Bohuslav Martinů : the Czech Stravinsky?

Bohuslav Martinů

Bohuslav Martinů (December 8, 1890 – August 28, 1959) was born in a small Czech village. He studied briefly at the Prague Conservatory before he flunked out. No one ever called him a great student. He managed to become not only the greatest Czech composer of his generation, but a major international figure, known especially for his concerti and chamber music. His work tends to command attention from its opening bars. Its rhythmically vital and singing style recalls both Antonín Dvořák and Igor Stravinsky.

martinu_The Greek PassionFeeling restrained by Prague’s musical life, Martinů left for Paris in 1923 and resided there until France’s capitulation to Nazi Germany in 1940.  His success in America and the uncertain situation of the Third Czechoslovak Republic (1945–48) led him to remain in New York after the end of the war.  A crippling accident in 1946 and the communist coup in 1948 further discouraged him from traveling to Czechoslovakia, where, according to Soviet socialist–realist pretexts, he was quickly condemned as a formalist and emigrant traitor.

martinu_symphoniesIn 1952, Martinů became a naturalized U.S. citizen, prohibiting him from visiting the countries of the Soviet Bloc.  His one—year engagement at the American Academy in Rome formed the pretext for him to resettle in Europe in 1956.  The Paul Sacher Estate in Switzerland became his final residence; he died in nearby Liestal of stomach cancer in 1959.  Work on his opera The Greek Passion, which resulted in two different versions (1957, 1959), formed the thread of his creative activity throughout his final peripatetic years.

martinu_string quartetsHis orchestral works Polička and La Bagarre (1928) were inspired by contemporary events, respectively a Czech-French football (soccer) game and the crowds that met Charles Lindbergh’s plane as it ended its transatlantic flight. Of his later works, the Concerto grosso for chamber orchestra (1941) uses the alternation between soloists and full orchestra found in the Baroque concerto grosso and shows Martinů’s skill in polyphonic writing. The Double Concerto for two string orchestras (1940) is a powerful work expressing Czech suffering after the partition of Czechoslovakia (1938). His Memorial to Lidice (1943) is a short symphonic poem commemorating Czechs killed by the Nazis during their destruction of the village of Lidice in 1942. Martinů’s other works include six symphonies; violin, piano, cello, and flute concerti; six string quartets; and compositions for piano, for harpsichord, for voice, and for unaccompanied cello and violin.

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