Bohuslav Martinů

Bohuslav Martinů
Portrait of Bohuslav Martinů, U.S.A., New York 1945

Bohuslav Martinů (Czech pronunciation: [ˈboɦuslaf ˈmarcɪnuː] ( listen); December 8, 1890 – August 28, 1959) was a prolific Czech composer of modern classical music. He was of Czech and Rumanian ancestry.[1] Martinů wrote six symphonies, 15 operas, 14 ballet scores and a large body of orchestral, chamber, vocal and instrumental works. Martinů became a violinist in the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, and taught music in his home town. In 1923 Martinů left Czechoslovakia for Paris, and deliberately withdrew from the Romantic style in which he had been trained. In the 1930s he experimented with expressionism and constructivism, and became an admirer of current European technical developments, exemplified by his orchestral works Half-time and La Bagarre. He also adopted jazz idioms, for instance in his Kuchyňské revue (Kitchen Revue). In the early 1930s he found his main font for composition style, the neo-classical as developed by Stravinsky. With this, he greatly expanded to become an amazingly prolific composer, composing volleys of well-crafted chamber, orchestral, choral and instrumental works, and was able to do this with amazing dispatch. His use of the piano obliggato became his signature. His Concerto Grosso and the Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano and Tympani are among his most powerful from this period. Among his operas, Juliette and The Greek Passion are considered the finest. He is compared with Prokofiev and Bartók in his innovative incorporation of Central European ethnomusicology into his music. He continued to use Czech and Moravian folk melodies throughout his oeuvre, usually nursery rhymes—for instance in Otvírání studánek ("The Opening of the Wells").

His great symphonic career began when he emigrated to the United States in 1941, fleeing the German invasion of France, to compose his six symphonies, which were performed by all the major US orchestras. (There is some speculation that Martinů had Asperger syndrome.[2] and that this autistic condition rendered him to be a compulsive composer so he could compose with extraordinary ease). In 1956, Martinů returned to live in Europe and died in Switzerland in 1959.



1890-1923: Polička and Prague

Martinů as a child playing the violin. (c. 1896)

Martinů was born in Polička, a small town in Bohemia near the Moravian border. His father Ferdinand, a shoemaker, served as fire watchman, and the family lived in the tower of the St. Jacob Church. As a young violinist, he developed a strong reputation, giving his first public concert in his hometown in 1905. The townspeople raised enough money to fund his schooling, and in 1906, he left the countryside to began studies at the Prague Conservatory. While there, he fared poorly as a student, showing little interest in the rigid pedagogy and hours of practice required, and being far more interested in exploring and learning on his own, exploring Prague, attending concerts, and reading books on every subject. Dropped from the violin program, he was moved to the organ department, which taught composition, but was finally dismissed in 1910 for "incorrigible negligence".[3]

Martinů spent the next several years living back home in Polička attempting to gain some standing in the musical world. He had written several compositions by this time, including the Elegie for violin and piano, and the symphonic poems Andel smrti and La Mort de Tintagiles, and submitted samples of his work to Josef Suk, a leading Czech composer. Suk encouraged him to pursue formal composition training, but this would not be possible until years later. In the meantime, he passed the state teaching examination and maintained a studio in Polička throughout World War I, while continuing to compose and study on his own. It was during this time that he studied the music of the Bohemian Brethren, which would influence his style and musical voice.

As World War I drew to a close, and Czechoslovakia declared an independant republic, Martinů composed a celebratory cantata Ceska rapsodie which was premiered in 1919 to great acclaim. As a violinist, he toured Europe with the National Theatre Orchestra, and became a full member of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in 1920. He also began formal composition study under Suk. Martinů's modern style (including elements of impressionism and jazz) did not match the conservative styles in Prague, and he became determined to move to Paris. During these last years in Prague he completed his first string quartet, and two ballets: Who is the Most Powerful in the World? and Istar.

1923-1940: Paris

Martinů finally departed for Paris in 1923, having received a small scholarship from the Ministry of Education. He sought out Albert Roussel, whose individualistic style he respected, and began a series of informal lessons with him. Roussel would teach Martinů until his death in 1937, helping him focus and order his composition, rather than instructing him in a specific style. During the first years in Paris, Martinů assimilated many of the trends at the time, including jazz, neoclassicism, and surrealism. Ballets were his favorite medium for experimentation, including The Revolt (1925), The Butterfly That Stamped (1926), Le Raid Merveilleux (1927), La Revue de Cuisine (1927), and Les Larmes du Couteau (1928).

In Paris, Martinů was welcomed into the Czech artistic community living there at the time. He would retain close ties to his homeland, returning to Prague and Polička during the summer months and for premieres of his works. Along with new styles, Martinů would continue to look to his Bohemian and Moravian roots for musical ideas. The most well-known during this time is the ballet Špaliček (1932-33), which incorporates Czech folk tunes and nursery rhymes.

