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V. An Aspect of Minor/Major Significance


Thus far Martinů’s approach to harmony has been obliquely addressed in the course of studying other aspects of his music. With regard to the composer’s use of traditional tonal structures, however, one aspect stands out as especially salient and merits special attention: the employment of opposing major and minor modes. The passage quoted above that opens the Largo of Martinů’s Double Concerto for two string orchestras, piano and timpani (1938) shows this minor/major paradigm in seminal form. It is highly significant that Martinů, in what must surely be one of his most harmonically complex, emotionally turbulent works, has employed this simple gesture as a powerful symbol of triumph over struggle. As if to underscore this message of hope, the two chords return to cap the entire work.

In the slow movement of the String Quartet No. 5 written earlier in the same year, the minor/major progression above is reversed. The opening of this movement was discussed as a kind of pessimistic pastoral in chapter three, with a lonely octatonic tune in the first violin accompanied by shuddering tremolandi and fatefully "knocking" staccato notes. In the final measures shown below, the music achieves a longed-for peace with a comforting violin solo full of repose, accompanied by sighing chromatics. After a breath of silence a cadence on a hopeful C major follows reassuringly, openly harmonized for a feeling of maximum restfulness. But this arrival in paradise is cruelly disturbed by col legno notes in the viola already heard at the beginning of the movement, and the harmony slips into the parallel minor, ending the movement on a tragic note:

The following more extended passage from the Field Mass (1939) provides an opportunity to expound further upon this theme. This work, completed just after the outbreak of World War II, recalls the fervent patriotism of the 1918 Czech Rhapsody. Its musical style is more restrained, however:

(Translation: Be merciful unto me, o God! Be merciful unto me, for my soul trusteth in thee! I will cry unto God most high, unto God almighty, that performeth all things for me. -Psalm 57:2)


This self-contained passage features an interesting series of chord progressions, employing major and minor triads in a subtle manner that deepens the meaning of the text. As the passage unfolds, the conflicting emotions of the speaker are immediately sensed. Martinů’s setting reflects the pleading and hopeful character of the words, while acknowledging underlying doubts and fears. The harmony begins with an A-major chord and concludes with a triad in the parallel minor - an overall progression that is mirrored in the individual phrases.

“Smiluj se nade mnou, Bože!” (Be merciful unto me o God!) begins hopefully in major but unexpectedly darkens with a downward move to E minor. The second phrase operates similarly, but with a more adventurous non-functional progression of major triads (A-C-E-B). Here Martinů employs a crescendo and the prayer becomes more insistent, repeatedly asking for mercy; but the phrase again descends to minor (a more haunting chromatic descent in the upper voices, compared to the previous whole-step descent). Now the minor coloration takes over in the ensuing phrase, "nebot’ v Tebe doufá duše má!" (For my soul trusteth in thee!), until a final upward move back to the original A major seems to confirm the speaker’s hopes, despite the doubtful intrusions of minor chords. The music has come full circle, not having progressed anywhere after all. Indeed, the ambiguity between the tonal centers A and D, evident at the beginning of the passage, plays itself out in the third phrase, which concludes in A major after suggesting D minor.

In hindsight it is clear that this opening half serves to lead, like a large gestural upbeat (notice the fermata), to the sustained D major passage that follows. Here, the chorus of soldiers is describing an action, crying out to God, and expecting that He will answer the prayer. There is more of a sense of motion here due to the extended quarter-note motion and the unexpectedly functional harmony. Rather than the static quality of the first line, where phrases were punctuated by rests, the three phrases here are more continuous and the boundaries consequently blurred. Interestingly, despite the more animated setting the passage begins with piano dynamics, muting the determined nature of the text. Martinů seems interested in creating subtle musical effects that add dimension to the chorus’ relationship to the sung text as well as the meaning communicated to the audience.

The word "nejvyššimu" (most high), which ends the first phrase, uses the minor-major progression in a quintessential word-painting gesture. The second phrase begins on the same chord (Martinů did this at the beginning of the excerpt as well) but then departs with a new progression. The second arrival at the syllable “-mu” gives us an unstable 6/4 chord instead of the earlier root position, and at this point D major begins to lose its hold on the passage. An unexpected C-major chord ushers in a modal progression reminiscent of the first part as the music begins to come full circle.

