Bohuslav Martinů

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Born: 8 December 1890 — Policka — Czech Republic
Died: 28 August 1959 — Liestal — Switzerland
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Music

Catalog Of Works

A complete catalog of Martinů‘s works is given in the Brian Large biography. Presented here is a statistical summary.

  • 16 Operas
  • 15 Ballets
  • 30 Orchestral, Including 6 Symphonies
  • 4 Small orchestra
  • 6 Concerti for orchestra
  • 11 Keyboard concerti, Including 4 Piano Concerti
  • 16 Concerti with violin, Including 2 Violin Concerti and 2 Concerti for Two Violins
  • 1 Concerti with viola
  • 4 Concerti with cello, Including 2 Cello Concerti
  • 7 Other concerti, Including 2 Concertini for Piano Trio; and a Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Cello, Oboe, Bassoon and Chamber Orchestra
Chamber works
  • 7 Duos
  • 15 Trios
  • 16 Quartets Including 7 String Quartets
  • 6 Quintets
  • 4 Sextets
  • 3 Septets
  • 3 Nonets
  • 18 Violin and piano
  • 9 Cello and piano
  • 1 Viola and piano
  • 1 Flute and piano
  • 1 Clarinet and piano
  • 1 Trumpet and piano
  • 80 Piano
  • 3 Two pianos
  • 3 Harpsichord
  • 1 Organ
  • 86 Songs for voice and piano
  • 2 Songs for voice and orhestra
  • 3 Melodramas
  • 11 Unaccompanied choral
  • 12 Choral with instrumental accompaniment
  • 5 Cantatas and oratotios with orchestra
  • 16 Film and incidental music

417 compositions in total.

(Contribution by Jerome Morris <jpj1776(at)netpath.net>.)

Life

Bohuslav Martinů Brief

Bohuslav Martinů — (1890–1959)
assembled by Jerome Morris

(This biographical sketch is based on information in the book Martinů by Brian Large. Persons interested in Martinů‘s music are urged to purchase this excellent biography. In addition, information about Martinů can be obtained on the web pages of the Bohuslav Martinů Foundation, which also includes a brief biography. Other material is available on The Classical Net and HNH International.)

Youth In Policka, Czechoslovakia (1890–1907)

Bohuslav Martinů was born on December 8, 1890 in Policka, Czechoslovakia in the Bohemian–Moravian highlands. His father was the town keeper whose main duty was to watch for fires from the small living space provided for his family above the belfry in the tower of the Church Of Saint James. In these crowded surroundings, Bohuslav, a frail child, lived and viewed the kaleidoscopic world below.

At the age of six Bohuslav, shy and withdrawn, was given a three quarter sized violin. He began to take music lessons, learning to play several stringed instruments and gaining knowledge of the clarinet and flute. His progress was rapid. He became a member of a student quartet and then of the Policka string orchestra. He also began to compose, and, during the long winter evenings in the tower, developed a passion for reading books.

In 1902, when Bohuslav was about twelve, the Martinů family moved to a small house where they lived for the next nineteen years. Bohuslav spent most of his time practicing chamber music in the attic with friends. At the age of fifteen, he became the leader of the Policka String Quartet and made his debut as a soloist at an inn in a nearby village.

In 1906, funds were collected by public donation, to send the talented Bohuslav to Prague. While in Prague he heard Smetana’s Ma Vlast for the first time and was electrified. His own composition, The Three Riders, so impressed a local conductor that it was arranged for him to sit for the entrance examination to the Conservatoire. There he so impressed the director that he was immediately offered a place in the violin class.

The Student And Young Composer In Prague (1907–1923)

In Prague the young Martinů was overwhelmed. Coming from his previous sheltered existence into the musical richness of Prague made it difficult for him to adjust to the rigor of his academic studies. Bridling at the narrow discipline, he began playing in amateur orchestras and, as a result, was expelled from the Conservatoire, although later he was reinstated. His second year was no better. He began to acquire the habit of walking through the streets, browsing through second hand bookshops. He failed to get satisfactory marks in the examinations of 1908, was transferred to another teacher and, again, failed his examinations the following year.

When Martinů returned to Policka in 1909 for summer vacation, his sponsors decided to give him one more chance. He returned to Prague, but this time attended the Organ School, which was the only institution in Prague that taught composition. However, he faired no better than before, and in the spring of 1910 was expelled from the Conservatoire.

