Bohuslav Martinů

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Bohuslav Martinů (New York City, 1945)

Bohuslav Martinů (Czech: [ˈboɦuslaf ˈmartjɪnuː]; December 8, 1890 – August 28, 1959) was a prolific 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 was born in Polička, 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 young violinist, he 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. Dropped from the violin program, he was moved to the organ department, which taught composition, but was finally dismissed in 1910 for "incorrigible negligence".[1]

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. 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 order his composition, 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. 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 had trouble with; though culturally, the two were quite different, a fact that would cause problems in their marriage over the years.[2] In 1937, Martinů became acquainted with Vítězslava Kaprálová, a young Czech composer-conductor who arrived in Paris in the fall of 1937 to study with Charles Munch at the Ecole normale de musique. Kaprálová also began working with Martinů. Their relationship soon developed beyond that of student-teacher, and at one point they planned to move to America together; however, in the fall of 1939, Kapralova decided to end their love relationship [3] and later married Jiří Mucha, who at that time was writing the libretto for Martinů's Field Mass of 1939.

When the German army approached Paris early in the Second World War, Martinů fled, having been blacklisted for his connections to the Czech resistance. He and Charlotte journeyed first 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." [4] 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.

1941–53: US[edit]

Life in the United States was difficult for him, 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. However, Martinů did acclimatise himself. He composed a great deal and taught at the Mannes College of Music for most of the period from 1948 to 1956. He also taught at Yale University, at Princeton University,[5] and the Berkshire Music Center (Tanglewood). His six symphonies were written in the eleven-year period 1942–1953, the first five being produced between 1942 and 1946.

His notable students include Alan Hovhaness, H. Owen Reed, Jan Novák, Vítězslava Kaprálová, Howard Shanet, Chou Wen-chung and Burt Bacharach.

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.[6]


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,[7] three piano quintets[8] a piano quartet,[9] a flute sonata, a clarinet sonatina and another for trumpet, both from his 1956.[10]

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).[11][12]

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.[13]


  1. ^ 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.
  2. ^ Rybka, pp.62–63
  3. ^ The Kapralova Companion, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2011. ISBN 978-0-7391-6723-6 (cloth); ISBN 978-0-7391-6724-3 (electronic).
  4. ^ Charlotte Martinu, My Life with Bohuslav Martinu, Prague: Orbis, 1978.
  5. ^ from October 1948 to 1951. See Simon, pp.24, 115 (summary of Mihule, 1993)
  6. ^ Kapusta, Jan (2014). Neuveřitelná kauza Martinů. Arbor vitae. ISBN 978-80-7467-043-5. 
  7. ^ 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.)
  8. ^ from 1911 (premiered 2012) (H.35), 1933 (premiered 1934) (H.229) and 1944 (premiered 1945) (H.298). See Simon, pp.36-38.
  9. ^ and one other quartet with piano, one with oboe, violin and cello from 1947
  10. ^ Simon, p.39
  11. ^ Simon, p.38
  12. ^ Downes, Olin (4 November 1945). "Lucie Rosen Plays Theremin Program". New York Times. Retrieved 18 January 2016. 
  13. ^ Simon, pp.22, 197-98, and sources summarized 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.

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.
  • 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]