I often wonder how it is that someone can reach their
fifth decade of life and have failed to discover a vital strand of music.
Now I know that we cannot be enthusiasts of all kinds of music. There
are precious few people who are as at home with early music as they
are with aleatory music. Perhaps there is always going to be a Wagner/Brahms
dichotomy. Yet it still feels strange that after 35 years of fairly
consistent listening to classical music, and not only consistent but
also exploratory, I have never consciously
heard a symphony by Martinů. This is as true of the concert hall
as the radio or the CD player. There has been no attempt on my part
to avoid this Czech composer. It is just one of the facts of my life.
Having listened to this CD I have to state two things.
Firstly, I recognise that in Martinů we have a fine symphonist
– one that deserves to be recognised widely as such. The second fact
is that I have a lot of work to do. I do not dislike the music; it is
simply that it does not immediately appeal to me. I know it is
good and realise that I ought to work at its appreciation. There is
enough there to make me want to like it; and that surely is a fine thing.
The bottom line for the
understanding of the music of Bohuslav Martinů is an appreciation
of his success in amalgamating the traditions of his native Bohemia
with the prevailing trends in Western music and also a degree of Americanisation.
It important to give a thumbnail sketch of his life
and works so that this tension and its resolution may be better appreciated.
The composer was born in the town of Politska in Eastern
Bohemia in 1890. His father was a cobbler and town watchman but was
wise enough to allow his son to study at the Prague Conservatory. However
the young Martinů was a bit of a rebel
– he did not take kindly to the discipline of the college and was expelled
His musical training was
helped immensely by a seventeen-year stay in Paris where he studied
with the great Albert Roussel. Martinů’s was no meteoric
rise to fame. His music slowly but surely began to heard and therefore
His stay in Paris ended
in 1940 when he emigrated to the United States. By all accounts it was
a sudden decision – Martinů and his wife had only one suitcase
between them as they embarked on the ship. Apparently the composer’s
name had appeared on a ‘blacklist’ of the Nazi Party.
It is to the United States
that we must look if we are to consider Martinů as a symphonist.
It was in the relative security of that country that he made
his first excursions into the complexities of symphonic form.
The First Symphony was commissioned by Serge
Koussevitzky and was first heard in 1942. This is no youthful excursion
into the form – for the composer was 52 years old at the time.
One of the problems in digesting Martinů’s
music is the sheer quantity of it. He produced music in all forms: ten
operas, ten ballets, choral works, chamber music, including five string
quartets and of course six symphonies. It is probably fair to say that
his output could be described as excellent and indifferent. It
needs to be sifted; and like many composers he does not benefit from
trying to make a complete CD collection of the entire corpus!
Martinů was somewhat
eclectic in his style. He came to maturity in Paris and therefore reflected
much that was current between the wars in that country. He had a definite
neo-classical streak in his writing. However as the composer matured
he enjoyed writing music in a more romantic vein.
The Third and the Fifth Symphonies were
both composed during Martinů’s American
sojourn. The Third was dedicated to Koussevitzky and the
Boston Symphony Orchestra for their twentieth anniversary. The composer
has put it on record that Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony was the
model. This work was written at a time when Martinů
was under some considerable stress and this shows in this work. The
piece was conceived after the massacre at Lidice so there is a considerable
emotional intensity. The first two movements have a dark quality to
them. Yet it is in the last movement that the light is finally
The Fifth Symphony is a lighter work. For one
thing it was composed after the war. It comes at a time when Czechoslovakia
was liberated and before the Iron Curtain fell across Europe. This is
much more romantic in style and is perhaps more approachable than the
Third Symphony. The second movement, a larghetto, is particularly attractive,
both in its thematic material and its orchestration. Yet it is the last
movement that carries it for me. An almost Barber-like opening leads
into an Allegro section that has images of the composer’s sojourn in
the United States. This movement alone is a masterpiece of orchestral
and symphonic writing.
It is encouraging that
Naxos has issued the last in the series of Martinů symphonies,
because whether one likes them or not they are key works in the
twentieth century symphonic repertoire. I have already confessed that
these works are new to me and I have not heard them in the Chandos edition
with Bryden Thomson and the SNO or the BIS recordings with Neëme
Järvi. However to my ear the present recording is a fine place
to begin a collection of these works. For one thing the price is right
– all six symphonies for just £14.97.
To me the sound quality, the excitement of the playing
and the general presentation of this disc is excellent. Perhaps a little
more on the programme notes might have been helpful bearing in mind
that to most people these works are probably relatively unknown. But
perhaps that is being churlish. There is enough information here to
give an adequate background to these excellent works.
See also review by Jonathan