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Revival! The forgotten works of Bohuslav Martinů

Editorial Staff

By Matthew Parsons

Every week, CBC Radio 2's In Concert digs up an unjustly forgotten composer from the sands of time and devotes the final segment of the show to that composer’s music. This week, we’ve got an overlooked Czech master who spent nearly every waking hour of his healthy years composing: Bohuslav Martinů.

Who was Bohuslav Martinů?

Martinů composed like the rest of us breathe. With an oeuvre of more than 400 works — staggering by 20th century standards — he ought to be notable on the basis of volume alone.

For Martinů, music was one of many compulsions, along with reading and chain-smoking. The music, at least, started early. Martinů grew up as the son of a cobbler/fire lookout/bell ringer who lived at the top of the church tower in a tiny Bohemian market town. His family recognized his talent and put him in violin lessons with the local tailor.

He learned quickly, but his early successes didn't translate into success at the Prague Conservatory, where Martinů was expelled after bouncing from program to program. But he kept composing, and eventually wrote a tone poem that so impressed conductor Serge Koussevitzky that he premiered it state-side with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Martinů's American success allowed him to take refuge there after he landed on the Nazi blacklist for connections to the Czech resistance. He didn't take naturally to America, and his solitary nature — no doubt informed by his childhood in a bell tower — led Martinů to spend almost all of his time composing. The world stood only to gain from this.

Why have I never heard of him?

As ever, we can only speculate as to why Martinů's music didn't catch on like, say, Janáček's. It could have something to do with his isolation. Martinů was never associated with a particular "school" of composition. His music doesn't have an especially national character, nor does it typify trends of the time especially well. This makes him a difficult artist to package. We like understanding the music we hear, and Martinů has a habit of resisting us.

His reluctance to teach composition might be a contributing factor as well. Martinů did some teaching, of course, and his students included notables like Alan Hovhaness and Burt Bacharach (of all people). But Martinů nursed a deeply held antipathy toward academia, dating back to his own expulsion from the Prague Conservatory for "incorrigible negligence." He never quite got over it, and it may have prevented him from exerting the full influence of which he was capable.

Why should I check him out?

With composers as prolific as Martinů, there's sure to be something that every classical fan will enjoy. With six symphonies, 15 operas, seven string quartets and a truly prodigious list of concertos and chamber music, what are the chances you won't like something?

Plus, Martinů's obsessive character led him to immerse himself in nearly every period and idiom of music ever. You can hear influences from Renaissance polyphony to Debussy to jazz in his music, all folded into his deeply personal style. Whatever you're into, you'll probably hear it floating around somewhere.

1. Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano and Timpani

For a 20th-century composer, Martinů was oddly drawn to the concerto grosso as a compositional model. He studied and internalized the works of baroque composers like Arcangelo Corelli, who wrote tons of these works, which pit two groups of instruments against each other in a harmonious musical death match.

This work is actually more of a concerto grosso than it is a double concerto, and it also features a piano obbligato: one of Martinů's musical calling cards.

2. Field Mass

In 1937, Martinů had been married to a seamstress for over a decade. But that didn't stop him from having a steamy affair with Vítězslava Kaprálová, a promising young conductor. The relationship ended in tears, as you might expect, when she left Martinů for his librettist, Jiří Mucha, and died two months later.

Here's the one collaboration that Martinů and Mucha managed to complete before everything went south.

3. Symphony No. 6

The last of Martinů's six symphonies is the odd one out. He composed it after falling from a second-floor balcony and spending a few years in recovery. The piece is dedicated to Charles Münch, the musical director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra — the ensemble that had broken Martinů's music into America decades prior.

4. String Quartet No. 5

Martinů was the ultimate musical omnivore. At various points in his career, he studied Debussy, the music of his countrymen Dvořák and Janáček, and Renaissance polyphony like Palestrina, always folding those influences into his own distinctive musical voice.

During the '20s and '30s, his obsession with the motor rhythms of Igor Stravinsky informed his best compositions. But, as you can hear in this string quartet, there's still a strong current of lyricism pushing through.

5. The Greek Passion

Martinů's 15th and final opera was based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. As if to circle back to his earliest musical memories of growing up in a church tower, the opera starts with the sound of bells.