The text promises a confident conclusion to the passage but the music resolves in a forceful Dorian cadence on A minor. It is easy to see the reason for the change, which not only sums up the entire passage but also prepares for what follows beyond the excerpt: the baritone solo laments his dire situation in a new passage excerpted from Psalm 56: "Mine enemies would daily swallow me up, for they be many that fight against me, o thou most high!" There is a spontaneous quality to the entire passage as it sensitively unfolds from moment to moment, but this is balanced by apparent large-scale planning. Martinů’s symbolic use of minor and major chords enhances the meaning within in a setting closely reliant upon traditional tonal harmonic procedures.

The minor/major dichotomy is also played out in ways evidently touched by Martinů’s responsiveness to more modern trends. There is often a distinctly more playful quality to such examples, which is not surprising given the lighter side of the composer frequently observed elsewhere in this study. One such example wittily recalls the world of Bach’s fifth Brandenburg Concerto. Below is the opening ritornello from the finale of the Concert pour trio (1933) for piano trio and string orchestra, and the first three measures, in A major, are delightfully untroubled in their diatonic clarity:

In the fourth measure the music abruptly shifts to the parallel minor, which ushers in further destabilization; an equally abrupt modulation to D-flat major ensues, followed by increased chromaticism. A few deliberate "wrong-note" clashes increase the dissonance but prove short-lived as the music simply - and again abruptly - cadences on C major, far from its harmonic point of origin:

With this obvious reference to Bach Martinů once again parodies an older style while at the same time bringing it up to date in typical neobaroque fashion, and the use of parallel minor as a quick springboard to uncertain terrain seems particularly clever.

Martinů works along similar lines in two examples from another work from this period at least partly inspired by Bach, Les Ritournelles for solo piano. The austere beauty of the following cadence from the Loure of the Bach’s Fifth French Suite owes much of its character to the dissonant counterpoint in the quarter notes of the penultimate measure:

Martinů builds upon this type of cadential gesture in his Intermezzo No. 2 from Les Ritournelles. The dissonance in the last beat of the first measure is reminiscent of the Bach example, again the product of a step-wise moving bass line. A seemingly logical progression towards a cadence, however, is sidetracked in the third measure by nonfunctional major and minor chords that lead abruptly to the arrival on E (minor). This tentativeness is foreshadowed by the slide from C minor to C major in the first measure of the excerpt. The music seems to be groping, blindly searching for an appropriate cadence. In that sense it differs markedly from the inevitable structure of the Bach, but shares something tangible from its sound world nevertheless:

In the introduction to the first movement of the same work, minor/major conflict is played out in successive broken triads. The disagreement becomes vertical as the passage culminates in a clash between major triads (some with added sevenths) and an outlined d-minor chord in the bass (an augmentation of the beginning of the movement). The right hand progression, typical of Martinů, is based on a pattern clearly influenced by the topography of the keyboard:

Similar vertical clashes occur in the following additional examples. In the finale of the String Quartet with Orchestra (1931) a cheerful polka tune in the solo first violin is diatonic and in major mode, but the second violin and viola add mocking flatted thirds to the triads of F and B-flat. Interestingly, these never occur simultaneously but instead create playful cross-relations:

Harsher in quality is the opening of the Partita (Suite No. 1) of the same year for string orchestra, which begins with a cheerful, breezy pentatonic theme in C. This is rudely interrupted by the lower strings’ brusque C-minor chords, embellished with added notes for a denser, more abrasive effect within the piano dynamics:

These last two examples show the major/minor idea expressed within a stylized folk setting, something Martinů probably learned from Dvořák’s memorable use of this device in his folk-oriented works. Equally relevant, however, is the influence on Martinů of jazz. Its enlivening effect upon Martinů’s rhythmic palette has already been explored, but the blues, with its characteristic tonal inflections, proved equally stimulating to the composer’s creative imagination. Perhaps the best place to begin in this case is at the beginning. The first work to explicitly reference the blues style is the first of the composer’s Trois esquisses, a short movement marked Tempo di Blues. This "first contact” shows a humorous treatment of the blues scale. Martinů simply introduces all the blue notes at once in one chord, alternating back and forth between natural and blue notes in a syncopated rhythm. Meanwhile the left hand proceeds in the farthest possible key while also featuring a bluesy oscillation between perfect and diminished fifths. There could not be a more obvious pronouncement of the piece’s intentions, and Martinů delights in this anti-subtle approach:

