These two CDs present some of Martinu’s most attractive chamber music, and include all the instrumental pieces to which he appended the word ‘madrigal’ in the title, from the five delightful Madrigal Stanzas which he wrote for Albert Einstein to play, to the dazzling Three Madrigals for violin and viola.
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In some quarters to be eclectic in art is still tantamount to asking not to be taken seriously, as if to draw one’s inspiration from whatever source seems most fruitful were an abnegation of one’s personality. Yet, as the music on these discs clearly demonstrates, to be eclectic—which Martinu was—is not at all the same thing as being a dilettante—which he most certainly was not.
No one who knows anything about Martinu’s large output would dream of accusing him of being superficial, even though his music is frequently light-hearted. It is always serious though never earnest; invariably well crafted but never academic; and usually easy on the ear yet seldom on the intellect. Few composers have expressed their personality as clearly in their music as Martinu, and listening to his work is to find oneself in the presence of a fertile intelligence and the company of an introspective but extremely likeable man.
Bohuslav Martinu left his native Czechoslovakia in 1923 to take up residence in Paris, then the artistic capital of Europe. Though shy, he listened intently and read widely, and it was inevitable, being the man he was, that sooner or later he would get to grips with jazz. As it happened it was sooner than most of his contemporaries, for he had first flirted with the genre in 1922 in the ballet Who is the most powerful in the world?, and he retained an interest in it up to the end of the decade, using it in such specific orchestral pieces as Le Jazz and Jazz Suite, in piano and chamber music, and in stage works, especially the ballet Échec au Roi and the operas Les Larmes du couteau and Les Trois Souhaits. For the most part Martinu used jazz and popular dance rhythms for colouristic purposes, eschewing any temptation to make something esoteric out of them. This may be why his ‘jazz’ music sounds fresher and more convincing than that of, for instance, Hindemith, Krenek or Stravinsky.
Martinu’s interest in the madrigal spanned almost the whole of his working life. It began specifically on 5 January 1922 when he heard in Prague a recital by The English Singers which included music by Byrd, Weelkes, Gibbons and others. The English Singers were a famous British group founded during the First World War. At the time Martinu heard them Steuart Wilson was a leading member; at a much later date they were to number Peter Pears in their ranks.
Fired by the English form, Martinu seems to have remained unaware of the Italian madrigalists for several more years. This may explain why this type of composition found no direct expression in his own work until 1937. Even then it did so not as vocal but as instrumental music. Indeed, though there are vocal examples in his output, it may be inferred that the composer was not greatly interested in the literary aspects of the madrigal. Of his three sets for voices the first, the Eight Madrigals of 1939, is not of madrigals in the strict sense at all, and though the Five Czech Madrigals of 1948 display some of the characteristics of the classical model, only those in the Part-Song Book of 1959, one of Martinu’s last compositions, come measurably close to it.
All four instrumental works to which Martinu attached the name ‘madrigal’ are included here. They bear little formal resemblance to the vocal models of either the English variety or the Italian. It was the contrapuntal nature and clarity of line of the classic madrigal that attracted him, and it is as likely to have been the experimental work of composers like Gesualdo, Marenzio and Monteverdi as the madrigals of Wilbye and Morley that provided the true stimulus to his own madrigal compositions when the time came.
During 1937 Martinu was largely occupied in completing Julietta, the opera conceived around Georges Neveux’s dream play, and with writing the folk cantata Kytice (‘Bouquet of Flowers’). The former had a profound effect on the composer’s subsequent development and on his preference for fantasia-like forms. The latter, based as it is on folk poems and on music strongly inflected with Czech accents, heralded Martinu’s conscious return to his national roots. The effects of both are to be heard to a greater or lesser degree in all the music on this first disc.
In addition to two concerted works featuring the violin, the other principal compositions of that year were for various instrumental combinations including a fourth string quartet and the set of Four Madrigals for oboe, clarinet and bassoon composed in Nice during the summer for the Trio d’Anches. This was the first time Martinu used the title. The introspective mood of Julietta is evident in the restrained character of each of the four pieces, and particularly discernible in the slow second. The Czech inflections are less pronounced but are detectable in the shape of the melodies.
As has been suggested, it was the linear independence of the madrigal that appealed most to Martinu, and in these four pieces it is exploited to the full. There are passages of imitation, but for the most part the three instruments pursue their own ways towards a conclusion, striking against each other and producing angularities of harmony that recall Stravinsky or, more consistently, the calculated spikiness of Honegger, a composer for whom Martinu entertained the greatest admiration. In spite of the ‘modernities’, however, the music is graceful, cool, and elegantly fashioned throughout.
