Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959)
Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4
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 withoutproper 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 1906he was able 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 of theCommunists 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. His Second Symphony
was commissioned by Czech refugees in Cleveland, to whom it is dedicated, andwritten at Darien in Connecticut between May and July 1943, to be performed atthe end of October by the Cleveland Orchestra under Erich Leinsdorf, together withthe newly composed Memorial to Lidice, remembering the destruction ofLidice and its men in 1942 in revenge for the assassination of Heydrich, Germandeputy-protector of Bohemia and Moravia under the Nazi occupation. The symphony,scored for an orchestra that includes, a piccolo, two flutes, three oboes,three clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones andtuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano and strings, is relatively light-heartedand lyrical. The latter quality is immediately apparent in the opening bars, areflection of the composer's own explanation of the work as answering a demandfor ordered thoughts, calmly expressed. Nevertheless the music soon movesforward to a dynamic climax, although all ends in final serenity with asymphonic recapitulation initiated by the lyrical first subject. The keystructure has some ambiguity, moving from an opening D minor through a minor toa final B flat major. The second movement, scored for woodwind, horns andstrings, offers a melody with the modal contours of a folk-song explored in itsharmonies often shifting from minor to major. The movement opens in C minor andends in F major. Material originally intended for the first movement is used toprovide a march in place of the more usual scherzo, with a lilting jauntyviolin melody, as the C major third movement, with the contrast of a centraltrio section.
The final rondo is ebullient in its cheerful rhythms, syncopationsthat almost suggest American influence, or, at the least, the connection that Dvofiakhad discovered between America and his native country. The symphony ends itsadventurous excursions into various keys in a final D major.
In these years of American exile symphony followedsymphony, in annual sequence. Martinu wrote his Fourth Symphony betweenApril and June 1945 and it was first performed at the end of November in Philadelphiaby the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. This is again apredominantly lyrical work, started in New York as Czechoslovakia was beingliberated and completed in June at South Orleans on Cape Cod in Massachusettsas the war in Europe came to an end. It is scored for largely similarresources, with a cor anglais that has a brief moment of glory in the secondmovement. There is something intensely celebratory and lyrical about theopening movement, which is without a central development section. This is followedby a vigorously energetic scherzo, the bassoons first heard against aforward-moving rhythmic accompaniment. The impetus is interrupted by a much gentlercentral trio. The slow movement is unusual in its contrasts of instrumentaltexture, with passages in which two solo violins and a solo cello arecontrasted with the main body of strings. The last movement is portentous inits opening but moves on to material of a less threatening kind, leading tofinal C major triumph. Once again the key pattern of the movements ranges widely,from B flat to D major, with a last movement that starts in C minor. There areelements of bitonality, the simultaneous use of two tonalities or keys, whilethe composer continues his use of repeated note patterns