Bohuslav Martinů

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Bohuslav Martinů (New York City, 1945)

Bohuslav Martinů (Czech: [ˈboɦuslaf ˈmarcɪnuː]; December 8, 1890 – August 28, 1959) was a Czech composer of modern classical music. Martinů wrote 6 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 compositional style, the neo-classical as developed by Stravinsky. With this, he expanded to become a prolific composer, composing chamber, orchestral, choral and instrumental works at a fast rate. His use of the piano obbligato became his signature. His Concerto Grosso and the Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano and Timpani are among his best known works from this period. Among his operas, Julietta 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 Bohemian and Moravian folk melodies throughout his oeuvre, usually nursery rhymes—for instance in Otvírání studánek ("The Opening of the Wells").

His 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. Eventually Bohuslav Martinů returned to live in Europe for two years starting in 1953, then was back in New York until returning to Europe for good in May 1956. He died in Switzerland in August 1959.


1890–1923: Polička and Prague[edit]

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

Martinů had an unusual birth setting. He was born in a church tower in Policka, a small town in Bohemia, close to 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 boy, he frequently had to be carried up the 143 steps to the tower on the back of his father or his older sister. In school, he was known to be very shy and did not participate in the plays or pageants with his classmates. In his language, he was slow to answer. As a young adolescent, he could not play ball with other boys because he lacked the coordination to run. But as violinist, he excelled and 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 begin 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. This was in contrast to his roommate, Stanislav Novak, who was an excellent student and a brilliant violinist. Rather than violin, Martinů became engrossed in analysing new music that they heard at concerts and memorised it, so back in their room, he could write out large parts of the score almost perfectly. Novak became astonished at how meticulously Martinů could do this. He became convinced that his roommate, although lacking in other subjects, possessed an incredible brain for analysing and memorizing music.[1] They became friends for life. Dropped from the violin program, Martinů was moved to the organ department, which taught composition, but was finally dismissed in 1910 for "incorrigible negligence".[2]

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 Anděl 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 independent republic, Martinů composed a celebratory cantata Česká rapsodie ("Czech Rhapsody"), 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 that was led by the inspired young conductor, Vaclav Talich. 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.

1923–40: Paris[edit]

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 bring order to his compositions, 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.He was particularly attracted to Stravinsky whose novel, angular, propulsive rhythms and sonorities reflected the industrial revolution, sports events smf motorised transportation. 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 best known during this time is the ballet Špalíček (1932–33), which incorporates Czech folk tunes and nursery rhymes.

In 1926, Martinů met Charlotte Quennehen (1894–1978), 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 found trying. Culturally, however, the two were quite different, a fact that would cause problems in their marriage over the years.[3] In 1937, Martinů became acquainted with a young Czech woman, Vítězslava Kaprálová. Born in Brno in 1915, she was already a highly accomplished musician when she arrived in Paris,armed with a small Czech government grant to study conducting with Charles Munch at the Ecole normale de musique, and composition with Martinů. Their relationship soon developed beyond that of student-teacher as he fell madly in love with her. He accompanied her to London where she opened the conference of the International Society of Contemporary Music conducting her "Military Sinfonietta". She was the youngest composer performing there, while Bartók was the eldest.[4] After she returned to Czechoslovakia, Martinů became obsessive about her, writing her many long, passionate letters. In one of these, he proposed that the would divorce Charlotte and then take her to America. It was while he was in this distraught, frenzied state that Martinů composed one of his greatest works, the Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano and Tympani. It was finished just a few days before the Munich pact was sealed between Hitler and Chamberlain (September 30, 1938).[5] However Kapralova became unnerved over his obsessive behavior and determined to terminate their love relationship [6] When she returned to Paris, she did this by taking on a number of younger lovers. Martinů was very sad as he witnessed this. She became ill, however, and was hospitalised with a painful intestinal ailment, the cause of which was undetermined. She was still in the hospital when the Nazis began to invade France. She then married her countryman, Jiří Mucha,who at that time was writing the libretto for Martinů's Field Mass. He then took her to the south of France.[7]

When the German army then approached Paris, the Martinůs fled. He had been blacklisted for his connections to the Czech resistance. They were in Rancon when he received word that Kapralova died on June 16, 1940 in Montpellier. An autopsy revealed that she had miliary tuberculosis.[8] They te then journeyed to Aix-en-Provence in the south of France, where they stayed for six months while trying to find transit out of Vichy France. He was helped by the Czech artistic community, particularly Rudolf Kundera, along with Edmonde Charles Roux and the Countess Lily Pastré. Despite the harsh conditions, he found inspiration in Aix and composed several works, notably the Sinfonietta giocosa. Charlotte wrote: "We fell in love with Aix: the delicate murmur of its fountains calmed our agitated feelings and later Bohus was inspired by them."[9] Finally, on 8 January 1941, they left Marseilles for Madrid and Portugal, eventually reaching the United States in 1941 with the help of his friend, the diplomat Miloš Šafránek, and especially from his Swiss benefactor, Paul Sacher, who arranged and paid for their passages.[10]