Through the generosity of his parents Martinů was able to return to Prague where he hoped to devote himself to composition. Prague from 1909 to 1912 was a musical whirlpool where the various streams of European music mixed, and Czech composers were striving to gain recognition for a characteristically Czech idiom. However, it was the music of Debussy that most influenced Martinů. Before the end of 1910, he had produced no fewer than twenty five works, often getting up as early as five AM to work on his compositions. At the urging of his parents he enrolled for the State Teaching Examination, but, living in a world of his own, he made no adequate preparation. He failed his first attempt and barely passed his second a year later in 1912, but he continued to compose. During 1912 he produced over thirty pieces, which, if nothing else, demonstrated his facility to write quickly.

In 1914, at the outbreak of war, Martinů returned to Policka where he earned a living by teaching violin in the municipal school, gave private lessons, founded a student group and continued to compose.

Due to the war, the Czech Philharmonic in Prague was experiencing personnel shortages, and Martinů was invited to join the orchestra on a part time basis. He found the experience to be a rewarding introduction to the functioning of a symphony orchestra and to how specific instrumental sonorities were achieved. Meanwhile, he continued to compose, and was rewarded for his efforts with a public performance in 1919 of his one hundred and eleventh composition, the patriotic cantata Czech Rhapsody.

Back in Policka, Martinů, now in his thirtieth year, had one hundred and fourteen compositions to his name, but was without means or connections. Nevertheless, he was recommended to join the National Theater Orchestra, and in 1919 went with it on a tour that included Paris. Though he had to return to Czechoslovakia, his experience in Paris was shattering and left him with the resolve to return.

Martinů spent the next four years with Czech Philharmonic, where he would study scores in the Philharmonic library. He also found the time during this period to produce sixteen works, some of which were performed by the orchestra. His ballet, Istar, was performed in 1923 and helped to solidify his reputation as a "French" composer.

Martinů enrolled in Suk’s composition class at the Conservatoire, but, as before, was unsuccessful. The unexpected death of his father brought the studies to a close, and Martinů decided to leave Czechoslovakia and go to Paris. In 1923 he was awarded a small grant by the Ministry Of Education for study abroad.

Apprenticeship In Paris (1923–1930)

Martinů had intended to stay in Paris only a few months, but he was so enchanted with the city that he could not tear himself away. He had little money, almost no ability in the French language, and no clear idea of how he was to subsist. He was shy, withdrawn and oblivious to either comfort or security. When his savings were exhausted he had to return to Policka in 1924, but had a stroke of luck when his application for further study in Paris was granted by the Ministry of Culture.

Martinů‘s return to Paris put him into the mainstream of cultural thought. He was somewhat taken aback to discover that Impressionism was out of vogue and that contemporary music was in a state of transition. For Martinů it was a period of assimilation, and his powers of adaptation were stretched to their limits. In 1924 his musical outlook suddenly changed due to the music of Igor Stravinsky. He responded with an orchestral rondo called Half-time, and it marked a turning point in his career.

During the depression years there was little money to earn from composition, so Martinů made what he could from playing in dance groups. Having acquired an old upright piano, he began to compose. Over the years he had grown to admire the music of Albert Roussel, and in 1923 overcame his shyness and approached Roussel for instruction in composition. Eventually a friendship developed as Roussel took a paternal interest in his thirty three year old pupil, advising and encouraging him in his career. It was at this time the Martinů wrote La Bagarre celebrating Charles Lindbergh’s landing and reception after his transatlantic flight, and, after approaching Serge Koussevitzky with a request that he perform it, was rewarded in 1927 when Koussevitzky premiered it with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Martinů was beginning to make a name for himself. In 1926 he was offered a commission to write music for a ballet, but declined because he did not feel ready to undertake such a task. However, his works were being heard in concerts and recitals designed to exhibit the music of young composers, and his scores began to appear in printed collections.

Although Martinů was growing as a composer, he was still poor. What little money he earned was spent on books. When he was not composing or reading, he would spend hours strolling on the banks of the Seine, observing the life there, browsing the stalls and sampling everything. He rose early, ate with irregularity and spent up to ten hours per day composing.

