MARTINU: String Quartets Nos. 4, 5 and 7
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Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959)
String Quartets Nos. 4, 5 and 7
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 Martinus 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 them 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, 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, there was a Violin Concerto commissioned by Mischa Elman, and 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 obviated 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 moving 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. His seven numbered string quartets span a period from 1918 to 1947.
Martinu wrote his String Quartet No. 4 in Paris in April and May 1937 at a time when he was increasingly drawing on Czech and Moravian sources of inspiration, absorbed into his musical language. It was commissioned by a Czech patron in Paris and was given a private performance at his house in June 1938 by the Quatuor Lejeune. Thereafter it was seemingly forgotten, only to be rediscovered in 1956. The first movement, in sonata form, develops in tonality from a seeming E minor to a final B flat major. The opening section of fourteen bars, with an angular melody, leads to a more lyrical second section, starting with a repeated bass pattern of accompaniment, and to a brief third, marked Poco largamente. The central development, relying always on short figures, winds down to a final section, led by the cello to a recapitulation that brings back the two opening sections of the movement, before the final coda. The second movement Scherzo, propelled forward by its own impetus, has a Trio section with a lyrical melody initially given to the first violin and then, briefly, to the cello. Scherzo and Trio return, before the final busy coda. The viola starts the Adagio with a plaintive melodic line. The movement is in abridged rondo form, its middle section introduced by ascending figures from the cello and viola and an ascending glissando from the second violin. The viola ushers in the return of the first section. The quartet ends with a full rondo, its main theme developed from an opening figure and returning in one shape or another between the intervening episodes, all Czech in melodic contour. The rondo ends in a forceful coda and an emphatic chord of G major.
Like the fourth quartet, Martinus String Quartet No. 5, written in Paris in April and May 1938, was also forgotten for some twenty years. The work was dedicated to the Belgian Pro Arte Quartet but the political circumstances of the time prevented its performance, and it was first heard in Prague in 1958. It was originally dedicated to a pupil who had come to study with him in Paris, Vite??zslava Kaprálová, a daughter of the composer Václav Kaprál, and something of their relationship and final difference is reflected in the work. The first movement opens with harshly dissonant and percussive chords, to be resolved into a more obviously Czech idiom, as thematic cells are developed in a generally dark-hued context, its headlong progress pausing briefly for more lyrical passages. The movement ends with viola and cello leading to a slower conclusion, under a sustained first violin pedal note high above. The first violin, accompanied by pizzicato viola interjections and muted second violin and cello, offers a sad melody in the Adagio, while the vigorously astringent Scherzo frames a quasi-trio section, ending with the plucked notes of the violins, before the return of the opening. The slow introduction to the last movement, its poignant violin melody taken up in turn by the cello, leads to a strong unison statement at the opening of the Allegro, a texture to which it returns at important points. The coda, which recalls in part material from the introduction and elsewhere in the movement, ends with strongly stated chords.
The Concerto da Camera, String Quartet No. 7, was written in New York in June 1947 and represents a further development in Martinus style, now tending towards a greater classical simplification. With a suggested debt to Haydn, the quartet has considerable clarity of t