1941–53: US[edit]

Life in the United States was difficult for him initially, 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. After they arrived, the Martinůs lived in a studio apartment in the Great Northern Hotel on 57th St. They were helped by several musician friends, including the pianist, Rudolf Firkusny, violinist Samuel Dushkin, Milos Safranek, Jan Lowenbach and Frank Rybka. Martinu soon found that he was unable to resume composing in noisy Manhattan so, for the following season, they leased a small apartment in Jamaica Estates, Queens, close to the Rybkas. This leafy, residential neighborhood was conducive for him to take long solitary walks at night during which he would work out music scores in his head. Thereafter Martinů did acclimatize himself and composed actively. When he contacted Serge Koussevitzsky, the conductor told him that his Concerto Grosso would be given a premiere in Boston the following season. One of the first compositions we wrote in New York was the Concerto da Camerafor violin and small orchestra, in fulfillment of a commission he had been awarded before the War by Paul Sacher, the conductor of the Basel Chamber Orchestra.[11] The following year, they moved back to Manhattan into an apartment in a brownstone on 58th St, across from the Hotel Plaza. That was where they lived for the rest of their years in America. Composer David Diamond, who sub-leased this apartment in 1954, has described it in an interview.[12] As the War was coming to an end, the Martinus encountered marital difficulties. Charlotte, who never did like America, wanted strongly to return to France. But when he accepted Koussevitzky's offer to teach at the Berkshire Music School for the summer of 1946, she went alone to France for a prolonged visit. In Great Barrington, Massachusetts, he was lodged with the students in Searles Castle, and his magnificent master bedroom opened onto a rooftop veranda. One night, Martinu took his customary walk on the roof, a section of which had no railing. He fell off, landed on concrete, suffered a fractured skull and concussion, and was hospitalized. He went in and out of a coma, but he did survive. After several weeks, he was released to recuperate with friends. By this time, Roe Barstow had entered his life. She was an attractive divorcee of independent means, who lived alone in Greenwich Village. With Charlotte away in France, she was at Martinu's side, assisting in his recovery, during which their relationship deepened. After Charlotte returned in the late fall, she found that her husband was a different man—gaunt, irritable, crippled and in pain from the accident.[13] It required a few years before he was able to return to his former state as a solid composer. Beyond the looming domestic problems, Martinu was unsure in which country he would live in the future. He had considered returning to Czechoslovakia as a teacher, but that was made impossible in March 1948 when the Czech Foreign Minister, Jan Masaryk, was assassinated. Soon thereafter, the communists took over the Republic, and the politically powerful professor, Zdenek Nejedly, who for years had raged against Martinu's music, was appointed Minister of Culture and Education. Martinu was indeed reluctant to leave America which had been very supportive of him. He taught at the Mannes College of Music for most of the period from 1948 to 1956. He also taught at Princeton University[14] and the Berkshire Music School (Tanglewood). At Princeton, he was warmly received by faculty and students. Rather than composition students, it was remarkable how two undergraduate, musically-inclined room mates,Charles Rosen and Michael Steinberg, made it a point to listen in on his classes and get to know him. Years later, after they both became eminent musicologists, they told of their memories of Martinu.[15] His six symphonies were written in the eleven-year period 1942–1953, the first five being produced between 1942 and 1946. In addition, he composed the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 2, Memorial to Lidice for Orchestra, Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, Piano Concerto No. 3, Concerto da Camera for violin and small orchestra, Sinfonietta La Jolla for piano and small orchestra, Sonatas Nos. 2 and 3 for cello and piano, many chamber compositions, and a television opera, "The Marriage". His symphonic scores were performed by most of the major orchestras: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago, and he generally received fine reviews from the leading critics. Because of the extraordinary volume of Martinů's oeuvre, some critics who never knew the man, have stated that he composed too much, too fast, and therefore must have been careless in quality. However he has been defended strongly by musicians and critics who did know him. The eminent New York Times critic, Olin Downes, knew Martinů more depth fully. Downes' defense of the composer came out in an article, "Martinu at 60".[16] " incapable of an unthorough or conscienceless job. He works very hard, systematically, scrupulously, modestly. He produces so much music because in the first place, his nature necessitates this. He has to write music. In the second place, he knows his business and loves it." [17] The composer David Diamond knew Martinů both in Paris and New York. In an interview years later, he expressed amazement at how extraordinary Martinů's mind was in developing a whole orchestral score while taking a walk.[18]

His notable students include Alan Hovhaness, H. Owen Reed, Jan Novak, Vitezslava Kapralova, Howard Shanet. Chou Wen-chung, Burt Bacharach, Zadie Parkinson and Louis Lane.

