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Martinů in Paris: A Synthesis of Musical Styles and Symbols


Erik Anthony Entwistle

I. A New Beginning: Life in Paris

Martinů’s day-to-day existence in Paris contained all the prerequisites for une vie bohème. He settled logically in the artists’ quarter of Montparnasse, his first residence there being situated on the Rue Delambre, where he enlivened his stark living quarters with pictures of a skyscraper, a football match, a cruising Bugatti, and the first woman pilot, Eliška Junková. Martinů’s precarious financial status did not prevent him from also lining the tiny room with used scores and books obtained during his daily walks along the quays of the river Seine.

The Café du Dôme, just steps away, became a favorite place to relax in the evenings with his friends and colleagues. Here contacts could be established, aesthetics formulated and argued over, and, if meager financial circumstances dictated, a single drink could be stretched to last an entire evening. This café was particularly popular and attracted a diverse group of artists. Martinů soon joined several other musicians to form a Groupe des Quatre, later known as L’Ecole de Paris. The group was like an émigré version of Les Six, consisting of the Romanian Marcel Mihalovici, the Swiss Conrad Beck, the Hungarian Tibor Harsányi, and Martinů.

In America after the war, Martinů was asked by his pupil David Diamond what he missed most about Paris. “Les cafés” was his succinct reply. In this genial atmosphere Martinů, despite his soft-spoken nature and the difficulties of language, felt at home. Even if not actively conversing he could take on the role of an observer, a naturally assumed posture since his youth when he spent many hours watching the townspeople of his native Polička from the tower of the St. James church that served as his unlikely home for eleven years.

If today the images associated with the cafés of Paris have been reduced to clichés, they nevertheless fulfilled a great social need that artists at the time happily took for granted. As the writer Nino Frank who had come to Paris from Italy remarked, "The most important aspect of life on the terrasses was the atmosphere of fluidity and acceptance that greeted newcomers and regulars alike. There were no class boundaries… Foreigners were welcomed as people. You made friends easily and were accepted immediately." The French critic and composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud confirms that Martinů enjoyed a similar experience, noting that “in spite of his natural reserve, he was very kindly treated.” Finally, as if to underscore their importance, it was on the terrasses where Martinů got his first big break. In 1927 he approached conductor Serge Koussevitzky and presented him with the score of his recently completed orchestral piece La Bagarre. The Boston Symphony Orchestra later gave the world premiere performance under Koussevitzky’s baton.

La Bagarre, with its celebration of Lindbergh’s landing in 1927 at Le Bourget, along with the earlier Half-time about a tense crowd scene at a soccer match, were two works in which Martinů reflected upon the bustle and vigor of the teeming metropolis. Indeed, the composer’s oeuvre at the time gives evidence to the assertion that "the musical world has not escaped the din that is characteristic of the ‘age of speed,’ and the quieter voices of music are scarcely heard in the turmoil of modern life."

Such aspects of urban life, however, were becoming increasingly controversial. Related to Half-time is the following quote from Jacques Bertaut’s book on life in Paris:

With the increasing palate for violent drinks went an increasing taste for violent sports. An enormous stadium was opened at Colombes to accommodate the growing crowds that flocked every Sunday to the football matches. The women were just as noisy and enthusiastic as the men; just as unsporting also, when the home team failed to win.


Bertaut goes on to lament about

Violence, bitterness, speed! These are the key-notes of the life we lead today. Our over-strung nerves need more and more violent stimulus to wring a single vibration from them. Whatever we do, we fling ourselves into it with fanatic intensity; we demand to be whirled along the road or in the air, to be plunged in work at high pressure, to drink pleasure dry and to be spurred by thrill after thrill until the human machine collapses.

Assessing the situation from an artist’s perspective was Fernand Léger, whose paintings from the same period as La Bagarre depict urban landscapes reflecting the so-called "Machine Aesthetic:"

The hypertension of everyday life, its daily assault on the nerves is due at least 40% to the overdynamic exterior environment in which we are obliged to live. The visual world of a large modern city…is badly orchestrated; in fact, not orchestrated at all. The intensity of the street shatters our nerves and drives us crazy.

Léger goes on to imagine, hopefully, "a society without frenzy, calm, ordered, knowing how to live naturally within the beautiful without exclamation or romanticism." This reference to achieving order and calm, without resorting to romanticism, reflects the clarity also being sought by Martinů who, as will be demonstrated, pursues this idea in a very significant and characteristic way. Yet both artists’ works also undeniably embrace aspects of speed and technology. In that regard, Martinů himself observed that “Life is strict, inconsiderate, and fast, it does not leave time for lengthy fumbling around in the extremes of feeling, it demands intensity, a forceful, compact form and concentrated contents."

If one of Martinů’s coping mechanisms for the frequently unpalatable conditions of urban life consisted of his habitual daily walks along the quays of the Seine, affording him the necessary breathing space for solitary thought, the composer seemed equally drawn to the dynamism of urban bustle. Perhaps this relates to a childhood spent in the tower of St. James’ Church looking down upon the townspeople of Polička going about their daily business in the streets below. This isolation in the midst of teeming activity has significant parallels in Martinů’s music.

