Bohuslav

Bohuslav Martinu was a Czech composer who retained citizenship in Austria-Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and then the United States. Because of his father's dual profession as a fire watchman and a shoemaker, he spent his childhood atop the tower of St. Jacob's Church in Polika, Eastern Bohemia. Martinu later clarified that this early perspective of just experiencing individuals and places from afar informed the objectivity of his lyrics. In 1906, he relocated from Polika to Prague to study violin at the Prague Conservatory. He was expelled as a hopeless pupil and lived a bohemian life in Prague, devoting his attention to reading and writing. He deputized with the Czech Philharmonic before joining the ensemble as a full member for three seasons (1920–23) under Václav Talich. Martinu moved to Paris in 1923, feeling restrained by Prague's musical life, and stayed there until France's capitulation to Nazi Germany in 1940. He stayed in New York during the war because of his popularity in America and the volatile condition of the Third Czechoslovak Republic (1945–48). A debilitating crash in 1946 and the communist coup in 1948 also prevented him from moving to Czechoslovakia, where he was soon denounced as a formalist and emigrant spy on the basis of Soviet socialist–realist pretexts. Martinu became a naturalized US citizen in 1952, which prohibited him from entering any countries in the Soviet Bloc. In 1956, he used his one-year assignment at the American Academy in Rome as an excuse to relocate to Europe. His last home was the Paul Sacher Estate in Switzerland; he died of stomach cancer in nearby Liestal in 1959. Throughout his last peripatetic years, he worked on two separate iterations of his opera The Greek Passion, which culminated in two different versions (1957, 1959). Martinu's stylistic progress echoed that of many early twentieth–century modernists, but his reason for withdrawing from the Romantic tradition was embedded in debates regarding Czech national music. The neo-romantic, socialist music theorist Zdenk Nejedl and his school had a major impact on Czech music criticism in the early twentieth century. The Nejedl School promoted Smetana as a single point of departure (instead of Dvoák) and upheld a set of values that reflected the Wagner–Mahler trajectory. With his patriotic cantata Czech Rhapsody (1918), Martinu added to this vein of national music; written in the jubilant atmosphere of national liberation, it carries the strong influence of Smetana's Libue and the pathos of Mahler's symphonies. Aside from that, his development from the 1910s onwards demonstrates his systematic appropriation of French modernisms, beginning with Debussy and Roussel. He was surprised by the scale of Stravinsky's impact and a general flux in stylistic orientation owing to frenetic experimenting after moving to Paris to research under Roussel. He established himself as the leading Czech music correspondent in Paris, reporting on the Parisian music scene to the Czech cultural press. He often reflected on the "outdated" and "Romantic" musical traditions he thought still existed in Prague's musical existence in his essays from the period. Half–time (1924), an "orchestral–rondo" obviously influenced by Stravinsky's Russian ballets, was one of his earlier works from his Parisian years. His polemical essays suggest his willingness to taunt the Czech opponents with the sounds of the Parisian milieu, notwithstanding his denying that the thesis was Stravinskian plagiarism. Half–time was premiered by the Czech Philharmonic in Prague in December 1924, conducted by Václav Talich, who would remain Martinu's most influential partner in the Czech Republic until the dissolution of the First Czechoslovak Republic in 1938.

