Music — Bohuslav Martinů: Music with a View

One of the most distinctive voices in 20th-century music was that of Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959), a composer from a small Bohemian town in Czechoslovakia. Like his predecessor, Leos Janacek (1854-1928), Martinů was able to fashion an inimitably unique musical language that distinguishes each of his mature compositions and brings his name to mind within the space of a few bars. Like Jandeek, Martina was also a late bloomer. Though a man of innate musicality, Martinů had to search through a number of styles before finding one all his own. Composing some 400 works, he produced prodigiously because he had to; for him, composition was life. He hardly cared about his works once they were written and was heedless of their fate.

Martina barely cared for himself. He was poor most of his life, spent many years as a political refugee (his works having been banned by the Nazis), and never owned a home. He was already in his 50s before he received major recognition, and it was not until then that he even attempted the first of the six symphonies that would constitute the heart of his legacy. Nevertheless, by the time of his death from cancer at age 69 in Switzerland, he had left behind not 400 masterpieces but a sufficient number of significant works in every genre to establish himself as a major voice. It was a voice of enormous vitality, astounding rhythmic drive, and mysterious beauty. His works expressed everything from the hijinks of the Paris avant-garde in the 1920s to the tragedy of World War II that destroyed his country. In his last years, he attained a free form of expression that was as close to magic as anything written in the 20th century.

In 1890, Martina was born in the church tower of St. James in Policka. His father was the town’s fire watchman, and the church tower was his perch and small apartment. Young Martina spent his first twelve years with this bird’s-eye view of village life. He had to traverse 193 steps if he wished to mingle below. His health was so frail that his father sometimes had to carry him. His formal musical studies started at age twelve. His interests and ability in music were so impressive that the villagers took up a collection allowing Martinů to go to the Prague Conservatory for serious study.

Martinů did not fare well in an academic setting. After several terms, he was dismissed in 1910 for “incorrigible negligence.” The negligence was not the result of laziness on Martinů’s part, for he composed daily, but of his rejection of the conservatory’s German-oriented curriculum and of Romanticism in general. Martinů’s first musical epiphany had come in 1908 when he heard a performance of Debussy’s Pelleas et Mëlisande. French impressionism, not German symphonism, represented the future for him. This opinion was confirmed for him by a performance of Albert Roussel’s impressionistic Poeme de la Foret (Symphony No. 1), which left a strong mark on him.

Martinů was liberated from Prague when the patient townsfolk of Policka took up another collection—this time to send him to the only musical center for someone seeking to escape German influence and the detritus of Romanticism: Paris. There he found others who shared his predilections, such as Darius Milhaud, who spoke for a number of his generation when he said, “My musical culture is determined exclusively by Latin-Mediterranean civilization…. Mediterranean music, especially Italian music, has always said a great deal to me; German music as good as nothing.”

Martina expressed somewhat the same opinion: “I went to France not to seek to save myself there but to confirm my opinion. What I sought there was neither Debussy nor impressionism nor musical expression but the true fundamentals of Western culture, which, in my view, harmonize much better with our own national character than a labyrinth of conjectures and problems.” The latter part of this remark is a slam at German theory, but some of his statement is a bit disingenuous. Actually, Martinů was quite surprised when, in 1923, he arrived in Paris to find that impressionism was already passé. It had been overtaken by the le jazz hot and Stravinsky’s music, both of which had a major impact on him (as shown in La Revue de cuisine, the 1924 quartet for clarinet, horn, cello, and side drum, and Halftime. Nonetheless, Martinů sought lessons from Roussel, who had himself left impressionism behind. From him, Martinů drank in the “outstanding qualities of French art that I have always admired: order, clarity, measure, taste, [and] precise, sensitive, direct expression.” He might also have added Roussel’s motoric rhythms, which influenced him greatly.

Martinů dove head-first into the Paris musical scene, producing avant-garde works in the latest surrealist fashions. He completely absorbed and perfectly emulated the jazz style, as in the Jazz Suite. He then assimilated Stravinsky’s influence and turned to neoclassicism. Works from this period, especially chamber pieces, are a marvelous amalgam of Stravinsky (for the spiky rhythms and neoclassicism), Poulenc (for the wit and whimsy), and Czech folk song (for the heartfelt melody). Try the delightful Divertimento for Left-Hand Piano and Orchestra or Serenades Nos. 1-3.

Martinů’s brand of neoclassicism, like Stravinsky’s, was neo-Baroque. He declared himself a “concerto grosso man.” The concerto grosso style relieved Martinů of the developmental problems of symphonic form and any taint of Romanticism but also saddled him with its own limitations. He wrote some very brilliant concertos during this period, such as the Sinfonietta Giocosa for Piano and Chamber Orchestra, as well as what many consider one of his undisputed masterpieces, the Double Concerto, which is charged with apprehension over the gathering storm clouds of World War II.

