Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959)
String Quartets Nos 1 and 2
Tri jezdci (Three Horsemen)
The Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu was born in 1890 atthe country town of Policka in the mountains of Bohemia and Moravia. Hisfather, a shoe-maker by trade, was employed also as town watchman, living in thebell-tower of the church of St Jakob, the highest vantage-point in the town,with the task of keeping Policka from any recurrence of the fire that had devastatedit earlier in the century. It was here that Martinu was born in 1890. In hischildhood he learned the violin from a local tailor and made a local reputationfor himself, giving his first public concert in his home-town in 1905. At thesame time he concentrated some attention on composition, although without propertuition and lacking even the manuscript-paper necessary for the purpose. It wasthrough the generosity of some of the citizens of Policka that in 1906 he wasable to travel to Prague and find a place for himself at the Conservatory,where his early composition for string quartet, The Three Horsemen, madea favourable impression. Jibbing at the routine of the Violin School of theConservatory, however, and preferring to indulge in more varied music-making,Martinu was transferred in 1909 to the Organ School, where he again failed to distinguishhimself. Expelled in 1910, he remained in Prague, now concentrating oncomposition and narrowly qualifying as a teacher.
During the war Martinu taught the violin in his home-town,avoiding military service for which he was medically unfit, and in 1918 he wasable to join the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, where he broadened his musicalexperience, while continuing to compose work after work. At the Conservatory hehad enjoyed a brief period of instruction from Josef Suk but in 1923, assistedby a scholarship, he moved to Paris to study with Albert Roussel.
In the following years Martinu's music began to gain ahearing, particularly through Talich in the newly formed Czechoslovakia, Paul Sacherand Ernest Ansermet in Switzerland, Henry Wood in England, Munch in France andKoussevitzky in the United States, By 1931, still in Paris, he had establishedhimself well enough to marry a young dressmaker, Charlotte Quennehen, althoughhe never earned enough to allow even reasonable comfort. The German invasion of Czechoslovakia and the annexation of the country in 1939, coupled with thethreat of wider conflict, was both horrifying and alarming. Eventually, in June1940, four days before the German capture of Paris, Martinu and his wife madetheir escape, finding their way with considerable difficulty to Portugal andthence to Bermuda and reaching New York at the end of March 1941. In Americaduring the war there were commissions from various quarters. For the KoussevitzkyFoundation he wrote his First Symphony and there was a ViolinConcerto commissioned by Mischa Elman, with a number of other compositions,including four further symphonies.
After the war Martinu had hoped to return to Prague,where he had been offered the position of professor of composition at the Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. His return to Europe was delayed by illness, aftera fall at Tanglewood, where he had been invited to lecture, and any possibilityof working again in his home-country was obviated by the accession to power ofthe Communists in 1948. For some five years he remained in the United States asprofessor of composition at Princeton, returning to Europe in 1953. Until 1955he lived in Nice, then moving to Philadelphia to teach at the Curtis Institutefor a year, before taking up a position at the American Academy in Rome. Aftera further period in Nice, he spent his last years in Switzerland, where he diedof cancer in 1959.
Martinu was enormously prolific as a composer, oftenseeming careless of the fate of what he had written. He tended to avoidrevision of his compositions and in consequence the vast quantity of music thathe wrote is often of uneven quality and varying style, although he came, in the1930s, to make increasing use of Czech thematic material and to be identifiedwith his native country. Nevertheless there were influences to be absorbed in Parisduring the seventeen years he spent there.
One of the earliest of Martinu's compositions is Tri jezdci
(The Three Horsemen), a work for string quartet that is based on a ballad by JaroslavVrchlicky on the subject of the three riders, the three Czech noblemen whobrought home the news of the burning of Jan Hus. The work was written in 1902and is the earliest of Martinu's surviving compositions, a reminder of his associationwith a local student quartet in Policka. It is in three short, connectedmovements and is relatively straightforward, if not naive, in its graphictreatment of the underlying narrative.
Martinu's first formal string quartets, now lost, were writtenin 1912 and 1917 respectively. The quartet known as String Quartet No. 1
was composed in 1918 on the suggestion of a quartet formed by musicians of the CzechPhilharmonic Orchestra, with Stanislav Novak as leader and Ladislav Cerny assecond violin. Martinu had shared a room with Novak, as a student, and it was throughhis friend's later good offices that he was able to join the Czech PhilharmonicOrchestra, of which Novak subsequently became leader. The manuscript parts werepreserved by Ladislav Nernv and the revised score of the first three movementssurvived as the one-time property of the Sevcik Quartet. The work opens in thekey of E minor, a viola proposing a melody of pentatonic contour over sustainednotes from the other players. The melody is taken up by the second violin,imitated in canon by the viola. This takes on an even more Bohemian complexionas it proceeds, shifting in tonality from E minor to a final E flat major. Theslow movement, against a seemingly French accompanying texture, offers again atheme of pentatonic outline, shifting here from B to F sharp major. The third movementis a scherzo, with a rapid 514 trio, shifting in tonality from an apparent Aflat major to G, while the final Allegro con brio, with its Ravel-liketextures and melodic contours, and assured string-writing, moves, morenaturally, from C minor to a final C major.
Martinu's String Quartet No.2 was written in Parisin 1925 and reflects something of the effect Roussel had had on his work duringthe previous two years. It is dedicated to the Novak-Frank Quartet and was publishedin 1927. There is an introduction to the first movement, which slowly unwinds,a prelude to a brusque Allegro vivace, in which the first theme is heardat once, to be developed contrapuntally. A secondary theme of greater serenityappears with elements of the introduction and the principal theme. The celloexplores the possibilities of the triplet element heard before, followed by theviola, while a dotted rhythmic figure assumes further importance. The violaeventually leads the way to an abridged recapitulation. The tonality of D haddominated the first movement and has initial importance in the following Andante,although here it must compete with contradictory neighbouring tonalities, heardin the dissonance of the second section of the movement, which itself framesmusic of greater serenity at the heart of the movement. Finally the myster