Martinu did not return to the madrigal idea again until 1942. By this time he was an exile in America. Having got over his initial homesickness he was now ready to woo the American public. He had already written the first Symphony which was successful, and was embarking on a Concerto for two pianos. In between, and by way of relaxation, he wrote two pieces of chamber music, a set of Variations on a theme of Rossini for cello and piano, and the Madrigal Sonata for flute, violin and piano. This approximates to sonata form but, as in the earlier work, it is the interplay of the three voices rather than considerations of structure which interests the composer most, emphasizing the link in his mind between this type of writing and the free-flowing lines of the classical madrigal.
Its three short movements (the second and third are interlinked) are somewhat fey in character and again remind us of Julietta. The mood generally is light and graceful, and the music does not attempt to plumb great depths of expression. A kind of Baroque-style ostinato is a feature of the first movement, and the slowish introduction to the second makes much use of trills. The Madrigal Sonata was completed in November 1942 and first performed in New York on 9 December on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the American League of Composers.
Among Martinu’s acquaintances in America was the famous physicist Albert Einstein. Einstein was a modest violinist but apparently good enough to play Mozart sonatas with his friend the pianist Robert Casadesus. The Five Madrigal Stanzas were composed for this remarkable duo exactly one year after the Madrigal Sonata and are dedicated to Einstein, who is said to have played them with Casadesus at Princeton in private recitals.
They are more strongly inflected with elements of Czech folk song than the two previous madrigal compositions and, in deference to the amateur status of the dedicatee, are all of slow or, at most, moderate speeds. The violin part is comparatively simple but deceptively so, and there is obvious ‘writing down’ to the recipient. The piano part, on the other hand, is considerably more difficult as befitted Casadesus’s great reputation as a keyboard virtuoso. Though Martinu had made every effort to tailor his demands to Einstein’s technical limitations, Einstein was unable to make a reciprocal gesture to the composer’s scientific amateurism and Martinu’s rueful attempts to get to grips with the Theory of Relativity consequently remained unfulfilled.
In 1946, while at Tanglewood, Martinu suffered concussion following a fall. For several years after this he found composition very difficult and much of the music he produced at that time lacked the spontaneity and inventiveness of his best work. However, his interest in the music of Haydn was reawakened and he wrote a number of works under Haydn’s influence, notably a Sinfonia Concertante. But it is Mozart who seems to have provided the stimulus for the last of the instrumental madrigal compositions, the Three Madrigals for violin and viola which he wrote for, and dedicated to, Lillian and Joseph Fuchs who played them in New York in 1948. Although they do not subscribe to any conventional classical form, these three pieces, two fast ones enclosing a slow pastoral-like Andante, recall the sonata structure of Mozart’s celebrated duos for this same combination. It would be fair to say, however, that Martinu’s handling of the medium appears to be less fluent than the Viennese master’s, since he relies more on the cutting edge of the clashing voices for his effects than Mozart, who invoked the voluptuousness of the viola to provide a resonant cushion of implied harmony alien to Martinu’s linear intentions.
In 1927 Martinu wrote no fewer than three ballets, an opera, several piano pieces and some chamber music. The last of the three ballets was La Revue de Cuisine (‘The Kitchen Review’). This was written for a Czech dance company who produced it with great success in Prague in November that year under the title Pokušení svatouška hrnce (‘The Temptation of the Saintly Pot’). The plot concerns the activities of various kitchen utensils. The marriage between pot and lid is threatened by the machinations of the stick who attempts to lure the lid with the dishcloth. The broom tries to restrain the cloth, but the lid rolls away. All is finally and happily resolved when a huge foot kicks the lid back on stage to be reunited with the long-suffering pot.
In 1930 the four pieces which make up the score were performed independently at the Concerts Cortot and were published as a concert suite the same year. The four pieces are ‘Prologue’, ‘Tango’, ‘Charleston’ and ‘Finale’, and the ‘orchestra’ consists of a sextet of clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, violin, cello and piano, a combination well suited to producing a sound similar to that of the typical Paris jazz bands of the period.
The ‘Prologue’ begins with a fanfare followed by a march in a perkily distorted rhythm. This is taken up and developed by the various instruments. In the ‘Tango’ first the cello, then muted trumpet, pizzicato strings and the bassoon in the upper register underline with lugubrious irony the ‘Spanish’ inflexions of a dance which was as much a craze in the ’20s as the Charleston. As if to emphasize the point the ‘Tango’ dissolves into the ‘Charleston’, the band picking up the new rhythm in a delicious re-creaction of collective improvisation. Milhaud, Copland and Gershwin have received more praise for their jazz works, but it could be argued convincingly that Martinu heard what jazz bands were doing more clearly and translated their style more accurately than any of them. The ‘Finale’ begins with a return to the initial fanfare, but goes on to realize the mood of rejoicing in echoes of James P Johnson’s classic Charleston and barely disguised references to other popular American dance tunes of the time.
