Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes

Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1957) 

[Bullet6] Sonata No. 1 for Flute and Piano (1945)

[Bullet6] Nonet (1959)

[Bullet6] Piano Quartet No. 1 (1942)


Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1957)

Sonata No. 1 for Flute and Piano (1945)

[martinu]

 

 

"I think I am better at writing music than in writing about it. I do not like placing the creative process under a microscope, to explain a work, to look at the molecules (so to speak) instead of examining the body as a whole. So far as I am concerned, a work should live by itself, and not as a result of analyses. I do not think that it is necessary for the public to enter the laboratory, where it understands nothing, and where the artist himself sometimes needs to reflect a long time in order to grasp the meaning of things." Bohuslav Martinu

With over 400 opus numbers to his credit, Martinu, like Telemann, could have easily filled the requirements of an Eighteenth Century Kapellmeister, yet he was often surprised to learn of his being considered a prolific composer. He felt composition to be the natural process of a man who "works and works". He devoted only a few hours each day to composition, the rest of his time being devoted to studying science (which branch or branches I dont know, yet this might be reflected in the laboratory analogy in the above statement) or taking long walks, a venerable tradition among composers.

Martinu was born in a church tower, of which his father was caretaker, in the town of Policka in eastern Bohemia. He showed great musical ability at an early age. At 8 years, he gave his first concerts and at age 10 started composing. His abilities so impressed his neighbors that the wealthy people of the town contributed funds to enable this caretakers son to attend the Prague Conservatory. After graduating in 1913, he made his living playing violin in the Czech Philharmonic until 1923. Although he had a Conservatory education in performance, in the field of composition he was virtually self-taught. In 1923, Martinu took what he thought would be a short trip to Paris. He wound up staying for 17 years, leaving only because of the Nazi occupation. His works in this Parisian period show the influence of Debussy, Stravinsky and Les Six. He also found a sympathetic adviser in composer Albert Roussel.

Martinu was fortunate enough to get a visa that enabled him to escape Nazi occupied France. He arrived in America on March 31, 1941. Despite his displacement, he continued to compose. This fruitful period has come to be known as his American period. Musicologist David Ewen writes in the 1949 edition of American Composers Today, "In America, Martinu has been uniquely productive; and so many important performances of his major works have taken place that it becomes a staggering task to list even the most important of these." Between Oct. 28 and Nov. 9, 1943, there took place eleven performances of important Martinu works in New York, Philadelphia, and Cleveland. Some writers have described 1944 as "The Martinu Year" because so many significant premieres of Martinu compositions took place."

Martinu returned to Prague in 1946 to become a professor of composition at the National Conservatory in Prague. He resided intermittently in Prague, New York and Switzerland. In 1952, he became an American citizen. He died in Liestal, near Basel, Switzerland on Aug. 28, 1959. Some years later, his remains were returned to Czechoslovakia for final interrment.

Martinu produced works in many musical forms: operas, ballets, symphonies, concerti, choral music, and a large body of chamber music for various instrumental combinations. David Ewen writes, "The predominant traits of Martinus works are clarity and simplicity. He says what he has to say with directness. He prefers harmonic structures that are almost primitive, a fluid transparent counterpoint, and the most elementary tone color. Yet there is no poverty of expression. There is great wealth of feeling and a fine discerning intellect in all his major works." The contours and rhythmic figures in his melodies make for a very distinct and easily identifiable musical speech, his rhythmic drive is both athletic and vivacious and tone color is always used with utmost effect.

The Flute Sonata No. 1 was written in 1945, and partakes of these aforementioned virtues, and other than noting that it is in three movements: I Allegro moderato, II Adagio, III Allegro poco moderato, the laboratory door will remain closed.

1993-94 Season, Program V, Sunday May 15, 1994

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Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959)

Nonet (1959)

[martinu]

Martinu has been justly hailed as one of the outstanding Czech composers of this century. Besides nationality, he shares many attributes with Dvorak. Both achieved their initial success outside their own country - Dvorak in Berlin, Martinu in Paris. Though both drew on the folk music of their homeland, they were truly international figures in music. Although their interests embraced music of the rural regions of the former Czechoslovakia, they were cosmopolitan, Dvorak being influenced by the music of Brahms, Martinu by Stravinsky.

Both men had a special relationship with America. Dvorak was the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York from 1892-95. He wrote "The Americans expect great things of me and the main thing is, so they say, to show them to the promised land and kingdom of a new and independent art, in short, to create a national music." Martinu came to America in 1941 to escape the Nazi occupation of Paris, and though he longed for his homeland, he and his music were enthusiastically received here. In 1944 there were so many premieres of his works, writers of the time referred to 1944 as "the Martinu year." He also taught in America, serving on the faculty of Princeton University for five years. He was appointed professor of composition at the National Conservatory in Prague in 1946. (Dvorak served as director of the Prague Conservatory from 1901 until his death in 1904.)

Martinu became an American citizen in 1952, and spent his remaining years living intermittently in Prague, New York and Switzerland where he died on August 28, 1959. He was prolific, composing music in all forms.

The Nonet was composed in 1959, and premiered at the Salzburg Festival by the Czech Nonet to whom it was dedicated, a month before the composer's death. The Nonet was inspired by the music and musicians of the Czech countryside, particularly Bohemia and Moravia. Its other influence was the music of Haydn which Martinu studied and grew to love during his stay in America. Despite being composed so near the time of his death, the Nonet is optimistic, life-affirming music.

1992-93 Season, Program V, Saturday April 24, 1993

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Bohuslav Martinu (1890 Ė 1959)

Piano Quartet No. 1 (1942)

Martinu has been justly hailed as one of the outstanding Czech composerís of the 20th Century. (And now that itís finally over, we can say so with a certain amount of certainty). He was a prolific composer, who worked in most of the musical genres; opera, ballet, the symphony, the concerto, choral music, as well as chamber music for various combinations of instruments. Martinu first tasted success in Paris. Though he did draw inspiration from the folk music of the Czech countryside; Bohemia and Moravia, he was cosmopolitan and influenced by the music of Stravinsky. His music is marked by simplicity, directness and clarity, as well as a rhythmic drive both athletic and vivacious. Like his countryman Dvorak, and his contemporary Stravinsky, Martinu had a special relationship with America. He came to this country, as did Stravinsky, to escape the Nazi occupation of Paris. Though he longed for his homeland, he and his music were enthusiastically received here. In 1944 there were so many premieres of his works, writers of the time referred to 1944 as "The Martinu Year". He also taught in America, serving on the faculty of Princeton University for five years. He was appointed professor of composition at the National Conservatory in Prague in 1946- a post he was prevented from occupying by the rise to power of Communist Party. Martinu became an American citizen in 1952. He taught at the Curtis Institute and later at the American Academy in Rome (Italy, not N.Y.). His final years were spent in Switzerland.

The Piano Quartet was written soon after his arrival in the U.S.A. This first movement, the shortest of the three, opens with a jerky rhythmic figure and ascending scale pattern, followed by Martinuís characteristic syncopated melodies. The central adagio, the longest movement, is given over to the strings who spin out a mood of melancholy. The piano does not even enter until the movement is almost half over. When it does it is confined to delicate figurations. The closing is again given over to the strings punctuated by two soft chords by the piano. The third movement opens with a most attractive and graceful syncopated melody, which one might expect to have been written by Chick Corea some 30 years later than its actual date of composition. This opening section provides the material of the episodes which follow, in a quasi-variation fashion; closing with an ascending scale pattern reminiscent of the first movement.

1999-2000 Season, Program III, Sunday February 6, 2000

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All original text copyright 2000 by Joseph Way