Bohuslav Martinu

Category: Musician

Learn more about Bohuslav Martinu

Bohuslav Martinu (December 8, 1890 – August 28, 1959) was born in the tower of the St. Jakub Church in Policka, a town in Bohemia near the Moravian border. His father Ferdinand, a shoemaker, worked as the church sexton and the town’s fire watchman, positions that allowed the family to live in the tower apartment. Bohuslav was a sickly and shy child: his father and older sister frequently had to carry him up the tower’s 193 steps, and he refrained from participating in school activities like plays or pageants.

Despite his inauspicious start in life, Martinu developed musical skills at a young age and earned a reputation as a gifted violinist. He was encouraged to pursue his craft by his family and by residents of his hometown. He performed his first public concert in Policka in 1905, and locals raised enough money to fund his studies at the Prague Conservatory, where he began training in 1906. Although he was a brilliant performer, he was not a remarkable student; his inattention to his studies ultimately resulted in his 1910 dismissal from the conservatory and his return to Policka.

In the years prior to the onset of World War I, Martinu continued independent studies, composed and performed pieces of his own, and completed the state teaching exam. When the war ended and the new country of Czechoslovakia emerged from the ashes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he composed the celebratory cantata Czech Rhapsody (Ceska rapsodie), which premiered in 1919 to great acclaim. He toured Europe as a violinist with the National Theatre Orchestra and in 1920 became a full member of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra that was led by the eager young conductor Vaclav Talich, who was the first major conductor to promote Martinu. He also began formal composition study under Josef Suk, a leading Czech composer. During this time in Prague he completed his first-string quartet and two ballets: Who is the Most Powerful in the World? (Kdo je na svete nejmocnejsi?) and Istar.

Having spent the early part of the postwar period in Czechoslovakia, Martinu departed for Paris in 1923 after having been awarded a scholarship from the Czechoslovak Ministry of Education. He sought out and pursued informal study with Albert Roussel, whose style he respected; until his death in 1937, Roussel remained a mentor to Martinu. During his first years in Paris, Martinu incorporated many of the trends at the time, including jazz, neoclassicism, and surrealism. He was particularly attracted to the music of Igor Stravinsky. Ballet was his favorite medium for experimentation, as can be heard in The Revolt (1925), The Butterfly That Stamped (1926), Le raid merveilleux (1927), La revue de cuisine (1927), and Les larmes du couteau (1928).

Even after his move to France, Martinu maintained connections with his homeland. He formed friendships with Czech and Slovak emigres in Paris’s artistic scene, and he spent many of his summers in Czechoslovakia. Bohemia and Moravia served as sources of inspiration for his music. His best-known work from his Paris days is the ballet Spalicek (1932–33), which incorporates Czech folk tunes and nursery rhymes.

Martinu dealt with a tumultuous personal life during the 1930’s: he married a French seamstress in 1931, but in 1937 he fell in love with a much younger Czech musician. He found more control, however, in his professional life. By 1930, he had turned away from seven years of experimentation to settle on a neo-classical style. In 1932, he won the Coolidge Prize for his String Sextet with Orchestra. This piece was performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra that same year. In 1936 he finished his opera Julietta, which was based upon a surrealistic play by Georges Neveux that he had seen in 1927. Its premiere was given in Prague under Vaclav Talich on 14 March 1938.

After the Munich Agreement, President Edvard Benes began to form a Czechoslovak government in exile set up in France and England. As a significant number of troops became organized into a Czech resistance force, Martinu tried to join them but was rejected because of his age. However, in 1939, he composed a tribute to this force, the Field Mass for baritone, chorus and orchestra. It was broadcast from England and was picked up in occupied Czechoslovakia. For this, Martinu was blacklisted by the Nazis and sentenced in absentia. In 1940, as the German army approached Paris, Martinu and his wife fled, first to other parts of France, then to Spain and Portugal, and ultimately to the United States.

Like others in the emigre community of which he was a part, Martinu found life in the United States difficult. He was hindered by his not knowing the English language, lack of money, and inability to make use of his talents. But he quickly found support from several friends —including violinist Samuel Dushkin, pianist Rudolf Firkusny, cellist Frank Rybka, diplomat Milos Safranek, and multi-lingual lawyer Jan Lowenbach—and he eventually found his footing. He held a teaching position at the Mannes College of Music for most of the period from the late 1940’s until the middle of the 1950’s, with stints at Princeton University and the Berkshire Music School (Tanglewood). His six symphonies were written in the eleven-year period 1942–1953. In addition, he composed the Violin Concerto No. 2, Memorial to Lidice (Pamatnik Lidicim) for orchestra, Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, Piano Concerto No. 3, Concerto da Camera for violin and small orchestra, Sinfonietta La Jolla for piano and small orchestra, Sonatas Nos. 2 and 3 for cello and piano, many chamber compositions, and a television opera, The Marriage (Zenitba). His symphonic scores were performed by most of the major orchestras: Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia, and he received generally favorable reviews from the leading critics.

In 1953, Martinu left the United States for France and settled in Nice. He had considered returning to Czechoslovakia following World War II, but the communist takeover and his having been branded an emigre traitor by the new regime made such a return impossible. Upon his settlement in France, he completed his Fantaisies symphoniques and composed Mirandolina. He also met Nikos Kazantzakis and began work on The Greek Passion. In 1955 he created several key works: the oratorio Gilgames (The Epic of Gilgamesh), the Oboe Concerto Les Fresques de Piero della Francesca, and the cantata Otvirani studanek (The Opening of the Wells). Fantaisies symphoniques’ premiere in Boston earned Martinu the annual New York critics’ prize. In 1956, he assumed an appointment as composer-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome and composed Incantation (his fourth piano concerto) and much of The Greek Passion, which he completed in January 1957.

Martinu continued composing until his death in Liestal, Switzerland, on August 28, 1959. His remains were moved and buried in Policka, Czechoslovakia, in 1979.

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