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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

VI. Fin de séjour: Julietta and Musical Symbolism

The premiere of Martinů’s opera Julietta at the National Theater in Prague in March 1938 was one of the great triumphs to take place during the composer’s residence in Paris. In many ways Julietta is the artistic culmination of all that Martinů had strived for in Paris. The surreal subject matter hearkens back to unsuccessful theatrical experiments of the twenties, when Martinů collaborated with the Dadaist poet Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes on the jazz operas Les Larmes du couteau and Les Trois souhaits. Neither opera was staged during the composer’s lifetime. Julietta demonstrates a fusion of styles; the very act of Martinů fashioning a Czech libretto from the original play by French poet George Neveux brings this idea to the foreground. Here Martinů continued the general trend of the recently completed opera Divadlo za branou (Theatre Behind the Gate), in which the mimed style of Debureau and the characters of the commedia dell’ arte were transported to the Czech folk theater. With Julietta, however, the musical language proved entirely different from its light-hearted operatic predecessor.

Although clearly one of Martinů’s most complex scores, Julietta arguably contains only two distinct types of music. The first type reflects the psychological imbalance from which all the characters suffer, from the townspeople who muddle through absurd lives without memories, to the tragic figure of the visitor Michel who alone possesses rationality but is in danger of succumbing to this dream world. This music darkly updates operatic buffo conventions by employing thick, claustrophobic orchestration, relentless rhythms and dissonant harmonies recalling Stravinsky’s so-called primitive style. Indeed, the entire work begins with a nod to the Rite of Spring as a frenzied bassoon solo begins on an extremely high B above middle C (not wanting to outdo Stravinsky, who begins his Rite a half-step higher). This rhythmic, restless music frequently depicts the villagers’ absurd situations, underlining their desperate situations.

The second musical type is the haunting "dream music" associated with the title character, Julietta. Here the opera’s twin idées fixes of rationality versus desire and reality versus dream are explored in Martinů’s most vulnerable, folk-inspired style. Michel loves Julietta, but she does not represent reality, cannot truly be grasped, and since she does not possess any memories she cannot love him in return. Like the pastoral, this music is destined to evaporate just as a dream ceases to exist when the protagonist awakens. At the end of the opera Michel realizes that all that has happened was indeed a dream, but he is given a final opportunity to choose between reality and fantasy, with no turning back. For Martinů these symbolic meanings behind the opera acquired a deeply personal significance that resonated uniquely in the works that he was to compose subsequent to the opera until his death twenty years later.

The dream world of Julietta is conjured by her unaccompanied love song, the first music given to her character. This is the song that has driven Michel to return to the village to once again seek her out. The opening three notes attain such importance in the work that henceforth they will be referred to as the "Julietta motive". They are initially joined to a fourth note to set the words "Moje láska", but Martinů treats the first three notes as a separate motive (perhaps representing a fragment, or memory, of the original four?). It is a simple descending figure, extremely melancholy in character. At the end of Julietta’s song the motive returns in a Gypsy-like transformation, ultimately giving the tune an almost dangerous, exotic allure. One is reminded of Janáček’s enticing Gypsy woman who briefly sings in the middle of his song cycle, The Diary of One Who Vanished. Here is Julietta’s song:

("My love is lost far away, over the wide sea he’s gone tonight. With the return

of the star up in the sky, may he come back, may my love come back too!")

Complementing the Julietta motive is a second symbolically related gesture that has often been termed the "Julietta chords". It is a distinctive, uncannily memorable modified plagal cadence, and again there is a connection to Janáček, who used the progression to stirring effect in the finale of his Taras Bulba. In the case of Julietta, it seems to represent an onrush of emotion, a heady combination of longing and romantic desire. In its initial appearance, the orchestra (piano reduction) loudly proclaims the chords just as Julietta enters the stage for the first time:

Both ideas occur throughout the opera, often in crucial dramatic moments, reflecting the allure of this dream world as well as its dark side. In Act 2, scene 5, when Michel and Julietta at last find themselves alone together, the Julietta motive appears warmly in the orchestra, apparently reflecting the couple’s happiness. But as Julietta sings "But now I’ve got you here! In my arms! (Captive, and we are alone, just the two of us!)", several dissonant harmonizations of the motive seem to reflect the strangeness of this surreal place and anticipate the tragic trajectory of the opera. Michel, in Julietta’s clutches, is in danger of becoming a prisoner of her world without real memories, but he is not yet aware of it. The passage also underlines the freedom with which Martinů treats this descending motive throughout the opera; here the falling three notes are no longer stepwise, but are expressed in a variety of intervallic configurations:

The motive also appears memorably in a scene with minor characters. An older couple is buying memories from a souvenir vendor (literally), who invents interesting details of a past they cannot remember. They are overjoyed at receiving these, even if they question the authenticity of the seller’s wares ("Are you quite sure the dress was white?" asks the grandmother. "Quite sure!" is the vendor’s confident reply). The motive once again appears stepwise in this scene (accompanied by piano solo), and also in inversion. This is in clear folk style, perhaps reflecting the hopeless naïveté of the couple, but also containing an emotional poignancy, gaining the audience’s sympathy for the couple’s predicament:

Another symbolically important appearance of the Julietta motive occurs at the end of the opera, where Michel sees a frightening vision of other men who never woke up from their dreams and have been lost forever to reality. As they disappear behind a closing door to the dream world, the motive is heard chromatically descending, underscoring the fate of these hapless souls who are now dead to reality:

As the climax of the opera approaches, Michel must choose between worlds once and for all, but cannot seem to make up his mind. The Julietta chords return in tandem with the descending motive as Michel laments, "I am afraid…that as soon as I leave I will forget it all! And I do not want to forget!" These words demonstrate the irony upon which the entire opera is based. Michel’s very existence is defined by his memories, yet he is moved to sacrifice them in order to join Julietta in her world. He loses in either case, because Julietta is not real and he cannot grasp her in dreams any more than in reality. Thus, with the appearance of the Julietta chords in this passage the link to Michel’s desire for her is made clear:

If Martinů’s use of the so-called Julietta chords appears for the first time in this work, the three-note descending Julietta motive was long a favorite melodic gesture in Martinů’s works. Before Julietta, there are several characteristic passages that seem to foreshadow similar use of the motive in the opera. Martinů appears to have extracted the Julietta motive from a simple melodic gesture common in Czech folk songs. Martinů arranged one such song in a set of children’s pieces for piano, entitled Božánkovi a Sonničce (Božánek and Sonička), written in 1932. The folk song used by Martinů is “Ještĕ já se podivam” (Now I’ll Take a Look). The setting is as simple as possible, reflecting the work’s young dedicatees. Here the descending pattern appears as a cadential gesture, as is frequently the case in Julietta:

From the early Parisian ballet Vzpoura (The Revolt) discussed at length in chapter three, a stylized folk tune resembling the previous example features an equally prominent use of the Julietta motive. In the scenario to the ballet, this is the melody that brings the notes back from their general strike and saves the day. The tune, written down by the composer with the help of Inspiration and a singing girl in national costume, features the Julietta motive as the most prominent melodic feature:

Another clearly folk-inspired example of the Julietta motive occurs at the beginning of the first of Quatre mouvements for piano. The folk style is evident with the abundant thirds and sixths, and here, as in Julietta, the descent is not exclusively stepwise:

More fervently expressive is the following example from the finale of the String Sextet, where the mostly stepwise melody takes on a larger-than-life quality reminiscent of the "crowd" tunes from Half-time and La Bagarre:

The more chromatic treatment of the motive seen in Julietta also has its antecedents in other Martinů works, as the following example from the String Quartet with Orchestra (1931) demonstrates. The pattern repeats continuously in a gradual crescendo, reaching a climax where it is heard in augmentation, chromatically descending:

Finally, smaller works just prior to Julietta show the composer experimenting with the expressive possibilities of the Julietta motive. Two dumky for piano solo are significant in this regard. The use of the title indicates the melancholy association the composer seems to have had with the motive at the time the opera was in gestation, as well as his apparent fondness for its expressive simplicity. The two dumky are in fact quite similar to each other; even the final chords are identical in pitch content. In the two examples below (Dumka No.1 followed by Dumka No. 2), the Julietta motive is quite evident:

A third striking example from this period is the following passage from the Lístek do památníku (Album Leaf) for piano, composed only a year before the opera:

The stylistic congruence between Julietta and earlier Martinů works exemplified by the presence of the Julietta motive still hardly accounts for its near obsessive usage in the wake of the opera’s completion and first performance. The gesture apparently becomes codified and assumes a personal significance for the composer, becoming a mannerism that inhabits the bulk of Martinů’s music written in America. The explanation lies at least partly in Martinů’s relationship with his pupil Vítĕzslava Kaprálová, who arrived in Paris to study composition with him in October 1937. Despite the fact that she was half his age they fell in love and experienced a very intense affair. Just after their first lessons together Martinů began work on his Concerto Grosso, which features the Julietta motive in the first movement combined with Svatý Václave (the five-note figure from version I - see chapter four). This is the only cantabile melody in the movement, and the espressivo indication is also telling:

It is possible that Martinů was already beginning to associate the Julietta motive with his personal feelings for Kaprálová as early as the time of the Concerto Grosso’s composition, but the connection becomes more apparent in the following year with the Tre ricercari. Martinů and Kaprálová worked on them together, and meanwhile preparations were being made for the premiere of Julietta in Prague. Alongside the numerous symbolic quotations of Svatý Václave in this work mentioned in chapter four, the Julietta motive also appears with particular potency, and seems to reflect the blossoming romance between teacher and pupil. In the first movement the Julietta motive appears significantly at the first sign of an espressivo marking, rather chromatic and rhythmically chaotic:

In the second movement, however, it occurs in the guise of a pastoral. The following passage is essentially a bucolic love duet between the flute and oboe, and it is possible to imagine one representing Martinů and the other Kaprálová. It extends to four descending notes but the kinship with the Julietta motive is nevertheless clear. As if to underscore its importance, the passage occurs three times during the movement, extremely unusual for Martinů in this type of continuously developing neo-baroque work:

Later in the movement the reference to the Julietta motive is even more explicit, and again the instrumentation (two pianos this time) seems symbolic. The passage, with numerous repetitions of the Julietta motive harmonized in sixths, is purely transitional, a moment of absolute repose which shimmers rapturously:

After the Ricercari were completed, Kaprálová began composing works that also included the Julietta motive, as if the motive had become a musical code for their mutual affection. She produced her own setting of the amorous text Martinů had used in his recently completed “Love Carol”, which itself is full of references to the Julietta motive. Here is the conclusion of Martinů’s vocal part:

("And who else, but my love!")

In Kaprálová’s version, she deliberately quotes a portion of the Martinů that includes the Julietta motive. In her re-harmonization of the same melody, she is less explicit in outlining the Julietta motive in the piano chords while the voice rests, but the reminiscence in any case remains in the vocal part itself. Here is the Martinů version, followed by Kaprálová’s parody:

Two other works composed by Kaprálová during this same period include the Variations sur le carillon de l’eglise Saint-Etienne-du-Mont and the Partita for piano and string orchestra. In the former work for piano solo, the theme is derived from the chimes of a church not far from Kaprálová’s flat in Paris at the time, and the bells could be heard outside the window of the apartment. By coincidence the pattern of chimes quite obviously resembled the Julietta motive, a fact that must have amused Martinů and Kaprálová. Here is the brief theme:

Kaprálová’s Partita, composed exactly at the time of Julietta’s triumphant premiere, also features the Julietta motive prominently. Their appearances stand out conspicuously from the otherwise impersonal neo-baroque language modeled after her teacher. In the first excerpt the treatment is more melodic, but also displays another characteristic apparently borrowed from Martinů - secondary ragtime. In the second example percussive patterns of the Julietta motive in the piano contrast with a more legato version in the first violins:

The relationship between Martinů and Kaprálová experienced many difficulties. Like that between Julietta and Michel, its unreality flew in the face of logic. Martinů was reluctant to leave his wife Charlotte, and there was a limit to Kaprálová’s patience with her married lover. Furthermore the age gap, while not insurmountable, was certainly a factor. A crisis ensued, and Kaprálova left on an extended holiday with another potential suitor. When Martinů composed the String Quartet No. 5 at this time, the personal anguish he was apparently experiencing found its way into the piece. Indeed, he even dedicated a sketch of the work to Kaprálová, in which numerous drawings and annotations dramatize the painful situation.

