A true original, an immensely appealing composer

From the Lebrecht Album of the Week:

I am beginning to wonder if posterity will ever place Bohuslav Martinu where he justly belongs, as the last in a quartet of Czech geniuses, after Smetana, Dvorak and Janacek. With each passing year, Martinu (1890-1959) seems to recede further into the mists, his 16 operas unstaged, his six symphonies unperformed. Czechs find him too cosmopolitan – he lived most of his life in France and the US – while others are daunted by his mountainous output. There are more than 400 recorded works by Martinu, all of high proficiency. When the innocent ear catches Martinu for the first time, it recognises a  sound world that is at once distinctive and entirely approachable, ever the mark of a great composer.

Read on here… and here.

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  • I’m also a great fan of Martinu. Living in Prague at the moment, I haven’t really noticed his music disappearing. But his symphonies are definitely pieces that orchestras seem to do once and then forget about for a couple decades.

    • I feel so lucky as to have seen the new National Theatre production of his Julietta in Prague this past May. Fascinating, weird piece that it is – literally like a musically-staged dream – very strange, yet beautiful and touching. Wonderful production featuring an all-Czech cast who did their patrimony proud. I love his symphonies which I’m gradually getting to know through recordings – not sure I’ve ever seen one of them programmed in Toronto, at least not in recent years.

  • I saw Julietta done some years back by the University of Washington opera dept and it was magic. Every major opera house should have The Greek Passion in its rep. I have no trouble placing him in Czech music as one of the Mighty Four. Even in the wilds of Arizona I have all the symphonies in score as well as recordings. He was perhaps a little too prolific for his own good and its difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.
    I think Suk needs more attention as well. We should certainly hear the Asrael Symphony more frequently.

  • The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s forthcoming main season in Poole includes Martinu’s Fourth Symphony conducted by Aleksandar Markovic on 26 October – yet amazingly contains no symphonies by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms or Tchaikovsky.

  • Christopher Hogwood was a surprising (and effective) champion, as was Charles Mackerras. But now they’re gone . . .

  • Remembering back in the LP days of a performance of the Symphony #6, also known as Fantaisies Symphoniques, with Munch and the Boston SO, that caught my ears immediately and gave me much pleasure. Also heard a performance of the Madrigals for violin and viola at Yale in Norfolk’s Saturday morning student programs last summer that had a small audience responding enthusiastically.

  • As it happens, he is slowly taking over as my favourite of The Four. If only because there is so much new to hear, and so much seems so extraordinarily good.

    Please spread the word still further!

    • I conducted the Nonet a few years ago and am eager to do it again. Wonderful, warm music. When I was a student in Boston, end of the Munch era, we heard not only the Fantaisies symphoniques but also his newest works as they appeared. I will always be grateful for his advocacy of this repertoire, along with Roussel and Honegger.

  • To take nothing away from Martinu….

    …but how is it that Josef Suk would not be considered equal to if not even greater than Martinu, Smetana, and Janacek as a composer by Mr. Lebrecht?

    I find myself blown away by Suk’s deeply affecting works, even if there are relatively few of them. The quality of his output is astounding overall, even if the volume is not. The Asrael Symphony and A Summer’s Tale are outright masterpieces. And Symphony #1, often dismissed as inconsequential, is pretty wonderful too, as I came to appreciate from Behlolavek’s recent recording of it.

    • I won’t get into a Martinu vs. Suk argument, as I also love Suk. One of the greatest things I heard in my years in Seattle was Michael Gielen conducting “A Summer Tale,” and a Czech Philharmonic performance of Asrael in Prague not long ago had me wondering why it’s not one of their core touring pieces (they could certainly give New World a rest). Suk’s Fantasy for Violin (really a concerto) is wonderful, as well.

  • The Rhapsody-Concerto for Viola is a tremendous piece, and it is neglected even amongst violists. The only performances I know of in recent years are mine (at a summer festival), Robert Vernon’s with the Cleveland Orchestra, and Paul Silverthorne’s with the LSO (possibly the Sinfonia).

  • Mischa Elman’s live recording of Martinu’s Violin Concerto in G Minor with Koussevitzki conducting is available on YouTube (the CD is out of print). This concerto should be better known (and the performance is wonderful)

  • If you’re in the Washington, DC area on June 4, 2017, the Symphony of the Potomac, which I conduct, will present an all-Czech program including the Martinu Concerto for Two Violins, soloists an excellent wife-and-husband team, Marcoliva. The concert begins with the first two symphonic poems from “Mà Vlast” and ends with the Dvorak Seventh. Sorry, no Suk or Janacek!