Yet, the lesser works take on a kind of mechanical hum that can be wearisome (which is all the more ironic since Martinů saw his music as a protest against “the pressures of mechanization” in modern life). The music often proceeds as a succession of skippy knots of rhythm and short, jerky melodies. It sounds motoric, repetitive, and rushed. It sometimes creates the impression of a musical beehive—a bewildering profusion of seemingly individual musical incidents and multiple crosscurrents running simultaneously. Like a beehive, the music is very busy and seems about to collide with itself at any moment, which it sometimes does to great effect. The sheer busyness can be tiresome. I am less fond of Martinů’s dense compositions from this period for the same reasons that I am less than fond of Baroque music in general. I easily weary of the endless instrumental figurations and chugging ostinatos. If Bach can, in Collete’s marvelous phrase, sometimes sound like “a celestial sewing machine,” Martinů can sound like a terrestrial one.

World War II drove Martina to America, where he flourished. He slowly shed Baroque forms and let his inspiration find its own unique shape from the Moravian melodies he used and the extraordinary kaleidoscopic colors he drew from the orchestra. In the mid-1940s, Martinů told his biographer, “From now on, I’m going in for fantasy.” To make the point unmistakable, he subtitled his Fourth Piano Concerto Incantations and his Sixth Symphony Fantaisies Symphoniques. The symphonic flowering of his last decade and a half produced such masterpieces as the six symphonies, The Parables, Toccata e due Canzone, Les Fresques de Piero Della Francesca, and Estampes, all of which qualify as orchestral fantasias. He also composed a magical series of concertos that include the last two of five piano concertos, his last violin and cello concertos, the Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra, and the Rhapsody-Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. His chamber works from this period are also of the highest quality, such as the Nonet, the Serenade No. 4, the Flute Trio, the Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola, and Piano Trios Nos. 2 & 3.

It is quite difficult to describe exactly how Martinů’s best music works. Not even he knew. Concerning the Fantaisies Symphoniques, he said: “Something holds it together, I don’t know what, but it has a single line and I have expressed something in it—the future will show.” Like Jankek’s, Martinů’s music seems to function by building up large mosaics of fragmentary, repetitive motifs. Short, motivic phrases are relentlessly repeated out of sheer excitement or to create tension. Martinů uses accelerating rhythms, rising volume of sound, and short motifs in a scalar ascent, at the top of which a melody erupts and sweeps all before it. Out of the swirling strings and gurgling winds a theme invariably arises. These melodic moments provide both relief from the tense buildups and exhilaration at their resolution.

One perceptive critic noted that “no matter how rhythmic Martina tries to be, lyricism keeps breaking through.” This is an especially keen observation because rhythm and melody often seem to be at odds with each other in Martina’s music. (No conductor brings this out more brilliantly than Karel Ancerl.) One is tempted to say that rhythm has absolute precedence in Martina because it is such a prominent feature of his music, especially heavily syncopated rhythms (which, at times, seem to be wrestling the melodies to the ground). But his driving rhythms do not whirl about aimlessly, except in bad performances or second-rate works. Almost always, they culminate in melody; melody is the destination to which the rhythm drives the scattered mosaic motifs.

This key operating characteristic of Martina’s music was adumbrated in an amusing early ballet, The Revolt, produced in Paris in 1925. In the ballet, for which Martinů himself wrote the libretto, the notes of the musical scale revolt against bad singers, poor piano playing, and an out-of-tune gramophone. The notes attack and destroy the piano and chase away pupil and teacher. The revolt leads to unemployment in the music world, the suicides of music professors and critics, and Stravinsky’s retirement to a desert island. Order and sanity are restored only when a girl, dressed in national costume, sings a simple folksong. Much of Martinů’s music could have been the object of his own satire, not in the sense that it is poor but that it can initially give the appearance of incoherence, yet ultimately finds its resolution in the beautiful, simple folksong of his homeland.

These very general characterizations can only give the roughest idea of what to expect in this brilliant, mercurial, high-spirited music. In approaching Martinů’s huge body of work, one can observe a general rule: the later, the better. The newcomer should start with the symphonies, orchestral works, and chamber compositions from Martinů’s last magical period and then, once captivated, work back through his earlier periods, which each contain masterpieces.

Because so much of Martinů’s music is encased in neo-Baroque forms, some have felt his work to be a bit aloof and disengaged. After all, Martinů was an anti-Romantic and the concerto grosso form appealed to him precisely because it expressed “less apparent emotion.” Perhaps this is what led Swiss composer Frank Martin to say that Martinů “never came down from that tower” in St. James Church. But he did, all 193 steps, and he gathered all he needed in his years of wandering and exile. Then he went back up again, and from the top, he cast a spell over the whole village.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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