Hyperion Records

Suite concertante for violin and orchestra, H276
composer
1st version; 3rd movement (Scherzo caprice) orchestration lost; comm. by Samuel Dushkin; piano score Dec 1938; full score Feb 1939; piano reduction first performed by Dushkin and Erich Kahn in NY Town Hall on 7 April 1943; full score first perf May 2000

Recordings
'Martinů: Complete music for violin & orchestra, Vol. 3' (CDA67673)
Martinů: Complete music for violin & orchestra, Vol. 3
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67673 
Details
Movement 1: Prelude: Allegro moderato
Movement 2: Meditation: Largo
Movement 4: Intermezzo: Andantino poco moderato – Vivace
Movement 5: Finale: Allegro vivo

Suite concertante for violin and orchestra, H276
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The Suite concertante, first version, H276, is one of the few works in Martinu’s large output (over 400 compositions) where the composer found creation complicated and difficult. In November 1938 he wrote to Vítezslava Kaprálová, his composition student: ‘I feel very lonely and my work is not moving forward. Three dances were already finished, but today I threw it all away and will start anew.’ He finished the piano draft in December 1938 and the full score over the following two months (the Prelude on 8 February 1939, Meditation on 15 January, Intermezzo on 18 January, and the two remaining undated movements, Scherzo caprice and Finale, no later than the middle of February). In January Dushkin left Europe to return to New York and it seems that Miloš Šafránek, an important Czech diplomat in Paris and a good friend and supporter of Martinu, took parts of the score across the Atlantic to deliver them to the violinist. In an undated letter (most probably from February 1939) the composer wrote to Šafránek, who was going to emigrate to the USA: ‘Please tell me the exact date you are going to leave; I would like to give you the autograph of the last movement, if I manage to finish it by Wednesday. What time are you departing? Would I find you at home? […] I would like to send one finished movement to Dushkin, you would introduce yourself to him very well if you could take it to him.’

The impending war made any performance in France impossible. Typically, if a work of Martinu’s was not performed immediately after its completion, it remained unperformed for a long time. The first version of the Suite concertante holds the record among these unfortunate works: it did not receive its first orchestral performance for exactly fifty years. This small jewel remained unperformed for many decades primarily because several scholars presumed that neither the composer nor the violinist was satisfied with the piece. Some relevant documents, especially two letters recently found at the Library of Congress in Washington, call this view into question and shed new light on the early history of this piece. In a letter dated 22 February 1939 Louise Dushkin, the violinist’s wife, approached the conductor Serge Koussevitzky with an offer:

Dear Mr. Koussevitzky: Sam wanted to write you himself, but he has just come home from a western tour and is abed with the grippe. He is very excited about a new ‘Suite de Concert’ for violin and orchestra by Bohuslav Martinu. The orchestration was not yet finished when we left Europe, but we have now received the complete score. It is in five movements: Prélude, Meditation, Scherzo-caprice, Intermezzo, Finale, and will take about twenty minutes to play. Sam considers this Suite exceptionally ‘réussi’, in fact a most brilliant and precious addition to the violin and orchestra literature. He would of course be very happy if he could play it with you.

Although it seemed a good idea to approach Koussevitzky, who was great supporter of contemporary music and had premiered two orchestral works by Martinu in the late 1920s and early 1930s, to try and secure a performance of this work, the famous conductor did not programme the piece with Boston Symphony Orchestra, and it seems did not even reply to the letter (at least there is no evidence of a reply in the Koussevitzky collection at the Library of Congress). A year later Martinu immigrated in adventurous circumstances to the USA; Dushkin was among the few people to welcome him after his arrival in Hoboken, New Jersey, on 31 March 1941, and they soon renewed their collaboration.

By that time Samuel Dushkin’s agent, Paul H Stoss, had written another letter to Koussevitzky, dated 8 February 1941:

Dear Dr. Koussevitzky: Knowing of your interest in presenting first performances of outstanding works, I would like to call your attention to an availability of unusual interest for next season. The distinguished American violinist Samuel Dushkin, who introduced to the American public such outstanding contributions as the Stravinsky Concerto and Ravel’s Tzigane, now has exclusive rights to two more outstanding works, which should be of definite interest to you and your public. These works are: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra by Rodolfo Halffter, Spanish composer (20 minutes), Suite for Violin and Orchestra by the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu (18 minutes). Mr. Dushkin will be most happy to appear as soloist with your orchestra next season in the performance of either of these new compositions, or perhaps in a standard concerto.