Not surprisingly, the Julietta motive emerges in the work in extremely marked contexts. It proves instructive to sample each movement for characteristic occurrences. In the first movement it appears in secondary ragtime with a familiar oscillating blues inflection. Against this unsettled texture (featuring a second overlapping ostinato), the viola expresses the Julietta motive in long notes:

Another agitated appearance can be seen in the second movement, an equally familiar chromatically descending figure:

In the scherzo the motive acts as an accompaniment in a grotesque danse macabre as pessimism continues to dominate:

Only in the finale does the Julietta motive finally emerge as the principal material, after which it undergoes a series of fascinating transformations. The melancholy tune in the first violin is obviously based upon it:

The return of a chromatically descending version adds to the desolate character, and the melody is altered to no longer explicitly outline the Julietta motive:

The three chromatically descending notes then develop into a lugubrious four-note ostinato that is not entirely regular:

Another additive technique is featured in this movement as the Julietta motive is extended by chromatic increments from its original three-note cell:

In the last measures of the quartet the Julietta motive leads to desperate, anguished chords, while the chromatically descending pattern can be seen one last time in the cello part in the penultimate bar:

The use of the Julietta motive to reflect anger and despair is more balanced with lyrical tendencies in Martinů’s next work, the Concertino for piano and orchestra. There are still grotesque permutations of the Julietta motive, as for example in the climax of the first movement:

But Martinů also introduces the Julietta motive as an absolutely characteristic syncopated tune with the familiar L-S-L pattern:

This returns in the finale as a cyclic gesture:

These lyrical passages show a more relaxed approach to the motive, and seem to reflect the fact that Martinů’s relationship with Kaprálová had regained some stability. Another conciliatory gesture is found the slow movement of this work, where Martinů seems to be loosely quoting the third variation from Kaprálová’s Variations sur le carillon. If deliberate, it is a touching example of reciprocal inspiration, from pupil to composer. Here is an excerpt from Kaprálová’s variation, followed by the slow movement of the Concertino:

The piano work Fenêtre sur le jardin, written in the summer of 1938 by Martinů while waiting for Kaprálová to return to Paris from her home in Moravia, also features the Julietta motive. But there is no need to exhaustively detail each occurrence, despite the motive’s obvious symbolic importance. Two examples from the Double Concerto will suffice to close this section of the discussion. In addition to the dramatic use of Svatý Václave in this work, the Julietta motive also appears to gain a universally expressive potency in this setting. It appears in the following disturbing passage form the first movement. As the polyphonic strands pursue their individual courses, the resulting vertical sonorities are excruciating in their dissonance:

The Julietta motive emerges transformed in the left hand of the piano solo featured in the Largo. Now the motive is inverted, taking on the shape of a chromatically ascending three-note figure. This is the motive that returns urgently at the end of the finale. Here, it accompanies a lugubrious melody where the original Julietta motive is prominent as well:

In January of 1939, several months after completing the Double Concerto, Martinů gave Kaprálová a piano sketch of Julietta, confirming the composer’s perceived connection between his pupil and the title character of his opera. The sketch is touchingly inscribed with reminiscences of experiences the two shared. As Martinů wrote later to Kaprálová, these memories no longer seemed real in the wake of the horrors of war.

It is not surprising that as a musical symbol the Julietta motive seems to become increasingly tied to the upheaval caused by world events. Kaprálová eventually married Jiří Mucha, son of the painter Alfons Mucha, who had collaborated with Martinů on the text of his Field Mass. But composer and pupil remained very close even so, and Martinů was devastated by her sudden death from tubersulosis in June of 1940 at the age of 25. At the same time he and Charlotte had barely escaped the Nazis, fleeing Paris for the south of France only days before the Germans occupied the city. In these dire circumstances, while waiting for exit visas and the promise of a new life in America, Martinů composed the Fantasy and Toccata for Czech pianist Rudolf Firkušný, who had recently broken the news to Martinů of Kaprálová’s death. Firkušný’s connection to Julietta was significant, for he had attended the premiere in Prague and knew how much the opera meant to Martinů.