Casting a shadow over all of the external creative stimuli to be found in Paris was the very real and discouraging specter of poverty. Though he received his share of commissions and publications, Martinů was never the darling of the tout Paris and, in stark contrast to such figures as Cocteau, Picasso, and Poulenc and Stravinsky, rarely if ever traveled in the elite social circles. Šafránek spoke of Martinů’s intense spiritual struggle under the hard conditions of modern life, and Pierre-Octave Ferroud noted that “Fate could not possibly have heaped more discouragement on Bohuslav Martinů…With his untroubled eyes of an idealist…Bohuslav Martinů is the type of man who has taken his stand once for all against the struggles of daily life, and adapts himself to conditions in a philosophical manner.” Part of this philosophical manner, no doubt, was Martinů’s cavalier attitude toward what little money he did have.

Much has been made of Martinů’s apparent shyness, a key component to the Martinů mythos described in the introduction. Certainly his withdrawn nature, combined with an intense personal discipline, gave him the time and motivation to compose a great deal of music. Ferroud also noted with apparent amusement that

He disappears for weeks together, without informing anyone. When you think he is still in Paris, he is in Prague. If he is thought to be in Prague, he is in the country. His intuition is such that, conversing with him, one has the immediate impression that he is acquainted with the book-selling world, with the world of the theatre or the latest exhibition. And yet he has not been seen about and one is inclined to believe he has acquired his knowledge in dreams, so secret is the source from which it springs.

But Ferroud goes on to observe, quite rightly, that

Bohuslav Martinů’s modesty of nature must not lead us into error. Strip him of the mask whereby he escapes the casual contact of the world, [and] one is bound to admit that the artist who hides himself in this feeble defense is not only fully equipped, as his works testify, but also one of the most original musical figures of the time.

Although undeniably soft-spoken and reserved, Martinů in many ways lived a very “normal” life. As a regular spectator of the soccer games he was inspired to compose Half-time, and in 1926 at the Cirque Medrano, while witnessing the celebrated act of the Fratellini Brothers, he introduced himself to his future wife Charlotte Quennehen. The shy and reserved Martinů could also be aggressive in promoting his own works; the Koussevitsky incident cited earlier attests to this. Furthermore the composer certainly did not resign himself to a life of penury. Behind the scenes Martinů was an extremely avid correspondent with his collaborators and patrons. He continuously wrote home for more support and was not ashamed to appeal to all sources for financial help. Though it has often been alleged, Martinů did not typically compose according to whim and was not indifferent to performances, but rather carefully and practically tailored his works for a specific publisher, performance ensemble, or audience.

Martinů, if soft spoken, was in many ways quite savvy, given the limited opportunities that were available to him as a virtually unknown composer living in Paris. The fact that his fame increased steadily so that by the end of the thirties he was highly respected gives evidence to the composer’s persistent and determined nature. His mounting success did not make him rich in the monetary sense, but encouraged him to continue to pursue his compositional work without the additional distractions of teaching and performing. He was also fortunate in that his companion and future wife Charlotte Quennehen provided him with a modicum of financial stability and, with it, the freedom to concentrate exclusively on composition. As a result, his seventeen year residence saw the composition of nearly 150 works, many of them large scale, ambitious projects.

Of the many artistic associations formed by the composer during his Paris years, Albert Roussel stands out as a crucial initial contact and an undoubtedly important influence. It is not surprising that Martinů and Roussel got along so well, for they seemed to have had quite similar personalities. A friend of Roussel’s observed that the French composer “ was quiet, reserved, but friendly and the very soul of courtesy.” The exact nature of the musical influence, however, is not easy to grasp. In the wake of Roussel’s death in 1937 Martinů wrote a short tribute to his one-time mentor for the Revue Musicale. It is one of Martinů’s most often quoted statements, and anticipates the personal reflections from the "American diaries" noted in the introduction. When writing this témoignage tchécoslovaque, however, Martinů was at the same time affirming the wisdom of his decision to come to Paris in the first place. In contrast with the comments “about that French influence” quoted earlier, Martinů here specifically defines what attracted him to Paris, as opposed to what repelled him from Prague. In that sense the two quotes balance each other perfectly:

I came all the way from Czechoslovakia to Paris to benefit from his instruction and tuition. I arrived with my scores, my projects, my plans, and a whole heap of muddled ideas, and it was he, Roussel, who pointed out to me, always with sound reasoning and with a precision peculiar to him, the right way to go, the path to follow. He helped show me what to retain, what to reject, and succeeded in putting my thoughts in order, though I have never understood how he managed to do so. With his modesty, his kindness, and with his subtle and friendly irony he always led me in such a way that I was hardly aware of being led. He allowed me time to reflect and develop by myself… Today, when I remember how much I learned from him I am quite astonished. That which was hidden in me, unconscious and unknown, he divined and revealed in a way that was friendly, almost affectionate. All that I came to look for in Paris I found in him. I came for advice, clarity, restraint, taste and clear, precise, sensitive expression - the very qualities of French art which I had always admired and which I sought to understand to the best of my ability. Roussel did, in fact, possess all these qualities and he willingly imparted his knowledge to me, like the great artist he was.

