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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    

IV. Dvakrát Svatý Václave (St. Wenceslas, Twice)

One of the most potent and widely recognized musical symbols of Czech nationalism is the chorale melody or spiritual folk song Svatý Václave, which honors the famous king of the Přemyslid dynasty that ruled the Czech lands for much of the middle ages. Václav, who was murdered and succeeded by his brother Boleslav the First, was later beatified as a patron saint of the Czech lands. Along with the spiritual song "Hospodine, pomiluj ny" (Lord Have Mercy Upon Us), which dates from the tenth century, the chorale honoring Saint Wenceslas, as he is known to the English speaking world, is one of the oldest surviving monuments of Czech music.

Reverence for Saint Wenceslas actually inspired at least two tunes in his honor, whose first verses share a nearly identical text. The melody to be considered initially is the one used by Martinů to such stirring effect in his Czech Rhapsody of 1918, whose first performances celebrated the founding of the newly independent Czechoslovakia at the end of the First World War and brought the composer’s work before a large audience for the first time. The example below shows the melody used by Martinů in that work:

(Text translation: Saint Wenceslas, Duke of Bohemia, Our prince, Pray to God for us,

And to the Holy Ghost! Christ have mercy! ...)

Josef Suk, Martinů’s composition teacher at the Prague Conservatory and Dvořák’s son-in-law, had also used this tune in his Meditation on the Old Czech Hymn "St. Wenceslas" for string quartet (or string orchestra) written in 1914. It is symbolic that both works should frame the years of the War, given the dark character of Suk’s Meditation and the more triumphant qualities of Martinů’s Czech Rhapsody. In the following passage from Suk’s work (orchestral version), various strands of the melody are treated simultaneously. First, the cellos intone the pitches on "Kriste elejson", followed by "proz za nás Boha" in the first violin, "Svatý Václave" in first and second violins (against pizzicato "proz za nás Boha" in the remaining strings). Finally, "vévodo české zemĕ” is heard in the first and second violins:

Martinů’s use of the tune in his Czech Rhapsody is much less elaborate than Suk’s treatment in the Meditation, focusing almost exclusively on the characteristic five-note motive, A-G-A-F-G, set to the text “proz za nás Boha.” This fact proves to have later significance when examining how Martinů employed this material in his Parisian works.

As already mentioned, a second melody set to the same text is also extant. According to the captions below, the tune also dates from the twelfth century, but the source listed is dated 1473. For convenience this tune will henceforth be referred to as SV2 and the one quoted above as SV1:

It is striking that Martinů should resort to the extensive use of both melodies right at the beginning his Paris years, setting an example for himself that he follows with remarkable frequency. The early context of their use is particularly fascinating, however. As observed in the chapter devoted to Martinů’s new approach to rhythm, Stravinskian collage quickly became a characteristic of Martinů’s stylistic re-orientation in Paris. This aspect is particularly salient in the first substantial work to be written by Martinů in France, his Quartet for clarinet, horn, cello and side drum. Examination of the score proves that the entire composition is a parody of both versions of Svatý Václave. A melodic fragment taken from SV2 opens the work, already ironically transformed into an "objective" cell. In the same way a popular tune can be ragged, Martinů dissects and rhythmically distorts the chorale tune so that it is barely recognizable. Here the main motive used consists of the four pitches on “Václave” (written pitches G-F#-D-E), treated in pairs and frequently reversed in order of appearance in the solo clarinet part:

Next, all three pitched instruments simultaneously play variations on the motive, creating a collage of randomly overlapping, fragmented ideas. An espressivo melody appears in the clarinet, also obviously based on the same motive. This rises sequentially to a grand climax accompanied by the motive in diminution in the horn and cello:

Later in the movement a breezy tune is introduced imitatively in the clarinet and horn, which proves to be concealing Martinů’s favorite turn of phrase from SV1 (A-G-A-F-G - corresponding to the clarinet’s written pitches in the following example). Other fragments of SV1 appear; the horn part twice has a rising and falling motive set to the pitches on the words “Svatý Václave” and the clarinet switches to an embellished variant (added notes in parentheses) from SV2 (“České zemĕ, knĕže náš”):