1953–59: Europe[edit]

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. His remains were moved and buried in Polička, Czechoslovakia, in 1979.[19]


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, viola, violin, oboe and five for the piano; his anti-war opera Comedy on the Bridge; and his chamber music, including eight string quartets,[20] three piano quintets[21] a piano quartet,[22] a flute sonata, a clarinet sonatina and another for trumpet, both from his 1956.[23]

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

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.[citation needed]

One of Martinů's lesser known works features the theremin. Martinů started working on his Fantasia for theremin, oboe, string quartet and piano in the summer of 1944 and finished it on October 1.[citation needed] He dedicated it to Lucie Bigelow Rosen, who had commissioned it and was the theremin soloist at its premiere at New York's Town Hall on November 3, 1945, joined by the Koutzen Quartet, Robert Bloom (oboe), and Carlos Salzedo (piano).[24][25]

His opera The Greek Passion is based on the novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis, and his orchestral work Memorial to Lidice (Památník Lidicím) 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 completed in August 1943 whilst he was in New York and premiered there in October of that year.[26]

Personality and Asperger syndrome[edit]

Martinů had a quiet, enigmatic personality that puzzled friends in New York. He was shy, and laconic with people he first met. He was emotionally stolid. Also, he answered questions slowly, and could fail to reciprocate socially when people might compliment his music, or do favors for him. One such example occurred just after the premiere of one of his "Symphony No 1" in New York. Several other composers gathered to praise him for his fine achievement. But he remained silent and did not thank them and said almost nothing. Afterwards, Aaron Copland remarked to David Diamond, "That man has a very interesting quiet."[27][28] The musicologist, Michael Steinberg, who told how he once complimented the composer about a particular score that he enjoyed immensely, and Martinu said next to nothing in response.[29] Some people who met Martinu casually thought that he was snobbish, unfriendly, stupid, and/or rude. But if they got to know him better, many found that he indeed harbored few of these negatives. In fact he was quite the opposite: a kind, gentle man who, for a native of multi-ethnic, troubled, Central Europe, was surprisingly unbiased. In 2009, F.James Rybka MD,who knew Martinu, collected stories of the composer's unusual personality that were based upon interviews of persons who knew him, as well as a study of the many letters he had written to his family and friends. Evidence of his having an autistic spectrum disorder was compiled and evaluated, using the established criteria found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disease. (DSM-IV) This evidence was reviewed by a well-known autism neuroscientist, Dr. Sally Osonoff, who agreed that the composer had strong evidence of an autistic spectrum disorder, most likely Asperger syndrome. This was described in their publication.[30] In 2011 Rybka published Martinu's biography. This contains a discussion of such traits of Martinu as failure of social reciprocity,[31] shyness in conversation,[32] absent facial gestures, Rybka, FJ p 295, extreme stage fright, Martinu had such a terror about simply walking onto a stage to take a bow after one of his works was premiered that, when he failed to appear when beckoned, he insulted the conductor, Eugene Ormandy in Carnegie Hall.[33] Large motor clumsiness that kept him unable to play sports as a boy, his ritualized schedule,[34] and zoning out into a suspended state when composing while walking.[35] This last trait proved to be a very dangerous one. It nearly killed Martinu in 1946 when, one night,he walked off a second floor veranda 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.[36]

In the biography of Martinu, Rybka discusses both the positive and negative ways that Asperger's worked in his life. It seems to have facilitated his great memory and ability to compose prolifically and skillfully. But it also left him unable to promote or showcase his music, and caused him to be timid and misjudged.[37]


