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Martinů in Paris: A Synthesis of Musical Styles and Symbols


Erik Anthony Entwistle


Although the world has passed into the new millennium and left the twentieth century behind, its musical legacy will remain a fertile source of inspiration, and even discovery, for centuries to come. One artist whose oeuvre reflects much of the diversity of musical achievement in the first half of the century is Bohuslav Martinů, now acknowledged as the greatest modern Czech composer after Leoš Janáček. Yet Martinů still maintains an uncertain status in the Western musical pantheon, and to many remains an enigmatic figure. The images of the composer’s childhood spent atop the tower of St. James Church in Polička and of his final resting place on a lonely Swiss hillside emphasize a Martinů who lived apart, in a world unto himself. These visually poetic bookends encompass a persistent Martinů mythos that favors a certain view of the composer - at odds with society, hopelessly shy, isolated and solitary. Like all myths there is a measure of truth behind it, but in Martinů’s case there is much more to consider. When viewed from a more balanced perspective, Martinů’s life and work presents us with an opportunity to examine vital questions concerning the aesthetics, reception and significance of art music, which both acts as a composer’s personal manifesto and reflects the society and times in which it was born. With Martinů the ramifications are particularly fascinating, for it was in the alternately heady and sobering climate of Paris, where the composer resided between the wars, that he first began to address these questions decisively.

What began as a three-month visit to study with Albert Roussel lengthened into a residency of seventeen years, and Martinů’s prolonged stay in Paris increasingly begged seminal questions about his music: was it in fact “Czech” or “French”, or, in broader terms, national or cosmopolitan? Reviewers and critics invariably addressed the notion of national identity when discussing Martinů’s music from this period, as did the composer himself, and it has remained an obvious frame of reference ever since. The issue of nationalism is of course a thorny one, particularly when viewed from today’s post-modern perspective, but for Martinů and many of his contemporaries the concept remained a valid one.

There is no question that Martinů’s relocation had far-reaching artistic consequences, and that it arguably represents the single, most important turning point in his life. Martinů was not alone in his susceptibility to the siren song emanating from the French capital. The following words of Rudolf Firkušný echo the sentiments of the many artists and musicians who flocked to Paris in the twenties and thirties: "After the first World War, for us France became the new world. It seemed that every one of my peers had but one ambition, to go to France and to see Paris." Czechoslovakia, of course, was only one source for the burgeoning expatriate population in interwar Paris. Short- and long-term residents from foreign lands included such luminaries as Stravinsky, Hemingway, Copland, Gershwin, Picasso, and Prokofiev. Paris was destined to become a well-known focal point for artistic endeavor during a period that was "so chaotic and so full of promise."

Martinů had in fact already experienced Paris in 1919 while on tour with the Czech National Theater Orchestra under Karel Kovařovic. He was completely captivated by the French capital and hoped to return in the near future. Adding to the allure of Paris itself were the personal reasons and expectations that informed the Martinů’s eventual decision to relocate. These are closely tied to the artistic goals and aspirations addressed by the composer in the following excerpt from his so-called "American diaries" during the Second World War, in a section entitled, "Something about that French influence":

What impelled me to get to know French culture were more serious considerations. Instinctively I felt, even when I was still young and couldn’t analyze or think clearly, that there were things, opinions, that are served up to us, that do not and cannot find an echo in our national spirit, in our national Czech expression, and that there are things artificially preserved, which divert our natural spiritual development into a domain that is not native to our Czech expression, that becomes a caricature and needlessly exhausts our energies. Perhaps I have exaggerated everything, but this dissatisfaction was being continually justified, although a large part of past and present creative output confirmed my view. In short, I saw that our natural expression and character has a greater bias toward concretization and logical thought than various mysteriously involved metaphysical systems, which were crammed into us and which, of course, seemed to us much more valuable and deeper, despite the fact that the depth was obviously verbal and, in reality, "on the surface", without proof and without weight, at least for me. I also felt that such a view was not exactly in keeping with the spiritual manifestations of our great people, among whom I always found a concreteness of thought, a healthy sentimentality and a creative attitude that was healthily emotional rather than mysteries and problems. And so I went to France not to seek there my salvation, but to confirm my opinions... What I went to France in quest of was not Debussy, nor Impressionism, nor musical expression, but the real foundations on which Western Culture rests and which, in my opinion, conforms much more to our proper national character than a maze of conjectures and problems.

At its core the passage is clearly a slap in the face to the musical establishment in Prague, and reflects the artistic crisis that Martinů was experiencing at that time. The composer here is unequivocal in his condemnation of musical currents “not native” to the Czech capital but nonetheless entrenched there. Martinů rails against the trends of expressionism and post-romanticism, which in his point of view are foreign to the musical characteristics of the Czech people (he tactfully omits the fact that they are of principally Germanic origin). The last sentence sums up the passage well, with Martinů boldly equating the national character of the Czechs with the “real foundations” of Western culture.

Such polemics, taken out of context, might seem to border on the rabidly nationalistic and myopic, although such sentiments were the norm in Hapsburg-dominated Bohemia and Moravia (one could also quote Janáček’s writings here as well). However, delivered in hindsight after Martinů’s experience in Paris, the composer’s statements gain credibility and perspective, if not a measure of irony. For equally in Prague and Paris, Martinů struggled with his status as an outsider. Indeed, the fact that he maintained personal and musical ties to home while residing in Paris is one of the most intriguing aspects of this period, since it reflects in some measure the duality of his existence. Still, it is apparent from his own words that, musically speaking, Martinů felt profoundly out of place in his homeland, and that by contrast the welcoming metropolis of Paris seemed to offer limitless artistic freedom - an ideal alternative to the stifling atmosphere of Prague with its institutionalized musical totalitarianism. Yet in Paris Martinů would face the equally formidable obstacles of physical isolation, owing largely to the language barrier, and chronic destitution, which he had little hope of transcending.