Martinu considered the score of La Revue de Cuisine technically perfect, as well he might, for it fulfills its function with the utmost economy of means. He might have said the same of the Nonet which he completed on 1 March 1959, five months before his death. He had travelled far, both artistically and geographically, in the thirty-two years that separate this Nonet from La Revue de Cuisine, and he was already dying of cancer when he wrote it. Yet the music, like so many of his other works composed at such speed in these last few months of life, betrays no sign of haste or of the darkening shadows of death.
Written for string quartet with double bass, flute, clarinet, oboe, horn and bassoon, it is dedicated to the Czech Nonet who gave the first performance at the Salzburg Festival on 27 July 1959. It artfully embodies in its three movements the two themes which occupy so much of the chamber music of Martinuº’s last years, namely nostalgia for his Czech homeland (which he had not seen since before the War) and the Classical style of Haydn (with whose work he had become enamoured during his last years of exile in America).
Never much drawn to Classical forms or unduly respectful of the great masters, Martinu nevertheless contrived to make this Nonet into a testament of these two ideals. All three movements are redolent of the kind of music played by country musicians in Bohemia and Moravia, but the first especially, with its crisp Haydnesque themes, clarity of texture and clever use of counterpoint, reveals the composer’s selective and highly individual response to the past. It holds together perfectly, serenely confident, sunny even, in its affirmation of life.
In 1941 Martinu and his wife were forced to flee Paris before the advancing German armies. By way of Aix-en-Provence, Barcelona, Madrid and Lisbon they made their way to New York and for the next seven years remained exiled in America. For much of the time Martinu felt profoundly isolated from his European background but, unlike Bartók, Martinu had a basically optimistic nature which helped to see him through even the worst depressions.
There were periods of considerable happiness, however, especially the holidays spent in New England. In the summer of 1944, after a particularly severe bout of melancholy which produced the third Symphony, the Martinus went to stay at Ridgefield, Connecticut. After a short break doing absolutely nothing—very rare for Martinu—he completed the Trio for flute, cello and piano in the five days between 26 and 31 July. Purged of all his depressions, the Trio, which was commissioned by René le Roy, emerged as a refreshingly effervescent reaffirmation of his Czech roots. After the first performance in February 1945, Virgil Thomson described it as a ‘gem of bright sound and cheerful sentiment’.
Like most of Martinu’s music this Trio is tonal even when the tonality remains fluid. Actually there are only three works—all trios—to which Martinu ascribed key signatures, and this Trio in F is one of them. Its first movement is a buoyant dance-like structure in modified sonata form; the slow movement, a lyrical Adagio in 6/4 time, is in C?minor, while the last, which is introduced by a slowish cadenza for the flute, is another dance-orientated movement.
The Sonatina for two violins and piano was completed by the end of 1930. A comparatively short piece, under fifteen minutes’ duration and in four movements, the Sonatina brings together various strands within the one idiom: a plain neo-Classical formal outline, the occasional ‘blue’ false relation of jazz, and the inflexion of Moravian folk themes. However, even in such a straightforward outline of the work’s features, we may be surprised to encounter a less-than-predictable harmonic structure: the first movement is in G, the last in D.
The first movement is in the simplest ABA form, with a tiny coda tacked on. The violins keep at their quaver pulses virtually throughout, the music the most neo-Classical in spirit of the four. The second movement, in C minor, explores the instrumentation more questioningly with two-part writing for each violin (producing a four-part texture) answered by a gentle folk-idea in distant piano octaves—this constitutes the first part of another plain ABA design; soft-spanned G major chords against rising violin answers form the central section, with a reminiscent recapitulation of the opening part bringing the movement to a close in C major, the piano’s octave Bs as the leading note, but falling in fact to B flat for the vivacious Allegretto and Trio in 3/4 with each beat itself made up of triplets, producing a whirling 9/8 effect. The Trio is incredibly delicate and fragile before the Allegretto returns as before.
The finale, likewise, barely pauses for breath on its heady journey. The character of the music is more sturdy, more ‘Bach-like’ perhaps, and in this movement one can sense Martinu’s growing sense of delight in his fascinating medium, so much so that one can hardly envisage the music being conceived for any other ensemble. A marvellous piece—the final D leaving us wanting more, surprised that it is already the end. By the spring of 1932 Martinu had returned to the medium, producing an important Sonata for two violins and piano; and in 1937 and 1950 he wrote two Concertos for two violins and orchestra.
Kenneth Dommett & Robert Matthew-Walker © 1998