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ClassicsOnline Home » MARTINU, B.: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 6
BBC Music Magazine
Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959) Symphony No.1
Symphony No.6 (Fantaisies symphoniques)
The Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu was born in 1890 at Policka in Bohemia in a bell-tower. where his father, a shoe-maker by trade, was employed as watchman. 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 attention on composition, although without proper tuition and lacking even the necessary manuscript-paper for the purpose. In 1906 he became a violin student at the Prague Conservatory, but four years later, after relegation for one year to the Organ School, he was expelled. His principal interest, in fact, continued to centre on composition, and he pursued this aim during the war, which he spent as a teacher in Policka. In 1918 he joined the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra as a violinist and his ballet Istar, completed in 1922, was performed in 1924. There had been a brief period of instruction in composition from Josef Suk at the Conservatory, soon abandoned and in 1923, assisted by a scholarship, he moved to Paris to become a pupil of Albert Roussel.
In the following years Martinu's music began to gain a hearing, particularly through Talich in Czechoslovakia, Paul Sacher and Ernest Ansermet in Switzerland, Henry Wood in England, Munch in France and Koussevitzky in the United States. By 1931 he had established himself well enough to marry a young dressmaker. Charlotte Quennehen, although he never earned enough to allow even reasonable comfort. The first performance of his Concerto Grosso planned by Talich in 1938 was postponed with the invasion of Czechoslovakia that year and in June 1940 he and his wife hurriedly fled from Paris, four days before the Germany armies marched into the city. With considerable difficulty they made their way to Portugal and thence to Bermuda, reaching New York at the end of March 1941. In the United States Martinu eventually received commissions from the Koussevitzky Foundation, for which he wrote his First Symphony. This was followed by further symphonies and concertos, including a violin concerto commissioned by Mischa Elman, while in 1943 his Memorial Stanzas, dedicated to Albert Einstein, were played by the famous scientist with the pianist Robert Casadesus. After the war he planned to return to Prague, where he had been offered the position of professor of composition at the Conservatory, but was prevented from doing so by the accession to power of the Communist Party. In 1948 he became professor of composition at Princeton University, returning to Europe in 1953. He lived in Nice until 1955, when he moved to Philadelphia to teach at the Curtis Institute. The following year he returned to Europe to teach at the American Academy in Rome. He spent his final years in Switzerland, where he died of cancer in 1959.
Martinu was an enormously prolific composer, who seemed often enough careless of the fate of what he had written. He tended to avoid revision of what he had written and in consequence the vast quantity of music he wrote is 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, from which he remained an exile. He wrote his First Symphony in the space of fifteen weeks, between May and the end of August 1942, in response to a commission from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation. The first performance was given in Boston on 13th November of the same year, under the direction of Serge Koussevitzky, to the memory of whose wife Natalie the work is dedicated. It is scored for a full orchestra that includes a harp and a piano. This symphony was followed by a further four such works, one each year until 1946.
The B minor opening of the first movement moves to a theme derived from a medieval Bohemian chorale seeking the protection of St Wenceslas. This is the germ from which the rest of a broadly tripartite symphonic movement is developed. The Scherzo, with its percussive piano chords, presses forward with irrepressible energy, a secondary oboe melody followed by all the frenzy of New York. The Trio is scored without strings, for woodwind, brass, harp, piano and percussion, and provides the necessary, if momentary relaxation. The Scherzo returns, with its urgent off-beat rhythms. The slow movement starts with the first note of the cellos and double basses accompanied by the tam-tam and piano, the latter continuing to underpin the violin theme that emerges, in all its tragic and mounting intensity, leading from the opening E flat of the movement to a final key of E minor. There is a resumption of rhythmic vitality in the final Allegro non troppo, a rondo, with its closely related motivic material and otherwise contrasted episodes. Again syncopation urges the music onward, but there are moments of relaxation, and thematic material that is sometimes ingenuous in its apparent simplicity, before the music moves forward to the B flat major conclusion of a remarkable and monumental work.
Martinu completed his Sixth Symphony, the Fantaisies Symphoniques, in 1953 in Paris. He had started the work in New York in 1951 and had written the whole work by April 1953, two years after he had started it. The following month in Paris he had only to make revisions in orchestration. Dedicated to Charles Munch, the work was written for the 75th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and was first performed by the orchestra under Munch in Boston on 7th January 1955. Five days later it was given its first performance in New York and was later awarded the New York Critics' Circle prize as the best orchestral work first performed in New York that year. Martinu had considered various titles for the work, avoiding, for obvious reasons, the suggested Fantastic Symphony in favour of the present title. It is scored for a large orchestra of triple woodwind, brass, percussion and strings.
The Fantaisies symphoniques, in effect a series of variations in three movements, opens with a movement framed by a Lento in which muted trumpets are heard over the murmur of muted violins and violas, with three flutes, then joined by the bassoon. A solo cello leads into the Andante moderato. The trumpet motif of the opening provides the seed from which the whole work grows, transformed in the Andante moderato into a reminiscence of the opening of Dvorak's Requiem. Now Allegro, pace and intensity increase, moving forward to an Allegro vivo, a violin solo accompanied by timpani, bass drum, side drum and muted strings, before other instruments join in to lead back to the final Lento. The second movement, in 6/8, is introduced by tremolo violins and cellos, with flute tonal clusters, and suggests, in its rhythm, a scherzo. Various effects of orchestral timbre are explored, with divided cello and double bass sections, clustered semitones and conflicting false relations between semitones, but the movement retains elements of lyricism, references to Martinu's own Field Mass and a consequent suggestion of some personal programme in this memory of a home-country now under Communist domination. The composer himself confessed that the Fantaisies Symphoniques had a personal meaning for him, as his Symphonie fantastique had had for Berlioz, but this was never divulged. There is a Lento prelude and postlude to the last movement, with its various shifting episodes and more or less overt reference to the Bohemian chorale heard in the First Symphony and elsewhere in the music of Czech composers. Dominant throughout, of course, is the Dvorak Requiem motif that recalls in its chromatic outline the musical signature of Shostakovich.
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MARTINU, B.: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 6