Of course specific circumstances, and not merely ideological considerations, also influenced Martinů’s decision to relocate and later remain in Paris. Apart from the composer’s own writings, the most valuable primary biographical source comes from Martinů’s lifelong friend Miloš Šafránek, who discusses at length the issues behind Martinů’s move to Paris, often relaying information from the composer himself in his two invaluable biographies. It is not the intention to paraphrase these here, but to comment on how this momentous change has been presented in the biographical context, and to attempt to shed further light on the issues in question. In one particularly memorable passage Šafránek offers the following storybook account:

And one day in Prague, while playing Roussel’s symphonic piece Poème de la forêt, he suddenly realized where his loyalties lay. At once Martinů’s inner struggles came to an end, and he knew that he must go to Paris...

But if the composer did indeed experience an epiphany while performing Roussel, the sudden decision to relocate was arguably as much an act of running away as it was a planned pilgrimage to a new artistic milieu. For, as Šafránek’s account continues, “In September 1923 [Martinů] left Prague for Paris, still oppressed by various problems and full of contradictions.” Here Šafránek is being more realistic, as the "problems" he hints at were numerous - indeed, there is little doubt that the 33-year-old composer had reached an impasse in his musical career in Prague.

Although the founding of the Republic of Czechoslovakia in the aftermath of the Great War promised new artistic opportunities in a climate of optimism and pride, Martinů’s path as a composer was proving at best uncertain. Several performances in 1919 of Martinů’s earnest and full-blooded Czech Rhapsody, a cantata for baritone solo, mixed chorus, orchestra and organ, had put the composer on Prague’s musical map. Indeed, President Masaryk was in attendance at one of the performances. That same year, though, Czech Philharmonic conductor Václav Talich rejected Martinů’s Small Dance Suite at the rehearsal stage, delivering a blow to the composer’s confidence. Also during this period Martinů had been relegated to the post of second fiddle in the Czech Philharmonic - a far cry from Polička’s hopes that its native son would follow in the footsteps of the famed violin virtuoso Jan Kubelík. When Martinů finally managed to get his symphonic poem Modrá hodina (Blue Hour) performed by the Philharmonic in 1923, critics responded by dismissively labeling him a "French" composer, adding a dimension of irony to the situation given that the composer was soon to leave for Paris.

Despite these setbacks Martinů could well have remained in his homeland, since in fact Prague was becoming much less provincial since the end of the war and was musically coming into its own. But there were institutional difficulties as well. The earlier humiliation of Martinů’s expulsion from the Prague Conservatory for “incorrigible negligence” was now being compounded by his obstinacy in Josef Suk’s composition class, in which he routinely failed to complete the required compositional exercises. Martinů once again found himself unable to work in the structured environment of the Prague Conservatory. If anything, attendance at Suk’s master class underscored to Martinů his need to pursue a different direction, and his own failure to achieve significant success in Prague only fueled his desire to start over in a new environment, despite the dissenting voices of Suk and Talich.

Although he had once rather naively proclaimed to Suk that above all he wanted to compose like Debussy, Martinů soon came to the conclusion that works such as Suk’s post-impressionist symphonic poem Ripening were a culmination of an epoch, and that it was no longer possible to continue along the same path. One consequence of this realization was the ballet composed in secret while in Suk’s class, Who is the Most Powerful in the World, whose parodic use of various popular dances remarkably looks forward to his Paris style and already demonstrates a radically changing aesthetic.

Why, then, did a work such as Roussel’s Poème de la forêt supposedly reveal to Martinů where his loyalties lay? For it is a distinctly impressionistic work, a kind of landlubber’s version of La Mer dating all the way back to 1906 and hardly reflective of Roussel’s more recent compositions. Surely this is one of the “contradictions” to which Šafránek refers but does not explicitly state. The suggestion that this single work inspired Martinů’s pilgrimage seems bizarre, considering that the composer had already ended his love affair with impressionism with his symphonic poem Modrá hodina and ballet Istar. Nonetheless, Roussel more recent scores would exert a decisive influence on Martinů once he had arrived in Paris and established contact with his French counterpart.

There were two additional circumstances that gave impetus to Martinů’s decision. First was the death of his father, which came as a severe blow. He was not as close to his mother and was anxious to escape her domineering presence. At nearly the same time he received a modest stipend awarded for three months of study abroad from the Ministry of Education, and so everything came together to precipitate Martinů’s departure. Thus, Martinů’s decision to leave for Paris did not yet have the trappings of a momentous change, since the visit was initially to last only three months.

If there is inevitably some speculation involved in ferreting out the composer’s motives for going to Paris, then, what is clear is that Martinů’s eyes (and ears) were opened by his experiences there, and that all of the other factors at least reinforced a decision to stay. Paris evidently offered the best environment for Martinů to develop his technique and experiment stylistically in a path towards artistic maturation, and by examining his life in Paris and his early Parisian works it becomes apparent that the composer enthusiastically embraced the challenge set before him.

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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