Nevertheless, the possibility of an orchestral performance of the Suite with Koussevitzky remained unfulfilled. The first (and for nearly five decades the only) performance of the work took place in a piano reduction in the Town Hall in New York on 7 April 1943 with Samuel Dushkin accompanied by Erich Itor Kahn. According to the New York Times review from the following day, ‘the composer bowed from a box’. The New York Sun review includes an interesting passage on the creation of the work based on information in the programme notes. It says: ‘The Martinu Suite written especially for Mr. Dushkin was begun in Paris five years ago. However, it was not finished until last year, when Martinu was a resident of New York. Its movements include a toccata, elegie, caprice and rhapsodie.’ It is questionable whether the Intermezzo was in fact not performed or simply omitted by the reviewer in error; but more interesting is the change of title of three of the movements. In fact these alternative names are more descriptive than those sanctioned by the manuscript—Toccata is a more appropriate title for the fast and motoric first movement than Prelude, and Rhapsody describes the final movement more appositely than Finale.

The title of the second movement, the only one that does not show any influence of Dushkin’s violin technique, is a special case. The heading Elegy alludes to a strong personal aspect that is missing in the title Meditation. While composing this movement Martinu went through the most difficult period of his love for Vítezslava Kaprálová. On 19 December 1938 he went so far as to suggest marriage, which would have meant a divorce from his wife Charlotte. But the more Martinu pushed her, the less sure Kaprálová felt about the future with a man twice her age. Martinu was desperate. On 14 January 1939 Kaprálová wrote to her parents, ‘Martinu has lost eight kilogrammes, he looks bad’. And five days later she wrote to her lover Rudolf Kopec about her recent meeting with Martinu. According to the letter the composer told her: ‘My little girl, my Písnicka [little song], I settled my account with my life. I gave myself to you in such a complete way that in reality I transformed myself into you and now I am only a shell, an empty case.’ It is this biographical context that makes the Elegy the central piece of the entire Suite. It also explains the extensive use of the plagal cadence known as the ‘Juliette chord’. Although Martinu’s opera Juliette was written before he met Kaprálová, he later identified her with the eponymous female role of his opera, the dreamlike femme fatale for all male characters.

After such a private movement the following Intermezzo, with its touch of Fritz Kreisler-like light style as well as allusions to the sounds of birds, comes as something of a surprise. In the Finale Martinu quotes a famous Czech folk song, ‘Hop hej, cibulári jedou’ (‘Hop hey, onion marketeers are coming’).

It is not clear who wrote the piano reduction of the Suite concertante that was performed at the Town Hall. In the literature on Martinu this is credited to the composer and pianist Erich Itor Kahn. However, the recently catalogued Kahn collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts does not confirm this hypothesis. Kahn left no score, and his otherwise very detailed diaries makes no mention of such a time-consuming activity. Moreover it is unlikely that in 1942 or early 1943 Martinu would have had the money to hire someone to undertake this job. According to Harry Halbreich Martinu revised the Violin Concerto No 1 in New York by the end of 1941. It is possible that this supposed revision was in fact the work on a piano reduction of his Suite.

Although most of the reviews were very favourable, the first version of the Suite concertante disappeared from Dushkin’s repertoire. It is not clear why Dushkin stopped performing the piece, nor why he asked the composer for a completely different version of the work. The first version was never published. In 1996 Harry Halbreich, the owner of the autograph of four movements of the Suite concertante’s first version, gave a copy of it to the Bohuslav Martinu Institute in Prague. He expressed his wish to have it performed. However, the manuscript was incomplete since the middle movement, Scherzo caprice, was missing. According to Halbreich’s Martinu catalogue from 1968 this was in the Moldenhauer archives in Spokane, USA. These private archives were donated to the Library of Congress only in 1987, and made accessible even later, but the Scherzo caprice was not among the documents. With the valuable help of Judith Fiehler of the Library of Congress and Don L Roberts from Northwestern University in Illinois, and after much further research, I found a complete draft of the Scherzo caprice, which contains so many detailed remarks concerning the instrumentation that it would certainly be possible to elaborate a full orchestral version out of it. However, since we have evidence—from the above-cited letter by Louise Dushkin—that Martinu completed a full orchestral version of this movement, an alternative orchestration of this draft does not seem appropriate. Therefore this first recording of the Suite concertante’s first version contains only four of the work’s five movements.

from notes by Aleš Brezina © 2008

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