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ClassicsOnline Home » MARTINU, B.: Songs, Vol. 1 - A Wreath of Carnations (Wallingerova, Koukl)
Vocal music comprised around a quarter of Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů’s extensive output, no fewer than 27 songs dating from 1912 alone, and much of it remaining unpublished during his lifetime. Many of these set texts drawn from Czech folk sources and poetry, though old Spanish, German, English and French poetry—sometimes translated into Czech—are also to be found. While echoes of Brahms, Dvořák and Schubert may be heard, Martinů’s own style emerges surprisingly early in his career. Young Czech mezzo-soprano Jana Wallingerová, praised as ‘splendid’ (Der Neue Merker) and for her ‘full voice brimming with feeling’ and ‘brilliant technique’ (Hospodářské noviny), joins pianist Giorgio Koukl, whose Naxos recordings of Martinů’s piano music have gained the highest praise.
By Matthew Martinez
Bohuslav Martinů (1890–1959)
Songs • 1
Bohuslav Martinů was born in a church tower in Polička, a small Bohemian town about eighty kilometres north of Brno, in what is now the Czech Republic. He was a prolific composer, with over four hundred pieces of music to his credit. Of those listed with Halbrich numbers in the official Martinů catalogue, 92 works are for solo voice and piano—both individual songs and groups of songs in a single work—outnumbering all musical genres except the works for solo piano.
A precocious talent, Martinů began to compose 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, and was expelled twice by 1910, but it was also in the three youthful years from 1910 and 1912 that he wrote the majority of his works for voice and piano, 51 of them in all, with 27 composed in 1912 alone, the same year in which he began work on his first truly viable compositions, the three sets of Loutky for solo piano.
If that suggests at first thought a large quantity of immature creations, the listener can quickly discern a rapid departure from the episodic bombast of Než se nadĕješ (Before you know it), H. 6, a setting of poetry by Czech novelist, playwright and poet Jan Červenka (who died only two years before), toward more mainline Brahms and Dvořák-influenced late Romanticism, and a vested interest in Czech national and folk-culture. By his 22nd birthday, Martinů had already produced a large body of song, including settings of poetry by German poets Ricarda Octavia Huch (Dívčí sny, H. 22) and Baron Detlev von Liliencron (Štĕstí to dost, H. 81); Czech poets Josef Václav Sládek (Dívčí písen, H. 31) Augustin Eugen Mužík (Mrtvá láska, H. 44), and Polish poet Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer (Kráčím, Kráčím mezi vrchy, H. 74bis), among others, plus Czech folk-texts such as Komárova svadba (The Gnat’s Wedding), H. 75 and Píseň o hubičkách (A Song About Kissing) H. 27bis.
All works in this first volume which have Halbreich numbers H. 81 or lower, except H. 74, were composed in these three seminal years from 1910 to 1912.
Over the next decade Martinů composed only another baker’s dozen of works for voice and piano in Prague or Polička before moving to Paris in 1923 in order to study with Albert Roussel and leave behind the Germanic Romantic influences under which he was trained, but not leaving behind his love for his homeland and Czech heritage. Songs from this pre-Parisian decade include four works from 1913 to 1915: Stará Píseň (An Old Song), H. 74, on a text by Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (1838–1889); La Nuit, the third and only extant song from 3 Písnĕ na francouzské texty (Three Songs on French Texts), H. 88; Píseň na starošpanĕlský text (Song on an Old Spanish Text), H. 87; the songs listed as 3 Goethelieder, H. 94 (the fourth of what was originally Vier kleine Goethelieder remains missing) are set to Czech translations by authors unknown. Two works from 1917 are included: Jak milý čas, H. 106, is a setting of a Czech translation of “How dear to me the hour when daylight dies” by the Irish poet-songwriter Thomas Moore. (Hence the Czech title translates literally as “What a nice time”.) Another, Šest prostých písní, H. 110, opens this volume, a setting of folk-song texts. Influences of Brahms, Dvořák, and a smidgen of Schubert are heard in the now 25-year-old Martinů’s developing style during the latter part of the First World War. And finally, from 1922, the year Martinů began studying composition with Josef Suk, we have Dvĕ Písnĕ na ruskou poezii (Two Songs On Russian Poetry), H. 135 bis, the first of which is set to a text by Alexei Vasilievich Kolkov (1809–1842) known as the “Russian Robert Burns.”
By 1925 Martinů had already finished the final volume of Loutky, and was beginning to get into a mature compositional stride with successful, if occasionally scandalous, chamber and large-ensemble instrumental works and operas. Of the vocal-piano music from that year, this volume features the only three pieces preserved from two sets of Dĕtské písničky (Children’s Songs), H. 146, featuring traditional French texts; and the Tři ukolébavky (Three Lullabies), H. 146bis, with texts by Detlev von Liliencron, Gustav Falke and Wilhelm Raabe.
Only two of the works on this disc were written during Martinů’s late Parisian period, both from 1939: České hádanky (Czech Riddles), H. 277bis, and Vím hajíček pĕkný zelený (I know a nice green grove), H. 273 (same as H. 277ter), both based upon Czech folk-texts. Framed by an “Introdukce” and “Intrada” for solo piano, the vocally-theatrical České hádanky is a clever, lively set of folk-enigmas followed by “bird talk” that ends with increasingly harsh crow-like singing. In contrast, Vím hajíček pĕkný zelený, the final work in this volume, sets a sentimentally religious text from the vast collection of nineteenth-century Czech national revivalist, theologian and priest František Sušil.
Martinů moved to the United States at the beginning of the 1940s to escape the spreading Nazi occupation of Europe. Only four more works for solo voice and piano were to come from his pen in his later post-Parisian years: one composed in Aix-en-Province during 1940, the final three in the United States between 1942 and 1944. (None of these appears in this first volume.) It is a remarkable difference in Martinů’s focus from his earliest years as a composer.
Following the defeat of the Nazis in World War II, with the imposing influence of the Soviet Union immediately to the east, a communist coup took place in Czechoslovakia in late February 1948. Martinů subsequently abandoned any plans of returning to his beloved homeland. Although he visited France and Switzerland that summer, he returned to the United States in the autumn to become a professor of composition at Princeton University, a post which he held until 1951. In 1953, he left the United States with his wife Charlotte to settle in Nice, returning in late 1955 for a few months to teach at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and the Mannes School in New York.
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