Such alternations soon give rise to a peculiar mannerism in Martinů’s music, the wedding of blues inflections to the secondary ragtime pattern. Here are two typical examples. The first is from Le Départ, and the second from the finale of the Violin Concerto No. 1:

Less clichéd is the following example in which the minor/major gesture is blended with other contrasting elements. It is an episode taken from the slow movement of the String Quintet, where Martinů’s layering technique is visually very apparent. The first violin has a typical melody built from two pairs of oscillating notes treated in succession. Chromatic lines in three of the other instruments add to the mournful effect. The first viola seems to have relative unimportance until the blues motive appears (minor-major-minor thirds), in an apparent effort to break free from the gloom that surrounds it. The effect is equivocal since this tonal ripple, while providing a kind of musical commentary, has not affected any real expressive change:

The blatantly bluesy pieces, of which there are in fact quite a few from the late 20’s, give way to the more sublimated use seen in the example above. A parallel trend was observed when examining the rhythmic repercussions of Martinů’s exposure to jazz. A good example of this less pronounced approach occurs in the first movement of Fenêtre sur le jardin, a cycle of four piano pieces written in 1938 at the cottage of Martinů’s mother-in-law at Vieux Moulin, just outside of Paris. Here, in a moment of repose and apparently inspired by the picturesque flower garden surrounding the house, Martinů wrote this charming work and dedicated it to one of his well-to-do Czech patrons living in Paris, Helene Pucová. At the time, though, he was separated from his beloved pupil Vítĕzslava Kaprálová and this is reflected in the wistful nature of the first movement especially. In the opening, amidst very colorful sonorities, there is an unmistakable reference to the blues, which Martinů was quite literally feeling at the time:

The blues element blends seamlessly with other added-note chords. Thirds and sixths dominate the entire passage, favorite earmarks of Martinů’s folk style, but blue and other added notes essentially obscure this aspect. Similarly, the added notes that frequently complicate his settings of simple folk-like tunes have an altogether different effect here, too, as the impression is one of subtle colors blending in a very "French" style.

In the "B" section of the work the pitches of F-sharp, F and D, which represent the essence of the piece so far, become a bluesy, swirling accompanimental figure, clouding the D-major quality of the passage as a whole. Here, harmonic piquancy is added as the right hand part, based upon a similar pattern, overlaps in such a way that the F and F-sharp clash directly:

The entire cycle has a naïveté and sense of vulnerability pointed out elsewhere in Martinů’s output, but this work stands out especially considering the fact that after completing it he set to work immediately on the fierce and unrelenting Double Concerto. But if the two neighboring works are worlds apart on the expressive plane, a similar melodic structure can be observed at the micro level. For the lamenting melody that emerges from the tense, rhythmic opening of the Double Concerto employs the same pitch classes as the accompaniment figure in Fenêtre sur le jardin, but the harmonic context of the blue note here is D minor (flatted fifth) instead of D major (flatted third). When the melody ascends back to the A natural, the intervallic sense is more like an augmented second, giving this melodic lament an exotic flavor:

An equally curious connection to Fenêtre sur le jardin occurs in the Field Mass written the following year. The somber chord that opens the piece contains the exact same collection of pitches as those in the first beat of Fenêtre sur le jardin, arpeggiated together. The result is a coloristic chord simultaneously (or nearly) sounding both minor and major thirds, with the timbral color enhanced by the instrumentation. Once again the reference to the blues reflects the uncertain and painful times in which the work was written:

The excerpt from the Double Concerto cited at the beginning of this chapter sums up Martinů’s fascination generally with this material, and the gesture itself might be a metaphor for the positive, humanistic art that the composer pursued throughout his years in Paris. It is no coincidence that when Martinů was commissioned to write a symphony by Koussevitsky shortly after his arrival in America, the composer resorted to a very familiar gesture for the opening bars of his newest wartime work: a simple progression from B minor to B major.

I. A New Beginning: Life In Paris
II. How Martinů "Got Rhythm"
III. Of Folk Tunes, Pastorals, and the Masses
IV. Dvakrát Svatý Václave (St. Wenceslas, Twice)
V. An Aspect of Minor/Major Significance
VI. Fin de séjour: Julietta and Musical Symbolism
VII.Conclusion: Martinů’s Parisian Legacy




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