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ClassicsOnline Home » MARTINU: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 5
Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959)
Symphonies Nos. 3 and 5
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 neighbouring 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. Jibbing, however, at the routine of the Violin School of the Conservatory, 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 Policka, 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, were 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 New York, which they reached 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 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 had written his First Symphony in America in 1942 with the encouragement of Koussevitzky and the Second, commissioned by Czech refugees in Cleveland, had followed a year later. He wrote his Third Symphony in 1944, at a time of some depression, dedicating it to Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra for their 20th anniversary. The composer claimed Beethoven's Eroica Symphony as a model and saw it as the first of his symphonies that had not been commissioned. The first movement is largely derived from the opening motif, which sets the tragic mood, followed by an exploration of this with almost minimalist insistence. A contrast is provided in a more lyrical and melancholy related bassoon theme, taken up by the solo oboe, with syncopated accompaniment. After further development the opening section returns in recapitulation, leading to a final section of growing intensity. The strings start the slow movement, with a theme of generally descending contour, reflecting an element heard in the preceding movement. An ominous passage leads to a long-drawn flute solo over a measured rhythm from the piano, punctuated by a figure from divided double basses. Excitement mounts, before the sparer texture of a passage for strings with a promise of counterpoint. There is a further increase in tension, before a sudden calm and a cor anglais solo, the counterpart of the earlier flute solo, the texture thickening until the final unison key note. The third movement makes further use of a motif derived and developed from the second. Rhythmic energy in the following Allegro is kept through syncopation, until an Andante into which the violas lead the way, before the serenity of a chorale for string quartet and a final section of greater optimism.
Martinu wrote his Fifth Symphony in New York in the early months of 1946 and conditions now allowed a first performance at home in Prague in May 1947 under Rafael Kubelik, with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, to which it was dedicated. If the Third Symphony came after the massacre at Lidice and at a time when the future brought every anxiety, the Fifth, the last of the cycle specifically in this form, came at a more hopeful time, after the liberation of Czechoslovakia. The first movement is in five related sections, an alternation of Adagio and Allegro. After the first section, the second, marked Allegro, exploring the same motivic material, offers a relatively cheerful and even jaunty mood, syncopations providing further energy. The second Adagio reverts to the mood of the first, soon to be replaced by a second Allegro that ends in a luminous texture, before the final emphatic Adagio. The Larghetto is impelled forwards by ostinato rhythms and textures that suggest Stravinsky, quietening to a flute solo, accompanied by the strings. The accompanying rhythm resumes, giving way briefly to a short passage for trumpets, before a solo violin takes up the theme of the solo flute. The ostinato rhythms resume, leading to a serene conclusion. The final movement, with its alternation of slow and faster sections, allows the strings to suggest, at the outset, the three-note motif that is at the heart of it, transformed in the following Allegro in which one is tempted to imagine memories of America, or, perhaps, Bohemia. The opening motif returns, Poco andante, and it is this that assumes increasing importance in the final Allegro of the symphony.
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MARTINU: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 5