MARTINU: Piano Music (Complete), Vol. 2 (Giorgio Koukl) (Naxos: 8.557918)
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Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959)
Complete Piano Music • 2
Bohuslav Martinů was born in a church tower in Polička, a small Bohemian town about eighty kilometers north of Brno, in what is now the Czech Republic. His composing began precociously at the age of ten, after beginning his study of the violin two years earlier. Although he attended the Prague Conservatory, he failed to complete his courses. While a young man, he worked as an orchestral violinist in Prague before moving to Paris in 1923 in order to study with Albert Roussel. He moved to the United States at the beginning of the 1940s to escape the spreading Nazi occupation of Europe.
Martinů was a prolific composer. He wrote over four hundred pieces of music, some eighty of which were for the piano. Even though they constitute such a large portion of his work, the reputation of his works for solo piano has typically been overshadowed by that of his orchestral and chamber music.
This second disc of Martinů's music for solo piano begins with his three sets of Puppets (Loutky), written between 1912 and 1924. The three sets, however, are named in reverse chronological order. Puppets III (H. 92) was written first, completed in 1914, then Puppets II (H. 116) in 1918, both composed in Polička. The last to be written, Puppets I (H. 137) was begun there and completed in Paris in 1924.
While these three Puppets sets are considered as a whole Martinů's "first viable work," (Nadace Bohuslava Martinů, 2004) it was not the first to be influenced by marionettes. Like Debussy, Fauré, and Schoenberg, Martinů's imagination had already been captured by the puppet plays of the Belgian dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck, and in 1910 he wrote a prelude for large orchestra inspired by Maeterlink's short drama for marionettes, La mort de Tintagiles (Death of Tintagiles). The character names in various movement titles of Puppets, however, go back to the stock characters of commedia dell'arte which inspired much of traditional European pantomime and puppetry, while the music is that of stylized dances. To take one example, in the third set The New Puppet (Nova loutka) is represented by a "shimmy," a dance movement in which the body is mostly held still, but the shoulders are alternately moved back and forth. Flappers of the 1920s would make this modern novelty dance popular, and the name "shimmy" had been mentioned in American popular music at least as early as 1908, although the specific movement itself has earlier folk-dance origins. This kind of "new" transcontinental cultural influence in the early twentieth century would continue to affect the music of Martinů and many of his compatriots.
The bold, jazzy and propulsive Film en Miniature of 1925 is another example of Martinů's early interest in the popular media, song and dance styles of this modern transcontinentalism. The six-movement cycle opens with an energetic Tango, a nimble Scherzo, gentle Ukolébavka (Czech cradle-song), a Valse, a Chanson, then concluding with a sunny, ringing Carillon.
The original manuscript for the four short children's games, Spring in the Garden, has been lost along with information about their first performances. The cycle, which was written in Prague in 1920 and finally published there in 1948 only after Martinů had settled in the United States, has since enjoyed availability in multiple print editions. Similarly, information about first performances of Butterflies and Birds of Paradise, another "garden" cycle of the same year, is unknown, but in this case a manuscript is found in the Czech National Museum's music archives, published posthumously. Its origins are clear, however, composed during a visit to the Czech artist Max Švabinský, who owned a collection of rare butterflies and birds. His fame second only to Alfons Mucha, Švabinský primarily produced drawings in pencil, charcoal and pen and ink, but as a graphic illustrator is best known for his more than seventy designs of Czechoslovak postage stamps.
The two final pieces included here are in great chronological contrast to the preceding body of early Martinů, both composed in New York in the year 1948. The tender, emotionally fragile and sentimental The Fifth Day of the Fifth Moon, with its pentatonic scale and its permutations, is dedicated to Hsien-Ming Lee-Tcherepnin, the Chinese pianist and wife of the Russian composer Alexander Tcherepnin, who spent a number of years teaching in the Far East; the two met in Shanghai, where they quickly fell in love. The Tcherepnins' concert tour of 1948 may well have instigated the composition, but the work also draws inspiration from the poetry of Su Tungpo (aka Su Shi, or Su DongPo) as found in Lin Yutang's book, The Gay Genius: The Life and Times of Su Tungpo which was published in New York the previous year. The phrase "fifth day of the fifth moon" is more commonly understood as referring to a long-established holiday in the Chinese lunar calendar which commemorates the suicide, by drowning, of the esteemed Chinese poet Qu Wan of the fifth century B.C. in protest at government corruption, remembered today by the annual Dragon Boat Festival. Su Tungpo and other Chinese poets often wrote verse in honour of Qu Wan.
Dedicated "to my wife Charlotte," the Poulenc-like Les bouqinistes du Quai Malaquais is another kind of book-related short musical snapshot, one of Martinů remembering his lucky years in Paris where he often searched for interesting used books from second-hand booksellers along the embankments of the Seine. Although he found many benefits in his move to the United States at the beginning of the 1940s, Martinů often longed for the cafés, shops, and culture of his beloved Paris.