In the slow movement, SV1 dominates in another parody, but of a more soberly expressive variety. Curiously, the entire movement is framed by an altogether different tune in apparent chant style. The melody for cello solo is meditative, and with its gravity seems to possess a distinct Slavic flavor. After so much fragmentation in the first movement, the long-breathed, sixteen-measure melody in Dorian mode comes as a complete shock. The recitativo style includes speech-like rhythms, further suggested by the repeated notes. One is reminded of a similar passage in the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s third string quartet, which represented the intoning of the priest at a requiem mass. Here is Martinů’s melody:

Framed by this tune, which returns to conclude the movement, somber fragments of SV1 and SV2 come in and out of focus. Occasional, distant fanfares from the side drum seem to suggest some sort of war memorial. Here are two statements in the clarinet, several measures apart. They both begin with the "Svatý Václave" motive from SV1, but while the first continues with the characteristic five-note motive from SV1, the second continues with the opening of SV2. Both versions are slightly embellished in a manner typical of the entire work:


The third movement returns to the highly syncopated style of the first, and again the primary material is based on Svatý Václave. Here is a notable example, in the horn part, of the five-note motive from SV1 being playfully treated. At first it coincides with the 5/8 meter, but then is shifted across the bar line by an extra note:

Here Martinů also builds longer tunes from this same five-note phrase, in this case extending the first three oscillating notes before the final two are heard in the last measure. This technique was also observed in the previous chapters:



What is the significance of Martinů’s use of this material in this work? The composer destroyed many of the works written during this experimental apprentice period with Roussel, but spared the Quartet. This perhaps indicates its aesthetic value to Martinů, even if the work never saw the light of day during his lifetime, being published posthumously in 1975. The Quartet’s significance resides in the contradictory ways in which the composer uses one of the most familiar Czech musical symbols. Certainly the slow movement, with its distinct echoes of Suk’s Meditation, would fit comfortably into the category of traditional use of the material, even if some modern quirks occasionally raise the eyebrow. But the outer movements treat the tune irreverently in a quasi-Stravinskian collage, fragmenting and objectifying its beloved strains. This could not contrast more with Martinů’s use of SV1 in the luminously optimistic closing pages of his 1918 Czech Rhapsody.

There is a stylistic inconsistency in the Quartet that is intriguing, and it is tempting to chalk it up as confusion on the composer’s part and his inability to successfully integrate his musical materials in a consistent manner. The composer’s fondness for juxtaposing conflicting materials in various ways and for various effects merits careful consideration, however. In the case of the Quartet, the music’s stance toward nationalism can be interpreted in different ways. One would be apparently skeptical, or at least dubious in a metaphorical sense, as the national element is absorbed into contemporary technique and dissected into motivic fragments, losing all symbolic significance in the process. In this case, even the slow movement might be regarded as a memorial service for the national element, which must now yield to the exigencies of the cosmopolitan approach. Certainly Martinů must have been mulling over these issues when he arrived in Paris and was confronted with an entirely new musical world.

In another view, Martinů could be seen as having the best of both worlds in the Quartet. Here he can cleverly bury national elements in his work, giving himself a sense of grounding by using familiar material while dealing with the imperative to compose in new ways. At the same time, he can produce a more frankly nationalistic slow movement invoking the meditative world of Suk, creating a shocking juxtaposition to the witty, irreverent outer movements. All of this is done with a playful sense of irony and the feeling that the last note has not been written on the subject.

By turning now to Martinů’s continued use of Svatý Václave in his Parisian works and beyond, a better understanding of the composer’s intentions can be reached. Before examining more of Martinů’s oeuvre in this regard, however, it is prudent to point out that a short five-note motive such as that from SV1 is inclined to appear quite by accident or coincidence. In the following two examples by Stravinsky and Debussy, it is safe to say that neither composer had Saint Wenceslas in mind when they wrote them. The Stravinsky example comes from the Rite of Spring, and is one of the "folk tunes" featured in the ballet. This demonstrates, of course, that the SV1 fragment has a kinship with folk melodicism:

In Debussy’s Nuages, the first of his three Nocturnes, the opening ostinato in the clarinets sounds the notes from SV1 in the first five pitches. Martinů was probably aware of the coincidence, for he knew the Nocturnes well, mentioning them specifically in a radio interview shortly after his arrival in America in 1941.

If it is advisable to proceed with caution, then, with regard to accidental sightings, there is nonetheless a very persuasive body of musical evidence demonstrating that both Svatý Václave melodies continued to provide the composer with raw melodic material in an intriguing variety of contexts. To begin, there is no need to look further than chronologically neighboring works to the Quartet such as Half-time and La Bagarre.