At this stage of his development Martinů was an experimenter, composing various works for the theater including two ballets without dancers. He achieved his first popular success with music for the ballet La Revue de cuisine in which the dancers impersonated cooking utensils. This was his jazz period and he wrote several works in this exotic idiom. In 1928 he wrote an opera in the Czech language, The Soldier And The Dancer, which is still considered to be a successful theater piece. Between 1925 and 1930 Martinů composed nine works for the stage, most of them fashionable and experimental, but they brought him little success.

The Mature Composer In Paris (1931–1940)

In 1931 Martinů married Charlotte Quennehen, a remarkable young French girl who was making a poor living in a dressmaker’s shop. She instinctively recognized Martinů‘s exceptional qualities and became his principal means of support. She saved him from squalor, helped him master French and went out of her way to protect him from interruption while he was composing.

In a three year period Martinů composed twenty two pieces for chamber ensembles in a wide variety of instrumental combinations. Among these compositions were the String Quartet No. 3 (1929); the Piano Trio No.1 (1930); Sextet for flute, oboe, clarinet and piano (1929); String sextet (1932); Serenades for various wind and string combinations; and the six instrumental miniatures, Les Rondes. He also composed a tuneful and danceable folk ballet, Spalicek (Little Block), which premiered to great success in Prague in 1933, and brought him the Bedrich Smetana Prize for Composition in 1934. This was followed by the opera Hry o Marii (The Plays Of Mary), a cycle of mystery plays, which premiered in Brno to great acclaim in 1935, and brought him the Czechoslovak State Prize for Composition.

Martinů‘s reputation was growing. He composed two operas for radio broadcasting in 1935; an operatic burlesque, Divadlo za brabou (Theatre Beyond the Gate); and a folk cantata, Kytice (Bouquet). He also began writing works inspired by Baroque forms: Cello Concerto No. 1 (1930/39); Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra; Serenade for chamber orchestra; Partita (Suite No. 1) for strings (1932); Sinfonia Concertante (1932); and two Concertinos for Piano Trio and String Orchestra (Nos. 1 and 2). In 1934 Martinů returned to the symphony orchestra with Inventions which laid the foundations for his six symphonies and for the opera Juliette, one of his finest scores. Other compositions included the Piano Concerto No. 2 (1934) and the Harpsichord Concerto (1935).

The threat of Nazi Germany was now looming. When Martinů left Czechoslovakia after a summertime visit in 1938, he realized that he would never again see his family or native land. Back in Paris he found it hard to concentrate and moved to the peaceful countryside nearby. He then accepted an invitation to spend time in Switzerland, and while there completed his Double Concerto for two string orchestras, an intensely disturbing work. Returning to Paris, Martinů found it hard to compose as the specter of war swept across Europe to inevitably engulf his native land.

With the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939 Martinů realize that his only hope might be in going to the United States. He enlisted in the Army, but, due to his age, was not called up. He composed the Polni mse (Field Mass) as an anti-war protest. He traveled to Switzerland to hear his Double Concerto performed. When he returned he was dismayed to learn that his music had been banned in Czechoslovakia. When the fall of Paris was imminent, Martinů and his wife, with no money and one suitcase, left Paris and, after traveling on foot, wound up in Aix-en-Provence.

During this dark period Martinů produced one of his finest piano pieces, the Fantaisie and Toccata (1940). When he learned that he had been granted a French exit permit he composed the lively Sinfonietta Giocosa for piano and orchestra, and the Sonata da Camera for cello and small orchestra. Finally, all of his papers were in order, and in 1941 the Martinůs set sail for New York.

America (1941–1953)

In 1941 Martinů arrived in the United States, penniless, self-effacing, with four manuscripts and no other evidence of his gifts. He was ill, exhausted, low-spirited, and restless. Composition was next to impossible. After three months he could stand New York no longer and, eventually, found lodgings in Jamaica. He began to learn English by going to the cinema, seeing the same film over and over.

After a year in Jamaica, Martinů began to compose again, but not as an experimentalist. He was beginning to think about symphonies and concertos into which he could pour his life’s experiences. He reworked the Sinfonietta Giocosa and revised the Suite Concertante. He wrote the Concerto da Camera (1947); the Concerto for Two Pianos (1943), one of his major accomplishments; Violin Concerto No. 2 (1943) and Cello Concerto No. 2 (1944/45). As each new concerto was premiered by a major American orchestra, Martinů‘s reputation grew.

