MARTINU: String Quartets Nos. 3 and 6 (Jan Jisa/ Jitka Vlasankova/ Lubomir Havlak/ Martinu Quartet/ Petr Matejak/ Václav Zamazal) (Naxos: 8.553783)
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Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959)
String Quartets Nos. 3 and 6 Duo for Violin and Cello
Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola
The Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu was born in 1890 at the country town of Policka in the mountains of Bohemia and Moravia. His father, a shoe-maker by trade, was employed also as town watchman, living in the bell-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 devastated it earlier in the century. It was here that Martinu was born in 1890. In his childhood he learned the violin from a local tailor and made a local reputation for himself, giving his first public concert in his home-town in 1905. At the same time he concentrated some attention on composition, although without proper tuition and lacking even the manuscript-paper necessary for the purpose. It was through the generosity of some of the citizens of Policka that in 1906 he was able to travel to Prague and find a place for himself at the Conservatory, where his early composition for string quartet, The Three Riders, made a favourable impression. Jibbing at the routine of the Violin School of the Conservatory, however, and preferring to indulge in more varied music-making, Martinu was transferred in 1909 to the Organ School, where he again failed to distinguish himself. Expelled in 1910, he remained in Prague, now concentrating on composition 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 was able to join the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, where he broadened his musical experience, while continuing to compose work after work. At the Conservatory he had enjoyed a brief period of instruction from Josef Suk but in 1923, assisted by a scholarship, he moved to Paris to study with Albert Roussel.
In the following years Martinu's music began to gain a hearing, particularly through Talich in the newly formed Czechoslovakia, Paul Sacher and Ernest Ansermet in Switzerland, Henry Wood in England, Munch in France and Koussevitzky in the United States. By 1931, still in Paris, he had established himself well enough to marry a young dressmaker, Charlotte Quennehen, although he never earned enough to allow even reasonable comfort. The German invasion of Czechoslovakia and the annexation of the country in 1939, coupled with the threat of wider conflict, was both horrifying and alarming. Eventually, in June 1940, four days before the German capture of Paris, Martinu and his wife made their escape, finding their way with considerable difficulty to Portugal and thence to Bermuda and reaching New York at the end of March 1941. In America during the war there were commissions from various quarters. For the Koussevitzky Foundation he wrote his First Symphony and there was a Violin Concerto 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, after a fall at Tanglewood, where he had been invited to lecture, and any possibility of working again in his home-country was removed by the accession to power of the Communists in 1948. For some five years he remained in the United States as professor of composition at Princeton, returning to Europe in 1953. Until 1955 he lived in Nice, then moved to Philadelphia to teach at the Curtis Institute for a year, before taking up a position at the American Academy in Rome. After a further period in Nice, he spent his last years in Switzerland, where he died of cancer in 1959.
Martinu was enormously prolific as a composer, often seeming careless of the fate of what he had written. He tended to avoid revision of his compositions and in consequence the vast quantity of music that he wrote is often of uneven quality and varying style, although he came, in the 1930s, to make increasing use of Czech thematic material and to be identified with his native country. Nevertheless there were influences to be absorbed in Paris during the seventeen years he spent there.
Martinu's String Quartet No. 3, was completed in Paris in December 1929 and dedicated to the Roth Quartet. With discernible elements of contemporary French influence and textures that occasionally recall Debussy, the work allows the composer to explore new timbres. The first movement, an Allegro, opens with plucked cello chords, off-beat col legno notes from the viola, and a muted tremolo from the second violin, above which the first violin introduces a motif that continues to have importance in the free sonata form of the movement. The first violin later introduces a gentler secondary theme, part of the basic material from which the movement is woven, urged on by one theme, relaxed by the other. Much of the melodic material of the following Andante is entrusted to the viola, at times in close collaboration with the cello, which assumes fuller responsibility in the closing bars. There is something of Bartók about the third movement, opened by the viola and impelled forwards until the same instrument introduces an easier motion, accompanied by plucked chords from the cello and harmonics from the first violin. The first thematic material returns, leading to a rapid final section.
String Quartet No. 6 was written in the winter of 1946 in New York, as Martinu recovered gradually from the debilitating effects of his accident at Tanglewood. The first violin leads the way into the first movement, which soon turns to Bartókian textures and rhythms, with the opening theme then entrusted to the cello. Contrast is provided by a more expressive passage and there are sections in which motifs are repeated with some insistence before the primary and secondary thematic material returns, much modified.
A quasi-tremolo marks the opening of the Andante, with dialogue following between the instruments. There are contrasts of mood and figuration in more homophonic writing, before the return of the first material. The final Allegro starts with melodic material shared by the viola and cello, against the answering arpeggio figuration of the violins. The onward impetus of the movement allows intervening melodic passages, with an important melody emerging in the rapider Allegro con brio, relaxations of tension, and a final assertion of the tonal centre C, in what has proved a largely tonal context.
Martinu wrote his Duo for violin and cello in 1927, dedicating it to his Conservatory friend Stanislas Novák, leader of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and founder of the Frank Quartet, and Mauritz Frank. The cello starts the Preludium with a motif of modal outline, to which the violin offers a contrast in its clash of tonality. A version of this is heard again, as the movement nears an end. The following Rondo has the necessary contrasts in its episodes, leading to a demanding cello cadenza, taken up by the violin, against a tremolo cello background, after which a modified version of the first theme returns.
The Three Madrigals for violin and viola were completed in New York in July 1947 and dedicated to the violist Lillian Fuchs and her violinist brother Joseph. Generally lyrical in mood, the first of the set introduces a descending violin melody, echoed by the viola, in a movement marked by the expected characteristic onward rhythms. Opening with muted and evocative tremolos, the second movement leads to textures that are almost baroque and a climax of intensity. Arpeggio patterns are interwoven, before the closing lyrical section.The sprightly