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ClassicsOnline Home » MARTINU, B.: Chamber Music with Flute (F. Smith, Pinkas, Ferrillo, T. Martin, Ranti, Nelson, Martinson, Ryder)
After the death of Janáček in 1924, Martinů assumed the mantle of the leading Czech composer of the twentieth century. The chamber music on this disc abounds with the mosaic-like patterns, translucent lyricism and infectious rhythmic vitality which give his works their kaleidoscopic quality. From the highly original Sextet of 1929, with its jazzy Parisian character, to the Flute Sonata of 1945, in which the much-travelled composer imitates the song of the whippoorwill, an indigenous bird of New England, this disc surveys a quarter-century of Martinů’s prolific and always inventive output.
Bohuslav Martinů (1890–1959)
Chamber Music with Flute
Bohuslav Martinů was born on 8 December 1890, in the church tower of Polička, east Bohemia. Anticipating another child to feed, his father had successfully applied for the post of Keeper of the Church Tower of St Jacob’s; the family of four then settled in their unusual quarters. Martinů was deeply affected by his years in the tower, and by the vast view across the land. He later wrote of feeling “completely cut off from the rest of the world, as if in a lighthouse…everything in miniature…and above it all a great, boundless space. It was this space that I had constantly before me, and that I am forever seeking in my compositions. Space and Nature, not people.”
From an early age Bohuslav descended the 193 steps to attend school and take violin lessons with the local tailor. The violin won out; he was playing before he was reading. At ten he had begun to compose; his first composition was a string quartet. He continued his progress on the violin, and gave a successful recital in 1905.
The following year Martinů enrolled at the Prague Conservatory, but academic life was not to his liking. He was drawn to other interests, theatre and literature among them. He was expelled from the Conservatory for “incorrigible negligence” in June 1910; nonetheless he remained in Prague, taking advantage of the wealth of musical activity in the metropolis. Here he first encountered the music of Bruckner and Mahler, Stravinsky, Bartók, and Debussy.
During World War I Martinů avoided conscription by returning to Policka and working as a teacher. By the war’s end he had joined the second violin section of the Czech Philharmonic, which gave him an intensive exposure to the workings of a fine orchestra. A small stipend then allowed him to move to Paris, then the centre of world affairs. There he came into the orbit of Roussel, who helped him immensely. As Martinů said, “With him I found everything I had come to Paris to seek.”
Martinů is in that lineage of Czech composers that began with Smetana and Dvořák and reached its most exuberant flowering in the late works of Janáček. As with Janáček, Martinů’s music was influenced by the rhythm and cadence of the Czech language. Like Janáček, he builds large structures through the repetition, variation, and expansion of small cells, patterns and motives. The result, especially in fast movements, is akin to looking through a kaleidoscope: colourful, distinctive fragments combine and recombine in mosaic-like patterns, propelled by an infectious rhythmic vitality.
The Sonata for Flute, Violin and Piano, H. 254 (1936) was composed in Paris and is dedicated to Madame Moÿse, the wife of one of the leading flautists of the day, Marcel Moÿse. Martinů dives right in to his first movement with no introduction. His tempo indication Allegro poco moderato suggests a walk in the park, but he also provides a metronome marking of 132 to 138, which is decidedly brisk. He keeps the performers on their toes, with scintillating figuration that must fall into place—the kaleidoscope in play. A contrasting middle section for the piano, marked cantabile, provides a moment of contrast, and soon we are approaching an abbreviated recapitulation that ends the movement brilliantly. It is characteristic of Martinů that his forms are conventional, and his invention inexhaustible. The second movement, Adagio, is a free fantasy. Long, irregular bars (6/4, 7/4, 5/4) give the opening a searching quality. At the climax of the movement the metre resolves into a steady 6/4, and offbeat pizzicatos in the violin gently propel the music to a peaceful close. The third movement, Allegretto, is a scherzo full of whimsical invention, gradually becoming denser and louder. The Trio (Poco meno), brings the expected lyrical contrast, with a gently rocking tune in the flute. The flute tune is then taken up by the violin, an octave higher, in a rhapsodic passage high above the staff, leaving flute and piano below, and calling to mind Martinů’s “great, boundless space”. The fourth movement, Moderato, opens with a solo passage for the piano, followed by an extended period of varied invention for the three instruments. Unexpectedly, the trio runs out of steam, and comes to a full stop. Over a tremolo violin the flute assays four gentle arabesques. The violin, as if encouraging the flute, provides a bridge out of its doldrums; the solo piano accelerates to the Moderato tempo, and the movement continues as before, arriving decisively in C major.
The Flute Sonata, H. 306 (1945) has New England connections. After an arduous departure from Hitler’s Europe, where his music had been black-listed, Martinů and his wife arrived in New York in 1941. Serge Koussevitzky of the Boston Symphony Orchestra had championed his orchestral music since the early 1930s, and he encouraged the disheartened immigrant by commissioning his First Symphony and offering him a summer teaching position at Tanglewood. Martinů never really settled anywhere, but lived briefly in various locations across New England, including Cape Cod, where the Flute Sonata was composed. Martinů was intrigued by the call of an indigenous bird, the whippoorwill (Caprimulgus vociferus); he imitates its striking call a half-dozen times in the course of the finale:
The Sonata was given a proper send off. On 18 December 1949, the New York Flute Club presented a recital at what is now called CAMI Hall. Lois Scheafer had the honor of opening the recital with the Martinů Sonata; the programme lists it as the first performance. It is dedicated to the great French flautist Georges Laurent, who was at the time principal flute of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
The Sextet for Piano and Winds, H. 174 (1929) brings us back to December in Paris. The liberating influence of Foxtrot, Tango, Charleston and jazz, combined with the high standards of French woodwind playing, inspired Martinů to compose one of his most original compositions. By removing the horn from the woodwind quintet, and adding piano and a second bassoon, Martinů created a euphonious and versatile ensemble.
The Preludium is introduced by a bluesy clarinet; a series of exchanges between woodwinds and piano lead to a brief, faster episode (Poco vivo), which ends abruptly. The piano provides a bridge to the clarinet’s reappearance, and the movement returns to the music of the beginning. The Adagio traces a broad arch, starting tentatively, gathering conviction, and arriving at a richly scored passage for the full wind band, which then subsides and ends softly, among religious overtones. Divertimento I (Allegro vivo) is a moto perpetuo for flute and piano that goes like the wind, and ends with a wink. Martinů thought enough of this little gem to have it published separately—it makes an effective encore. Divertimento II (Blues), starts with a softly shimmying figure that turns out to be an accompaniment for the first bassoon, which takes a solo in its upper range, effectively impersonating a bluesy saxophone. Several contrasting episodes ensue, including a rollicking episode of stride piano. Soon the bassoon reprises its solo, and the movement fades to silence. Martinů’s tempo indication for the Finale is a conventional 120 to the quarter note (crotchet). But in the two and a half minutes it takes to play the movement, he ups the ante to 132, then 144, then 160. Here a piano cadenza intervenes, accelerating the tempo to 176. The movement races to what can only be a brilliant ending. It is on record that Martinů composed the Sextet between 28 January and 4 February, 1929; there is no evidence that he ever heard it.
The Trio for Flute, Cello and Piano, H. 300 (1944) meets the expectations of the listener-reader: inexhaustible invention. I would add only that the cello, that most soulful of instruments, lends the Trio a welcome gravitas and warmth.
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