  • It is the blanket of ignorance and anti-humanism of postwar modernism that has greatly contributed to the relative marginalization of brilliant composers like Martinu.

    He was an odd character, super shy, socially-awkward: “He was very shy and quiet with people who met him casually. When other composers complimented his achievement after the premiere of one of his works, he remained silent and did not thank them.” (Wikipedia) He probably suffered from a form of autism: “…… failure of social reciprocity, shyness in conversation, extreme stage fright, panic attacks, lack of animation and gestures, lack of empathy, a ritualized schedule, large motor clumsiness and his obsession to compose music in his head to where he would zone out into a suspended state, and become oblivious of his physical surroundings while walking. – This last trait proved to be a very dangerous one. It nearly killed Martinu in 1946 when, teaching at Tanglewood, he walked off the balcony one night in Great Barrington, landed on concrete, and suffered a concussion and fractured skull. He was hospitalized in a coma, and although he did survive, it required a few years before he regained his skills as a composer.”

    Martinu’s neo-classicism in opera is much more effectvie and expressive than Stravinsky’s, whose Mavra and Rake are exceedingly dull when compared with Martinu’s, especially this Ariane which bursts with life.

  • Martinu is my favourite composer, and has been since I first discovered him in 1990. I find his music singularly addictive: I’ve collected recordings of every last piece I can find (and consequently have a huge CD collection of his music alone), and have found him compulsive listening for the last quarter of a century or so. I never tire of his music, not least because there’s so much of it: but happily, contrary to ill-informed received wisdom, it’s not of ‘uneven quality’ at all. Pretty much everything’s top notch. Yes, certainly there are ‘masterpieces’ and ‘ordinary works’, but even the ‘ordinary’ music is pretty extraordinary. And actually, it’s surprisingly difficult to say which are the masterpieces, because the quality is so Bach-like in its consistency.

    As for what Norman says… I’m not sure. I think the Martinu Revisited project that coincided with the 50th anniversary of Martinu’s death did a lot of good, and led to quite a number of new concert performances and recordings. I’m also often been quite heartened in recent times to discover a significant undercurrent of Martinu lovers in unexpected places, or in the form of other modern composers and conductors. And new recordings of his music do continue to turn up. On the other hand, of course, he certainly isn’t played enough, let alone as much as he deserves to be. That goes without saying; but it’s also true of many other composers. At least I do get the feeling these days that he’s finally established ‘critical mass’, and that enough people take him seriously to mean that he has a long-term future.

    Clearly that’s far from universal. Last time I was in a prominent classical record shop in London in 2015 (perhaps I’d better not say explicitly which one… but its initials include H and M but not V…!), I was disappointed to find very little Martinu on the shelves and made an enquiry, to which I received a sneery response from the person behind the counter to the effect that Martinu’s music wasn’t something they wasted their time on in that establishment. Evidently it was beneath them. Well, I suppose you’ll encounter occasional tin-eared bigotry even in such a specialised environment, but it’s very disappointing if the staff in such a shop are willing to put their own questionable tastes over the customer’s ability to hear or buy what interests them, regardless of its merits.

    Aside from such annoyances, I do wish we could hear more Martinu in the Proms. That seems to veer between being over-conservative and ill-advisedly avant-garde (the recent televised performance of Sofia Gubaidulina’s Third Symphony will hardly have done a whole lot to turn the masses on to classical music…). As for its forays into cross-over rubbish (Pet Shop Boys Prom? David Bowie Prom? Pah!), that to me is just a betrayal of the Proms’ historic standards and principles, though no more than you’d expect from the modern BBC. But much as I like the Proms overall and in principle, they seem to have a miraculous ability to skirt around, yet never (or VERY rarely) include, all my favourite composers. ACCESSIBLE twentieth-century music seems to go against the grain for reasons that I can’t understand, and as a consequence, lots of excellent composers suffer, not just Martinu.

