Martinu and the Symphony
by Michael Crump
Publisher: Toccata Press
MusicWeb International £47.50
This is the first book in English on this topic intended to help the music-lover to a deeper understanding of the Symphonies and orchestral music of Martinu. The author identifies the elements of his melodic, harmonic and instrumental style which produce Martinu's very personal vibrant and organic symphonic manner. The book is illustrated with almost 200 musical examples, taken not only from the Symphonies but also from Martinu's other works for large orchestra.
The title of this book may be slightly misleading, but only in the sense that what you actually get here is an examination of not only his Symphonies but also many of his orchestral pieces. Michael Crump attempts here to demonstrate the main components of Martinu’s style using mainly the Symphonies, as they “represent a distillation of his mature musical personality.” Some Martinu fans, such as myself, will be familiar with Milos Safranek’s biography of Martinu, the first version of which appeared in 1946. The content of these two books differs markedly in the relative balance between biographical detail and musical analysis. Crump concentrates primarily on the music, integrating relevant biographical detail where it illuminates and informs our understanding of the music, within a logical chronological order. As a comparison, Safranek describes the Sixth Symphony in 4 pages, whereas Crump allows an entire chapter of 44 pages for this late masterpiece. Another source to which Crump pays particular tribute is Harry Halbreich’s book Werkverzeichnisund Biografie, Schott, Mainz 2006 (unfortunately not available in English), which he regards as “indispensable” when studying Martinu’s music.
Although I came to this book already familiar with the Symphonies and later orchestral pieces, it came as rather a surprise to learn here that Martinu produced so many orchestral works, some yet unpublished, early in his career. Crump describes these early works with such clarity and enthusiasm that my appetite was whetted to hear at least some of them, such as an Untitled piece (H90), the Little Dance Suite (H123) and Passing Midnight (H133), the last of these running to 40 minutes! Surely Naxos or Supraphon can be persuaded to record these pieces?
Chapters 4 – 6 are packed with fascinating detail, where Crump discusses some essential elements of Martinu’s compositions: octatonic scales, direct quotations and inflections from Moravian folksong and sequences developed from sets of oscillating major/minor cells. This is not a book to be read at one sitting. The style is easy and readable but his analyses of the Symphonies and late works are detailed: to gain most benefit you will need a set of CDs and the scores. For Crump, Martinu’s music has immediate appeal but a “deceptive simplicity”. In his analysis of my own favourite work, the Fourth Symphony, I was delighted to discover that he shared my enthusiasm for the superb Largo with its “stratospheric strings”, shifting colours and rhapsodic quality, while discussing some less enthusiastic views of this movement by other writers, such as Robert Layton, who regard as inappropriate its “lush overtones”. He uses the Largo to illustrate how Martinu uses keys within his works but not as tonic keys in the traditional sense as tonal centres. The first three quarters of this Largo are in B flat, then it moves to G minor/D major for the last quarter; B flat has clearly been the predominant key but in no sense has it been any kind of tonic key, in music permeated by what Crump aptly calls “chromatic restlessness”.
Michael Crump has no time for “lazy journalism” which decrees that Martinu is permanently damned as “prolific” and “uneven” and retorts that although his output is numerous, including 14 operas and 15 ballets, many of these works are brief. He asserts that Martinu was no more uneven than most composers, producing a significant body of works of lasting quality, surely the only test of a great composer? I readily agree with Crump’s view and offer as proof my own shortlist of works of high quality: Symphonies 3 – 6, Double Concerto, Fourth Piano Concerto, Rhapsody Concerto, Frescoes, Parables and Toccata e Due Canzoni. I am sure that readers will be happy to add to this list, which is far from comprehensive.
This is the third book in Toccata’s Symphonic Studies Series, following previously published titles on the Schubert Symphonies (Brian Newbould) and Vaughan Williams (Lionel Pike). I also note with keen personal interest that in the Toccata pipeline is a full-length analysis of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony by Steven Coburn. If these books are of a similar depth and quality to this excellent and thoroughly researched book on Martinu, they will be well worth investigating. Michael Crump penetrates deep beneath the surface of this uplifting and positive, yet bafflingly neglected, composer. This book is now an essential item for any serious music library and it contains a helpful technical index to aid research.
Toccata Press states its intention of “tackling important subjects that other publishers have failed to address.” This should provide Toccata with a considerable challenge as there are many other symphonists to suggest for future books. Might I propose in the first instance: Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Arnold and Panufnik?
Excellent and thoroughly researched.
1. The early years (15 - 50)
2. The 1920s in Paris (51 - 75)
3. Last years in Paris (77 - 98)
4. The melodic style (101 – 126)
5. The harmonic style ( 127 - 150)
6. Texture and orchestration (151 – 176)
7 – 11. Symphonies 1 – 5 (177 – 352)
12. Between the Symphonies (353 - 364)
13. Fantaisies Symphoniques (365 – 408)
14. Beyond the symphonies (409 – 460)
15. Conclusion and Appendices (467 – 494)
Bibliography, Index of works, Technical Index, General Index (495 – 512)