In 1926, Martinů met Charlotte Quennehen, a French seamstress, and they married in 1931. Charlotte would become an important force in his life, handling many day-to-day affairs and mundane details that Martinů had trouble with; though culturally, the two were quite different, a fact that would cause numerous problems over the years.[4] In 1937, Martinů became acquainted with Vítězslava Kaprálová, a young Czech composer-conductor who arrived in Paris in the fall of 1937 to study with Charles Munch at the Ecole normale de musique, and also sought to study with him. Their relationship soon developed beyond that of student-teacher, and at one point they planned to move to America together, but their love relationship began deteriorating in 1939.[5]

When the German army approached Paris early in the Second World War, Martinů fled, having been blacklisted for his connections to the Czech resistance. He and Charlotte journeyed first to the south of France, and then through Spain and Portugal, eventually reaching the United States in 1941 with the help of his friend and diplomat Miloš Šafránek.

1941-1953: America

Life in America was difficult for him, as it was for many of the other outstanding artists who arrived in similar circumstances. Lack of knowledge of English, lack of funds, and lack of opportunities to use their talents were problems common to all such émigré artists at first. However, Martinů did acclimatise himself. He composed a great deal and taught at the Mannes College of Music for most of the period from 1948–1956. His six symphonies were written in the eleven-year period 1942–1953, the first five being produced between 1942 and 1946.

His notable students include Alan Hovhaness, H. Owen Reed, Jan Novák, Vítězslava Kaprálová, Howard Shanet, Peter Pindar Stearns, and Burt Bacharach.

1953-1959: Europe

In 1953, Martinů left the United States for France and settled in Nice, returning in 1955. In 1956, he took up an appointment as composer-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome. He died at a clinic in Liestal, Switzerland, on August 28, 1959.


Bohuslav Martinů in New York, around 1942, at the piano working on his second symphony

Martinů was a prolific composer, who wrote almost 400 pieces. Many of his works are regularly performed or recorded, among them his choral work The Epic of Gilgamesh (1955); his six symphonies; his concertos, including those for cello, violin, oboe and five for the piano; his anti-war opera Comedy on the Bridge; and his chamber music, including seven string quartets, a piano quartet, a flute sonata, and a clarinet sonatina.

A characteristic feature of his orchestral writing is the near-omnipresent piano; many of his orchestral works include a prominent part for piano, including his small concerto for harpsichord and chamber orchestra. The bulk of his writing from the 1930s into the 1950s was in a neoclassical vein, but with his last works he opened up his style to include more rhapsodic gestures and a looser, more spontaneous sense of form. This is easiest to hear by comparing his sixth symphony, titled Fantaisies symphoniques, with its five predecessors, all from the 1940s.

One of Martinů's lesser known works is a piece featuring the theremin commissioned by Lucie Bigelow Rosen. Martinů started working on this commission in the summer of 1944 and finished his Fantasia for theremin, oboe, string quartet and piano on October 1, dedicating it to Rosen, who premiered the piece as theremin soloist in New York on November 3, 1945, along with the Koutzen Quartet and Robert Bloom.

His opera The Greek Passion is based on the novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis.

His orchestral work Memorial to Lidice was written in remembrance of the village of Lidice that was destroyed by the Nazis in reprisal for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in the late spring of 1942. It was composed in 1943 whilst he was in New York.

In his own words

The artist is always searching for the meaning of life, his own and that of mankind, searching for truth. A system of uncertainty has entered our daily life. The pressures of mechanisation and uniformity to which it is subject call for protest and the artist has only one means of expressing this, by music.



  1. ^ "Symphony Hall, Boston—Concerts This Week", Daily Boston Globe. December 12, 1937.
  2. ^ Rybka, F. James (2011). "Bohuslav Martinu: The Compulsion to Compose". Scarecrow Press. Retrieved May 24. 2011. 
  3. ^ Jan Smaczny, "Martinů, Bohuslav", The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell (London: Macmillan Publishers, 2001), vol. 15, 939.
  4. ^ Rybka, p.62-63
  5. ^ The Kapralova Society Journal 1, no. 1 (2003)
  6. ^ "Bohuslav Martinů: Snapshot". Boosey and Hawkes. Retrieved 6 March 2011. 

Further reading

  • Beckerman, Michael Brim, and Michael Henderson (eds.). 2007. Martinů's Mysterious Accident: Essays in Honor of Michael Henderson. Hillsdale, N.Y.: Pendragon Press. ISBN 9781576471111 (cloth); ISBN 9781576470039 (pbk).
  • Červinková, Blanka (ed.) 1990. Bohuslav Martinů, 8.12.1890–28.8.1959: bibliografický katalog. Prague: Panton. ISBN 8070390689.
  • Halbreich, Harry. 1968. Bohuslav Martinů: Werkverzeichnis, Dokumentation und Biographie. Zurich, Freiburg i. Br.:Atlantis-Verlag.
  • Large, Brian. 1975. Martinů. London: Duckworth. ISBN 0715607707
  • Martinů, Charlotta. 1978. My Life with Bohuslav Martinů. Prague: Orbis Press Agency.
  • Mihule, Jaroslav. 1966. Bohuslav Martinů. Prague: Státní hudební vydavatelství.
  • Rybka, F. James. 2011. Bohuslav Martinu: The Compulsion to Compose. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.
  • Šafránek, Miloš. 1962. Bohuslav Martinů: His Life and Works, translated by Roberta Finlayson-Samsourová. London: A. Wingate.

External links

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