As Martinů confesses above, his early Paris works do indeed display a "heap of muddled ideas" as apparent stylistic incongruities abound not only between different works but often within individual works themselves. However, despite "clarifying" his approach under the guidance of Roussel, Martinů would nevertheless continue to employ these types of stylistic juxtapositions in interesting ways, and this would become a hallmark of the composer’s style.

Equally telling is the idea that Roussel showed Martinů the path to follow. Roussel had preceded Martinů in his abandonment of impressionism in favor of a leaner, more angular style with neo-baroque and neo-classical features. A similar tendency can immediately be observed in Martinů’s first works written in Paris, which are amazingly confident in tone despite being very new and experimental works for the composer. Martinů was trying to find a convincing alternative to the overripe aesthetics of post-impressionism and post-romanticism and increasingly warmed up to this emotionally colder approach. But he would not give in so easily, and one finds Martinů very reluctant to purge all vestiges of his earlier style. This inherent conflict between tradition and experimentation, old and new, becomes an essential aspect of Martinů’s music, and one that has often been misjudged.

The sense of liberation that Martinů felt after arriving in Paris is palpable in these compositions, even if it is also evident that the composer’s enthusiasm needed to be reigned in by a more disciplined approach. But this was Paris in the 20’s, and it is quite remarkable how quickly Martinů moved from this tentative plane to something more apparently masterful, if still informed by a sense of discovery and experiment. This pattern of assimilation and mastery can be readily observed in the works themselves; here the results are fascinatingly varied, with Martinů not only coming to establish his own voice but creating many dialects as well. Unfortunately, the available musical picture from the early Paris period is far from complete, as the composer evidently destroyed many of the works written under his apprenticeship with Roussel.

Complementing Roussel’s influence was the music of Stravinsky, a revelation for the composer who knew almost nothing of the Russian composer’s works before coming to Paris. In Stravinsky Martinů clearly discerned a musical ally. Writing with apparent satisfaction in one of the Czech music journals, he proclaims that “[Stravinsky] otherwise does not like German music, reproaching it for its contrived pathos and its ‘manufacturing’ of emotions which persevere through the help of characteristic motives that are purely German. His style is the music of the west." Here is another unmistakable reference to the "real foundations on which Western Culture rests" and Martinů consciously brings Stravinsky’s aesthetic close to his own.

Martinů no doubt would have agreed with the following observations of another writer, who summed up well a different aspect that evidently attracted Martinů to Stravinsky’s oeuvre:

[Stravinsky] is not only a realist but a formalist; he works with musical values alone and his conception moves only on a musical plane. The Sacre thus is not the individual expression of the state of the soul; it is a musical construction like the allegro of a symphony by Haydn or a Bach fugue... One may imitate Debussy or Schoenberg, one can compose operas in the manner or Pelléas or poems in the manner of Prometheus, but it is impossible to create according to the forms that these composers have bequeathed. Once and for all time they squeezed them dry. Stravinsky on the other hand has already opened a path to followers who will be able to pursue it still farther. Opened? Rather re-discovered, for it is the road of the masters of the eighteenth century.

It is interesting to note in the context of the quotes above that Martinů, who in Prague had been damned by Czech critics for his obvious leanings towards Debussy, was now equally damned when critics perceived that the Parisian Martinů had now sold out to Stravinsky. It was merely one of many harsh realities that marked Martinů’s first years in Paris. Failures rather than successes, works that never saw the light of day, trials and errors - all inevitably became part of the picture of a composer struggling to find a voice and an audience.

In this regard Martinů was careful to keep the doors to his native land wide open. Visits home to Polička and Prague helped the composer maintain roots established in Czechoslovakia while sprouting new ones in Paris. This allowed him the possibility of success on multiple fronts. If a theatrical work failed to reach the stage in Baden-Baden, a new opera or ballet could keep his name alive in Brno or Prague. It was a simultaneous cultivation of two reputations, one national and the other cosmopolitan, which led correspondingly to a development of musical dialects in Martinů’s music.

Ultimately, Martinů was able to achieve success on both fronts. Two examples of successes enjoyed by the composer in 1938 reflect this duality of his career: the premiere of Tre Ricercari at the Venice Music Festival and the opening night of Julietta at Prague’s National Theater.

It was a hard-won success and a long journey since the composer’s arrival in Paris in 1923, and tracing Martinů’s path through a detailed investigation of his music affords specific insight into the compositional issues that confronted the composer. An examination of Martinů’s evolving compositional approach and the trajectory leading to a recognizable and consistent aesthetic might well begin with a consideration of rhythm, an aspect of Martinů’s music that has been commented upon most frequently and aptly reflects the dynamic environment of the French capital. With this in mind, the next chapter examines in detail precisely how, in Gershwin’s parlance, this Czech in Paris "got rhythm."

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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