Through his champion, Serge Koussevitzky, Martinů was invited to take up a teaching post at the Berkshire Music Center. It was there, in his fifty first year, that he finished his First Symphony. In 1943 his Symphony No. 2 appeared, in 1944 the Symphony No. 3, in 1945 the Symphony No. 4 and in 1946 the Symphony No. 5. However, five years were to lapse before the Symphony No. 6 appeared in 1951. In addition, the symphonic poems, The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca (1955) and The Parables (1957/58), could well be called his Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8. These eight symphonies are among the greatest of the twentieth century’s symphonic works.

In 1945 Czechoslovakia was liberated. Martinů found that his brother and sister were safe, but his mother had died the previous year. Undecided as to whether to return, he took some time off at Cape Cod and wrote the Czech Rhapsody for violin and piano, and a cycle of sixteen Polkas and Etudes for solo piano. When he returned to New York he had received a letter offering him the Professorship in the Master Class of Composition at the Prague Conservatoire, but when this didn’t pan out he accepted a temporary position at the Berkshire Summer Music School at Tanglewood.

However, an unfortunate accident occurred while he was at Tanglewood. One night he fell from a second floor balcony and, as a result, was in a coma for two days. It was discovered that he had serious head and ear injuries. He had difficulties with his balance, buzzing noises in his head and partial deafness in his right ear. Worst of all, he had difficulty in concentration on composing.

In the three years following his illness there was a decline in both the quality and the quantity of Martinů‘s output. His wife, Charlotte, found her husband to be a changed person; more withdrawn, irritable and troubled by the slightest noise. Unable to meet the mounting medical bills, she was forced to take up her old employment, and had to work in a New York garment factory for the next five years in order to make ends meet.

With the establishment of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia in 1948, Martinů reluctantly decided to remain in North America, and accepted a position as Visiting Professor Of Composition at Princeton. The works he composed during this period include Three Czech Dances for two pianos (1949); the Sinfonia Concertante for solo violin, oboe bassoon, cello and orchestra (1949); Sinfonietta La Jolla (1950) and the Piano Trio No. 2 (1950).

Martinů was becoming recognized as a forceful figure on the American musical scene, but despite this he felt ill at ease with the American way of life. Books were still his best friends, but it was only in composition that he found peace of mind, and work after work began to appear. In the 1950’s he wrote several television operas; the Rhapsody Concerto for viola and orchestra, the Cello Sonata No. 3; a Concerto for Piano, violin and Orchestra; and the Fantaisies symphoniques (Symphony No. 6).

Europe and America (1953–1959)

In 1953 Martinů returned to Europe. He wrote a new opera in Italian, Mirandolina, then a cantata, The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of his most powerful compositions, followed by Otvirani studanek (The Opening of the Wells), The Legend of the Smoke from Potato Fires and Mikes from the Mountains. In Zbojnicke pisne (Brigand Songs) he produced a collection that was the pinnacle of part-song writing.

In 1955 Martinů returned to North America to take up a teaching post at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia which he eventually resigned. He then obtained a situation at the American Academy in Rome. While there he composed two orchestral pieces, The Rock and The Parables. These were followed by the Fantasia Concerto, a Harpsichord Sonata, and Estampes. During this time Martinů was working on his tragic opera, The Greek Passion, and for four years his entire life centered around its composition. It was a deeply religious work that contained some of the most powerful pages Martinů ever wrote, and it was his last major work.

In 1958 Martinů was found to have stomach cancer. He lived with the pain for a year, and died on August 28, 1959. His body was buried in Switzerland.

A Personal Appreciation

Bohuslav Martinů was one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century. He was not influential in the way that Bartók or Stravinsky were influential. He was never really popular.

With over four hundred works to his credit, he was one of the most prolific composers of his day. He composed at an incredible rate. The Concerto for Flute, Violin and Orchestra, completed in ten days, was not an unusual feat. He almost never revised a score. His output covers a wide variety of media: symphonies, ballets, operas, chamber works, songs, choral works and instrumental pieces. He was not an innovator, and worked in isolation. His importance is almost entirely due to the quality of his music. He was the consummate musician, a dedicated artist, a deep thinker and thoroughly Czech.