In Half-time, the four-note motive on "Václave" from SV2 is grafted onto an important, oscillating four-note motive heard earlier in the piece. Here is an example of the four-note motive (last three bars) without SV2:


The wedding of this motive with SV2 is saved for the climactic moment of the piece, evidently representing the crowd at its most fevered pitch:

Like the four-note "signature" motive from SV2, the five-note motive from SV1 is no doubt favored by Martinů because of its clearly recognizable melodic shape. It is not surprising then, that La Bagarre makes use of the five-note SV1 motive in his grand "folk" tune representing the masses. Here, the national element is indeed elevated to the universal (note: the melody occurs in the treble clef, which has been accidentally omitted from the score):

In several other instances spaced well apart during his stay in Paris, Martinů employs this motive in similar, elevated tones. In the third piece of his Quatre Mouvements for piano (1929), the motive appears as part of a heroic-sounding folksong. The notated rubato here is very interesting, recalling Moravian folk song and the folk style of Janáček. Not coincidentally, the only note which is not part of the motive is marked staccato, while the other notes which do belong are marked tenuto or are accented:

The initial rising and falling motive of SV1 is also featured here, again with a notated rubato akin to improvised song:

At other times Martinů also singles out this rising and falling figure for special treatment, as the following examples from the slow movement of the String Quartet No. 3 demonstrate. Here the progression, treated in nearly parallel fashion, is a very modern adaptation of the fauxbourdon style of the Renaissance:

Later in the movement, Martinů evokes the world of Bartók’s string quartets with a haunting passage featuring semitone tremolandi scored a minor ninth apart, accompanying the tune in the cello’s extreme upper range. As in the last example, the figure dispenses with the last note of the original motive, presumably to avoid a circumscribed, dead-end effect:

Returning to the discussion of the more frequently used five-note motive from SV1, another notable example, taken from the slow movement of Sonatina for two violins and piano (1930) is shown in the excerpt below. Martinů treats the motive sequentially, and again it is heard at the climax of the movement:

More dramatic, however, is Martinů employment of the motive in his Double Concerto for two string orchestras, piano and timpani (1938). This work is widely regarded as one of Martinů’s masterpieces and has a seriousness and depth of expression emblematic of the dark times during which it was composed. The opening of the Largo features fragments of the motive in the piano part (not the main melody, which is given to the violins). Initially only the first three notes are heard, and then four, but the entire motive never reveals itself. This could be a metaphor for the uncertainty of Czechoslovakia’s fate during the Munich Crisis, and in any case reflects the atmosphere of fear and tension which permeates the work:

In other works, as in the 1924 Quartet examined earlier, Martinů does not hesitate to subject SV1 to a more rhythmic treatment, building short cellules from its motive, as the following examples demonstrate. In the first movement of the String Quartet No. 2, it becomes the primary material of the Allegro vivace, providing the first five notes of the seven-note cell. The material is used in a modern, rhythmic style, which sets it apart from the very “French” sounding introduction, the end of which can also be seen in the excerpt. This seems to depict Martinů leaving the world of impressionism behind in favor of dynamism, with a transformed Svatý Václave symbolic of the process:

(Providing an interesting comparison, Martinů returns to this concentrated approach more than a decade later in the first movement of his String Quartet No. 5 (1938), where the SV1 motive is shared by two consecutive rhythmic ideas:


Returning to the Second Quartet, the initial motive seen above is soon transformed into a lively folk dance, now in the major mode. Each voice in the quartet contributes different ostinati, including the one in the second violin based on the familiar secondary ragtime pattern:

The first movement of the String Quartet No. 3 (1929) continues along this path, but with more sophisticated overlapping ostinati of different lengths (bracketed in the example), creating an interesting polyrhythmic texture. Here, Svatý Václave emerges from an oscillating motive in the first violin:

Similar syncopated treatment of the SV1 motive occurs in the finale of the Cello Concerto no. 1 (1930) where it appears in hemiola patterns across measures two to three and five to six of the following excerpt:

Decidedly more cheerful than the preceding two examples is the following excerpt from Martinů’s “Koleda Milostná" (Love Carol, 1937) where two motives from SV1 separately provide the melody and accompaniment in a clever combination that totally transforms the original material:

In the finale of the Tre ricercari (1938) another scherzando treatment of the motive occurs, but with an entirely different character. This is heard in the solo oboe, which treats the fragment in a rather bluesy fashion, while the ensuing modulating scale further reflects the initial tension between F and F#:

Later in the movement the conflict between the major and minor third becomes vertical rather than horizontal, with the motive from SV1 made more apparent through accentuation:

A similar chordal, percussive use of the motive appeared over a decade earlier in the first movement of the Impromptu for violin and piano (1927). Here jazz holds sway, with typical 6/4 chords moving chromatically in the left hand of the piano against the SV1 fragment and a wildly disjunct violin part:

Martinů’s use of SV2 also shows great variety, but often the composer uses its signature four-note motive in passages of melodic and harmonic tension. Perhaps he recognized the chromatic harmonic possibilities inherent in the first two notes of the motive. At any rate, in a characteristic example from the first movement of the String Sextet (1932), the expressive possibilities of this more chromatic approach can be seen. The motive is repeated with increasing tension against underlying progressions that are quite dissonant (for example, the first viola and cello are a minor ninth apart):

In the climax of the Sextet’s slow movement this music returns with even greater intensity, with all instruments in an extremely high register. Again, Martinů is affording special emotional significance to the motive for his own expressive purposes:

A few further examples serve to demonstrate the diversity of Martinů’s treatment of this motive as well. In the first of Cinq pièces breves for violin and piano (1929), SV2 is pitted humorously against the Charleston. This proves to be another example of Svatý Václave intruding into an explicitly jazz-inspired context, which is instructive:

Another curious instance is the appearance of the motive in Le Depart, a symphonic interlude to the jazz opera Les Trois souhaits. This intense, densely orchestrated tone poem has little lyrical content, but does feature an appearance of SV2 as a legato oboe solo in the middle of the work. Here the motive is curiously slurred in contrary fashion, creating a different melodic shape. Of course this is not exactly lyrical either with its endless repetition, but it does stand out from the rest of the generally thick orchestral texture. Perhaps in its sobriety it reflects the subtitle to the opera, "The Vicissitudes of Life", like the pastoral example quoted from this work in the preceding chapter:

Martinů is also fond of combining the two versions of Svatý Václave, as was already observed in the 1924 Quartet. In line with the aesthetic of that work is the humorous trifle Instructive Duo for the Nervous (1925), with rhythmic complexities seemingly designed to slip up the poor pianist. The example below gives some hint of this feature, but in the music that continues beyond it the rhythmic combinations actually become much more challenging. In the left hand at the beginning, various patterns limited to four pitches spell out both characteristic motives, and in the case of SV2 (marked with x’s) the initial three pitches are also thrown in for good measure:

In the scherzo of the Sonata for flute, violin and piano, more playful references to both motives occur. The piano part is missing the first note of SV1, but this is soon supplied surreptitiously by the lower E of the violin’s pizzicato double stop. In the flute SV2 is distinctly heard in the middle of the bucolic figure:

Another imaginatively conceived example occurs at the end of the trio section of the Selanka (Idyll) movement of the cantata Kytice (Bouquet of Flowers). Here, two statements in pastoral mode combine the two characteristic motives. The oboe and flute play their solos unaccompanied in a bridge leading to the da capo. In the oboe solo, SV2 clearly occurs twice (upper brackets), but the first occurrence also conceals the beginnings of SV1. The flute solo begins similarly and features the same number and kind of motives, but is extended, with the motives no longer overlapping, and in this case SV1 is saved for last:


In the fifth movement of the piano cycle Les Ritournelles, the chant-like melody that opens the work weaves two statements of SV1 while at the same time hinting at SV2, once again underscoring the relationship between the two motives:


At the conclusion there is a distant-sounding reminiscence of the opening melody, but here the melodic shape reflects SV2 instead of SV1. In a final gesture towards Svatý Václave, the consecutive fifths from the passage above return as chords in the bass, outlining the rising and falling figure that opens SV1. With its emphasis on chant-like tunes and a nod towards fauxbourdon texture, the passage reflects the sound world of more ancient times:

Perhaps most interesting of all of these combinatorial gestures cited is the following example from the end of the first movement of the String Quartet No. 5. It has previously been demonstrated that the main material of the movement is based on SV1 (see example above). At the end SV1 returns, but is stretched out and in retrograde (with a the third and fourth notes repeating before arriving at the final note). Following backwards, SV2 can be detected as well (with the initial interval altered to a major second). The melody, given to the upper register of the viola, is an anguished cry set against sharp chords in the remaining strings, and one of the most powerful passages in Martinů’s oeuvre. It is curious that he apparently created it from this kind of technique. Perhaps this is one example of accidental occurrence, for Martinů is once again working within the restricted range of four notes, which are of course limited in their possible combinations:

The remainder of this discussion will focus once again on SV1, to which Martinů apparently attaches special significance. This can be gathered from the relative number of times it is encountered in his works, and especially from the typically lyrical and pastoral veins in which it often appears. The slow movements of the first two numbered violin sonatas (1929 and 1931), for example, show Martinů crafting tender melodies from the kernel of the five-note motive. The first sonata’s melody is embellished by gently syncopated chords in the piano, and initially does not venture beyond the motive. By contrast, the second sonata builds an ingratiating melody with the motive as its departure point. Both are characteristic examples of Martinů’s music at its most lyrical:

Another lyrical instance occurs in the third movement of Les Ritournelles. Here Martinů’s familiar oscillating melodic style is used to build a long melodic line, into which SV1 is seamlessly inserted (note how it is slurred separately, however). In the right hand, falling, oscillating thirds are treated successively, with the gently floating feeling emphasized by the first inversion F major triad that opens the piece. The left hand is also treated in oscillating patterns, but chromatically, mirroring the slow descent of the thirds in the right hand. As if to underscore the link to impressionism, rhythmic regularity is nowhere to be found, and the excerpt lacks bar lines:

With such an emphasis on delicate lyricism the pastoral cannot be far behind, and there are in fact many instances of Martinů using Svatý Václave in pastoral style in addition to the examples from Kytice cited above. It is not surprising to find one in the Rhapsody of 1928 (also named La Symphonie), since it recalls the tenth anniversary of Czechoslovakia’s independence, and hence looks back to Martinů’s Czech Rhapsody composed in 1918. In the Rhapsody, the middle section is a pastoral featuring the English horn. Here Martinů symbolically recreates the hushed atmosphere of the Largo of Dvořák’s Symphony, “From the New World," with the English horn offering a pentatonic embellishment of SV1. This musical landscape features a plagal cadence suggesting the gratitude of the nation. The simplicity is striking given the agitated, dynamically conceived music that characterizes the remainder of the work. The music seems to evoke the moment, frozen in time, in which the national flag was handed over to the first Czechoslovakian regiment at Darney in the first "grand, solemn act in the independence of Czechoslovakia:"

The pastoral again plays a memorable role in the slow movement of Martinů’s Cello Concerto No. 1 (1930). The melody flirts with the motive as it oscillates back and forth before finally yielding the fifth note. The metrical arrangement and resulting pattern of note lengths creates a floating effect emphasizing that time has no meaning in this static pastoral tableau. The harmonies are chiefly nonfunctional triadic progressions, reminiscent of the third relationships commonly found in pastorals, with plagal cadences added to increase the serenity of the setting. The overall progression is I-V (ending on V of V):

In the subsequent musical paragraph, the orchestra takes up a more straightforward statement of the motive, as Svatý Václave continues to play an important in the movement:

Based upon the evidence of this circumscribed study of Svatý Václave it is apparent that Martinů used this material far more often than has been previously acknowledged, and that such borrowing constitutes an essential part of his aesthetic. In this tendency he followed Stravinsky’s lead, but in doing so developed a very personal and long-term approach to the use of pre-existing material. Indeed, as a war refugee in America, and in the composer’s words "a man without a country," Martinů returns to Svatý Václave with renewed conviction. The Violin Concerto No. 2 could be cited as a remarkable example, with its anguished, almost apocalyptic outburst of SV1 (the five-note figure) in the opening measures of the work, betraying its wartime origins:

A variety of techniques favored by the composer have been observed as he transforms the Svatý Václave melodic material and builds from it, with these different approaches forming a more complete aesthetic image of the composer. Martinů of course used Svatý Václave because of its potency as a national symbol, but he did not hesitate to subject it to the rigors of the newer style he forged in Paris. In one moment this beloved symbol of the Czech nation could be transported to the dance hall, and in the next objectified into a collage of melodic/rhythmic cells. It could equally represent the indomitable spirit of all humanity or the quiet contemplation of a soul alone in nature’s realm. Ultimately, the varied strains of Svatý Václave proved to be just what Martinů intended - a springboard from which his creative imagination could soar.

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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