  1. ^ Rybka, F. James , p 22.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Rybka, pp.62–63
  4. ^ Rybka,FJ pp. 74–77.
  5. ^ Rybka, FJ pp. 82–83.
  6. ^ The Kapralova Companion, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2011. ISBN 978-0-7391-6723-6 (cloth); ISBN 978-0-7391-6724-3 (electronic).
  7. ^ Rybka, FJ pp. 85–88.
  8. ^ Rybka, FJ p. 92
  9. ^ Charlotte Martinů, My Life with Bohuslav Martinů, Prague: Orbis, 1978.
  10. ^ Rybka, FJ p 93
  11. ^ Rybka, FJ pp. 59, 105
  12. ^ Rybka, FJ pp. 126–127.
  13. ^ Rybka, FJ pp 151-154, 157, 161-165.
  14. ^ Rybka,FJ pp 182–87
  15. ^ Rybka, FJ pp. 184, 186, 191.
  16. ^ The New York Times January 7, 1951.
  17. ^ Rybka, FJ, pp. 321–22.
  18. ^ Rybka, FJ pp. 134–35.
  19. ^ Kapusta, Jan (2014). Neuveřitelná kauza Martinů. Arbor vitae. ISBN 978-80-7467-043-5. 
  20. ^ Martinů is usually credited with seven string quartets, but his String Quartet in E major of 1917 (Halbreich No. 103) was premiered in 1994. There is also believed to be a string quartet from 1912, given H.60 but missing, and several other missing works from 1912 for quartet (H.62-4) likewise; the composer's first known work, H.1, Tři jezdci (ca.1902), is also for string quartet (Simon, pp.35-6.)
  21. ^ from 1911 (premiered 2012) (H.35), 1933 (premiered 1934) (H.229) and 1944 (premiered 1945) (H.298). See Simon, pp. 36–38.
  22. ^ and one other quartet with piano, one with oboe, violin and cello from 1947
  23. ^ Simon, p.39
  24. ^ Simon, p.38
  25. ^ Downes, Olin (4 November 1945). "Lucie Rosen Plays Theremin Program". New York Times. Retrieved 18 January 2016. 
  26. ^ Simon, pp.22, 197-98, and sources summarised especially Döge, Klaus. "Das entsetzliche Grauen zum Ausdruck gebracht: Anmerkungen zu Martinůs Memorial to Lidice, in Bohuslav Martinů (ed. by Ulrich Tadday), Munich: Text und Kritik, 2009. pp.78-91. ISBN 9783869160177.
  27. ^ David Diamond, in interview with Ales Brezina for the documentary "Martinu in America"[full citation needed].
  28. ^ Rybka and Osonoff, p. 42.
  29. ^ Steinberg, Michael, Letter to FJ RYbka July 12, 2006
  30. ^ Martinu's Impressive Quiet, Czech Music, 23 (2009), 31-50
  31. ^ Rybka, FJ p 293
  32. ^ Rybka, FJ p 294
  33. ^ Rybka, FJ p. 244
  34. ^ Rybka, P.294
  35. ^ Rybka, FJ pp. 293–307.
  36. ^ Rybka, FJ. pp.198-200
  37. ^ Rybka, FJ pp 315–23.

Further reading[edit]

  • Beckerman, Michael Brim, and Michael Henderson (eds.). Martinů's Mysterious Accident: Essays in Honor of Michael Henderson. Hillsdale, N.Y.: Pendragon Press, 2007. ISBN 978-1-57647-111-1 (cloth); ISBN 978-1-57647-003-9 (pbk).
  • Červinková, Blanka (ed.). Bohuslav Martinů, 8.12.1890–28.8.1959: bibliografický katalog. Prague: Panton, 1990. ISBN 978-80-7039-068-9.
  • Halbreich, Harry. Bohuslav Martinů: Werkverzeichnis, Dokumentation und Biographie. Zürich, Freiburg i. Br.: Atlantis-Verlag, 1968.
  • Halbreich, Harry. Bohuslav Martinů: Werkverzeichnis und Biographie. Zweite, revidierte Ausgabe. Mainz: Schott Music, 2007. ISBN 978-3-7957-0565-7.
  • Large, Brian. Martinů. London: Duckworth, 1975. ISBN 978-0-7156-0770-1.
  • Martinů, Charlotta. Můj život s Bohuslavem Martinů. Prague: Editio Baerenreiter, 2003.
  • Mihule, Jaroslav. Bohuslav Martinů: Osud skladatele. Prague: Nakladatelství Karolinum Univerzity Karlovy, 2002. ISBN 978-80-246-0426-8.
  • Rybka, F. James. Bohuslav Martinů: The Compulsion to Compose. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-8108-7761-0.
  • Rybka, F. James, and Sally Osonoff. "Martinu's Impressive Quiet". "Czech Music" 23 (2009), 31–50.
  • Simon, Robert C. (compiler). Bohuslav Martinů: a research and information guide. New York, Abingdon: Routledge, 2014. ISBN 978-0-415-74194-1.
  • Svatos, Thomas D. "Reasserting the Centrality of Musical Craft: Martinů and His American Diaries." The Musical Times 150, no. 1907 (Summer 2009): 55–70.
  • Šafránek, Miloš. Bohuslav Martinů: His Life and Works. Translated by Roberta Finlayson-Samsourová. London: A. Wingate, 1962.

On Martinů's relationship with Kaprálová:

External links[edit]