Throughout his life, he maintained a dual focus on cosmopolitan trends and his domestic situation. A collection of Dadaist–inspired stage works that integrate the sounds of the Parisian cabaret are noteworthy from the late 1920s. During the 1930s, he performed with the Czech Theatre, resulting in his surrealist opera Julietta, or the Secret to Dreams (1937), which premiered in March 1938 at the Prague National Theater under Talich. From the 1930s onwards, his instrumental compositions are marked by dissonant neoclassicism, with the eighteenth–century concerto grosso acting as his guiding philosophy. The climax of this course is his Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano, and Timpani (1938), a piece that represents the ominous environment as Nazi powers strengthened their hold on Czechoslovakia. His final return to Czechoslovakia was in the summer of 1938; he lived the majority of his time overseas, owing mostly to the authoritarian and communist governments that seized over at home. Martinu was blacklisted by the Gestapo for his patriotic cantata The Field Mass (1939), composed for the Czechoslovak Army Band in France. The Gestapo burst into Martinu's apartment one day after he left Paris with his French wife Charlotte for Southern France. He received the requisite paperwork for transit through Spain and Portugal to New York, where he will serve for the next thirteen concert seasons, after six months of confusion. Martinu was never among the top echelon of Parisian-based composers, but he rose to prominence in the United States thanks to the support from top musical figures such as Serge Koussevitsky. His Symphonies Nos. 1–5, written each summer from 1942 to 1946, were embraced by the large East Coast orchestras. At this period, his various new chamber works were written and frequently performed. Sections of his Symphony No. 1 (1942) and The Madrigal Sonata for flute, piano, and violin (1942) may be quoted as examples of his consistently metrical method, driven by phrasing rather than meter, establishing a new feature in his music, an effect of sixteenth– and seventeenth-century polyphonic genres. Another new feature is a cadential progression borrowed from his opera Julietta, which he proceeded to use in various works until his death: the progression, known as the "Julietta Chords," is a kind of plagal cadence from a dominant 13th chord on the subdominant to the tonic, which he often repeats a whole–tone lower immediately afterward. By the 1950s, he had established a more rhapsodic approach with a neo–impressionistic idiom, with works like Fantaisies Symphoniques “Symphony No. 6” (1953), Piano Concerto No. 4 “Incantation” (1956), and Estampes Symphoniques (1958). His popularity on the East Coast contributed to him being recruited as a pedagogue at a variety of prominent music colleges, including Tanglewood, Mannes, Princeton, and Curtis. A near–fatal fall from an exposed terrace while working at the Berkshire Music Festival in the summer of 1946 left him with partial deafness in one ear for the remainder of his life. During the interwar years, his defense of French modernism in the Czech press contrasted him against the Nejedl School, but he had little idea that he was sowing the seeds of his later disenfranchisement in communist Czechoslovakia. Nejedl occupied important roles in the artistic ministries from 1945 to the early years of communist rule, leaving the management of national artistic life to the third generation of Nejedl disciples. The Nejedl School, by this period, had also taken their cues from the most recent Soviet decrees. During the early years of communist totalitarianism, Martinu's music was virtually outlawed, and he remained in official disfavor throughout the communist period. His apparently harmless folk cantata The Opening of the Wells (1955), which projected sentimental sentiment for the homeland, was published in Czechoslovakia in 1955 and performed in schools throughout the country; it contributed to Martinu's posthumous resurgence and widespread recognition in the Czech musical culture. Martinu's ashes were moved from the Sacher Estate to Czechoslovakia in 1979, with much pomp, for reburial in Polika. Charlotte Martinu bequeathed the rights to her husband's music to the Czech Music Fund before her death in 1978. Following the Velvet Revolution in 1989, the Martinu Foundation was separated from the Czech Music Fund; since then, it has worked tirelessly on behalf of the composer through its academic branch, the Martinu Institute. Martinu has been slow to gain acceptance in the academic world outside of the Czech Republic, despite his works remaining popular among performers and audiences around the world. Despite the challenges scholars encountered when doing research on the composer during the communist years, his status as a homeless artist without disciples in the context of Schoenberg or Stravinsky partly accounts for this. Martinu's emotionless exterior and reticence in public settings sparked consternation and misunderstanding; he was newly diagnosed with a variant of Asperger Syndrome. Scholars will continue to be challenged by his stylistic growth, which incorporates quotation to an increasingly refined degree. And, as more translations and studies of his aesthetics become accessible, they will provide useful insights into his approaches to music history as a whole.

Violin Compositions of Bohuslav Martinu | Animato Strings


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