The Fantasy and Toccata is Martinů’s first composition after Kaprálová’s death, and the music does not hide the fact. In the first bars the Julietta chords are wedded to the Julietta motive (descending B-F#-E) in a single, obviously symbolic gesture:

Later in the Fantasy movement the Julietta motive is featured as a lyrical oasis amidst much dissonant writing. The excerpt below is typical, as it begins vulnerably but soon increases in intensity until, in subsequent measures, the lyrical element (and the Julietta motive) disintegrates. Both hands feature the motive, with the left hand in diminution:

When Martinů finally arrived safely in America on March 31, 1941, the ghost of Julietta (and, presumably, Kaprálová) continued to haunt him. The score to his beloved opera lay hidden somewhere in Europe and like so many of his scores it would be inaccessible until after the end of the war. When the composer was asked to write an homage to Paderewski who had recently died, he responded with a Mazurka. But this piece, Martinů’s first to be written in America, is inhabited by Czech, not Polish, ghosts. The Julietta motive appears in mazurka rhythm, accompanied by the related, rising three-note chromatic figure from the Double Concerto in the left hand:

In the Concerto da Camera for violin, piano, timpani and strings, composed soon afterward, the Julietta motive is heard very conspicuously in a powerfully symbolic passage. The orchestra here is all octatonic, with various overlapping ostinati, except for the double bass, which disagrees (see circled notes). Later the second violins also depart from the octatonic scale in order to play the Julietta motive chromatically. All of this creates a tonally muddy effect in a very uncharacteristic passage of noisy chaos. From this utter breakdown of musical coherence the Julietta motive emerges in the solo violin, in minor mode - just as it initially appeared in the opera, but now repeated almost endlessly:

This ray of optimism, seeming to rise out of the ashes in the excerpt above, shines much brighter in the finale, where the Julietta motive is transformed into a cheerful, syncopated dance tune:

Another memorable use of the Julietta motive in an early American work occurs in the somber slow movement of the Piano Quartet. Here, polyphony in the string trio (piano reduction) is evident but somewhat minimized by parallel descending motion and mostly triadic vertical formulations:

Finally, Martinů wrote a third Dumka for piano during this period, recalling the two works composed alongside Julietta in Paris. Of the three this is the most moving, with the Julietta chords appearing alongside the Julietta motive in a very bittersweet musical remembrance:

If all of the evidence cited above is not conclusive proof of Martinů’s symbolic association of the Julietta motive with Kaprálová and the life-changing events that brought an end to his years in Paris, one last work should settle the question. This is the Adagio for piano written in 1957 in memory of Kaprálova and her father Václav Kaprál. 1957 was the tenth anniversary of Kaprál’s death, and Kaprálová’s mother asked Martinů to write a piece in memory of her daughter and husband, especially recalling the summer of 1938 which they all spent together at the Kaprál’s residence at Tři Studnĕ. After this idyllic holiday Martinů never again set foot in his native country.

The Adagio begins with the Julietta motive in the left hand, descending chromatically, a clear metaphor of death and loss and the same variant originally used to depict the lost souls in Julietta:

After a dramatic arrival on G minor recalling the composer’s Memorial to Lidice, the Julietta motive rings out in major, but no less painfully. It is a desperate and lonely gesture, surrounded by rests:

The Julietta motive continues to dominate the musical material of this one-page work, and is notably transformed in a tender, almost pastoral passage, once again appearing cadentially:

The sense of tragedy proves inescapable, however, and the motive returns in its chromatic guise to close the work.

As musical symbols the Julietta chords and the Julietta motive, alongside Svatý Václave, are essential aspects to Martinů’s music and as such demand our attention and contemplation. The myriad cross-references and connections that resonate within the composer’s oeuvre build a more complete picture of his aesthetic, and help to explain why his music sounds the way it does. Thus, when a listener hears these musical trademarks in the first violins at the beginning of the First Symphony and recognizes its symbolic significance, the listening experience is that much more enriched:

When a variant of the above melody returns in the finale to cap the entire symphony, the symbols are able to resonate specifically, and emotionally, within the listener:

For Martinů such passages could be seen to represent, as the baritone soloist declares at the conclusion of The Opening of the Wells, "the keys to home":

Introduction
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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