Martinů‘s compositions reflect an accumulation of the techniques and styles that were developing in European music during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was both a classicist and a romanticist, and, yet, was definitely contemporary. His music exhibits a variety of styles and compositional methods. Variously, it features neo-classical linearity, romantic harmony, rhythmic flexibility and a unique sense of melodic invention; but always it is recognizably Martinů. When he was young he was something of an experimentalist, yet he never adopted serialist techniques. Of the influences operating on his music he has said:

"In my music I have been influenced by many things but most of all by the national Music of Czechoslovakia, by the music of Debussy and by the English madrigals. ... I was attracted to the freedom of polyphony [in the English madrigals] which I found very different from that of Bach."

He had a tremendous urge to create, and was indifferent to almost everything else including performance, applause, wealth and social position. He was not unlike Mozart in the vastness of his output, his joy in dedication to his craft and the beauty of his music.

His outlook on life is, prehaps, explained in the following statement from his autobiography.

"What I maintain as my deepest conviction is the essential nobility of thoughts and things which are quite simple and, which, not explained in high-sounding words, and abtruse phrases, still hold an ethical and human signifance. ...It is possible ... that these things permit us to go through life more more easily, and if one gives them due place, touch the highest plane of thought."

(Contribution by Jerome Morris <jpj1776(at)netpath.net>.)


Taught at Mannes Music School in New York from about 1948-1955; composed in all media. Fought with the French "underground" during second world war (i.e., the "maquis"), etc.

(contributed by Peter P. Stearns <pstearns(at)cove.com>)

Martinů was professor of composition at Princeton University from 1948-1951.

(contributed by Karla Hartl <kapralova_soc(at)hotmail.com>)

Frank Wilson <opal41(at)philly.infi.net> writes: The biographical blurb indicates that Martinů fought with the Resistence in France during World war II. Actually, he arrived in the U.S. in 1940 and was resident in this country until after the war.

Sources — links

Concerts

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Events

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11 September 1924: Premiere of Istar, in Prague, Czech Republic.
10 October 1932: Premiere of concert for string quartet and orchestra, in London, England.
16 March 1938: Premiere of Julietta, Prague, Czech Republic.
9 February 1940: Premiere of the double concert for 2 string orchestras, piano and percussion, in Basel, Switzerland.
7 February 1953: Premiere of The Marriage, on NBC radio, USA.
7 January 1955: Premiere of Symphony no. 6 “Symphonic Phantasies”, in Boston, USA.
4 February 1958: Premiere of Estampes, in Louisville, USA.
9 June 1961: Premiere of The Greek Passion, in Zürich, Switzerland.
25 October 1973: Premiere of violin concerto no. 1, in Chicago, USA.

Contributions by: jpj | kapralova | opal | pstearns |

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Sheet music for Martinů

[details ←] String Quartet No. 6, viola, violin, cello, string quartet,
[details ←] String Quartet No. 6, viola, violin, cello, string quartet,
[details ←] String Trio No. 1, viola, violin, cello, string trio,
[details ←] String Trio No. 1, viola, violin, cello, string trio,
[details ←] Puppets III (little pieces for piano), piano,
[details ←] Puppets II (little pieces for piano), piano,
[details ←] Sonata no. 3 for Cello and Piano, piano, cello,
[details ←] Puppets I (little pieces for piano), piano,
[details ←] Rhythmical Studies (Piano / Violin), violin, piano,
[details ←] 5 Short Pieces, violin, piano, piano trio, cello,
[details ←] Variations On A Theme of Rossini, piano, cello,
[details ←] First Piano Quartet, viola, violin, piano, cello, piano quartet,
[details ←] Sonata No. 1 (Flute / Piano), piano, flute,
[details ←] Trio in C Major
[details ←] Rhapsody Concerto (1952), viola, clarinet, horn, piano, drums, oboe, trumpet, french horn, percussion, vocal, flute, bassoon,
[details ←] Rhapsody-Concerto (1952), viola, clarinet, horn, orchestra, drums, oboe, trumpet, french horn, percussion, flute, bassoon,
[details ←] Variations on a Slovakian Theme (1959), piano, cello,
[details ←] Promenades (1940), violin, piano, harpsichord, flute,
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[details ←] Lidice (1943)

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