    As for Martinu, though, all we enthusiasts can do is continue to support our composer by attending concerts and buying CDs of his music, or helping in whatever other ways we can. As a member of a choir, I was in a position a couple of years ago to plan a whole concert myself, and I put on a Czech-music concert that worked through from Smetana to Martinu and included a couple of my favourite Martinu choral items (Five Czech Madrigals and Primrose). The concert went very well and the choir LOVED the music (all of it, actually, but especially the Martinu – which went much better than I might have expected, as it was actually pretty difficult). Sadly, we only got a small audience. But every little helps.

    • As for the BBC: “ACCESSIBLE twentieth-century music seems to go against the grain for reasons that I can’t understand, and as a consequence, lots of excellent composers suffer, not just Martinu.” This is part of the mental heritage of William Glock, who ran the BBC music propaganda unit in the sixties and whose party line forbade music which was not ‘progressive’. So, even the most obvious [redacted] was celebrated, not for its musical qualities – which are never in themselves progressive anyway – but for their utopian promises. Today, any new music must, for the BBC, at least give some signals that it is of ‘our time’ whatever that may mean. So, it must have colourful effects, some irregular rhythms, a signal or two referring to pop, and a triad thrown-in for postmodern effect. If it sounds, nonetheless, completely senseless, all the better because THAT makes it ‘of our time’ – our beautiful, nihilistic time waiting for the next catastrophe (without colour effects).

      • At an enquiry in the early sixties, Glock was asked – what did the Controller, Music (and how’s that for a job description) plan to offer listeners? – the reply: “What they will like tomorrow”.
        Shades of Schönberg’s “one day the milk men will whistle my tunes in the street.” Stunning, really.

        • One rainy sunday in 1983 in Llandudno, the local milkman was found laying on his stomach in the front yard of mrs Middleborough, desperately whistling the clarinet line from the ‘Marsch’ of Schoenberg’s Serenade. He was hospitalized the same day but never recovered. Mrs M was very upset and informed the ambulance staff that she had merely casually mentioned the Viennese composer in their chat while the bottles were delivered at the door.


          • Except not only was the great composer wrong about his melodies, he also failed to predict that one day the profession of milkman would no longer exist..

  • I discovered Martinu in my late teens when I was in a record shop and – for some reason now lost in the mists of time- bought an LP of his Les Fresques de Piero Della Francesca. Truly marvellous music! I became an instant Martinu devotee. So thank you Mr Lebrecht for bringing this fascinating composer back to my consciousness, as I had completely forgotten about the Fresques and haven’t listen to them in years.

    Speaking of neglected composers, what about another very good 20th Century ‘M’ composer – the Swiss Frank Martin? He wrote some very fine music including Eight Preludes for Piano (1947–1948) and Concerto for seven wind instruments, timpani, percussion, and string orchestra (1949), and the oratorio <iGolgotha (1945–1948). Time to resurrect Frank Martin too, it would seem.

    And just for the record, what about another Swiss, this time with ‘H’ – Arthur Honegger? Another prolific composer, one of “Les Six” along with Milhaud and Poulec, amongst others. Only his oratorio Le Roi David seems to be performed, if rarely, these days.

  • Neglect not true, even if he doesn’t have the status of fourth great Czech abroad which he has in his homeland (and richly deserves). Belohlavek conducted all six Martinu symphonies in a revelatory series with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, The Greek Passion was revived at the Royal Opera, Richard Jones’s production of Julietta did well at ENO and it has recently been staged in Paris, Berlin and Prague. Plus the Guildhall students put on a superb double bill this season past. He’s on the up again.

  • This is a subject vey close to my heart as I also agree that Martinu is a composer of the first rank is quite undeservedly neglected. His six symphonies stand on equal footing with those of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Sibelius, and Nielsen. With my own orchestra, (the New York Repertory Orchestra), I have made performing Martinu’s wonderful works an important mission. In the past several seasons we have performed the First and Fourth Symphonies, as well as the Violin Concerto (Susie Park, violin), the Viola Rhapsody-Concerto (John Dexter, viola), and the incredibly moving “Memorial to Lidice” – More to come in the upcoming seasons!

  • There have been quite a few Martinu opera productions in Germany in the last few years and the Frankfurt Symphony seem to playing a symphony cycle. A few months ago Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin gave a concert performance of Ariane. Tughan Sokiev was indisposed and Martyn Brabbins took over. The performance was streamed by German radio and with Laura Aiken as Ariane the performance was marvellous – hats off to Brabbins for this. Incidentally Brabbins showed a surer touch than Netopil did in a previous streamed performance I heard on Czech Radio.

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