The Epic of Gilgamesh (Martinů)

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The Epic of Gilgamesh (Czech: Epos o Gilgamešovi) is an oratorio for solo voices, chorus and orchestra by Bohuslav Martinů composed in 1954–1955 near Nice in France,[1] and premiered in 1958[2] in Basel, Switzerland, with a title and text in German, as Das Gilgamesch-Epos.[3]


Title page of The epic of Gilgamish by R. Campbell Thompson, 1928

Maja Sacher visited the British Museum and brought back to Switzerland the booklet about the clay cuneiform tablets concerning Gilgamesh she had seen. Martinů was very much taken with the subject (he had in 1919 created a work based on another Babylonian them, Istar) and in September 1948 he urged his friend Sacher to obtain a complete translation; this was one by the archaeologist Reginald Campbell Thompson.[4] However, Martinů wrote his text in English, based on the translation in hexameters by Campbell Thompson, The Epic of Gilgamish (1928),[3] in his own style, choosing freely what would suit his music best.[5] Martinů would have preferred to compose it to a text in Czech and, according to his biographer Miloš Šafránek, he regretted hearing too late about the recent Czech translation of the epic by poet Lubor Matouš.[6] Later, Ferdinand Pujman translated Martinů's text on the basis of Matouš' work for what became Epos o Gilgamešovi.[7] The composer began work around Christmas in 1954 and finished on 18 February 1955, keeping in close contact with the Sachers the whole time.[4]

The text comprises a sectional portrait of the original Epic of Gilgamesh in three parts.[8] They are entitled 'Gilgamesh', 'The Death of Enkidu', and 'Evocation' where Gilgamesh summons Enkidu from the world of the dead.[9] Parts of the text are transplanted – for instance the first section contains elements of the Third Tablet and the final section comes from the Tenth Tablet.[4]


  • Part 1 (401 bars), "Gilgamesh": The people describe the horrors of their ruler and ask Goddess Aruru to create a companion for Gilgamesh so that he may be distracted; Aruru creates Enkidu; Gilgamesh learns about the hunter and has him brought under his influence through a sexual seduction; Enkidu accepts the woman's approaches and goes into the city; Enkidu's herd no longer wants to be with him and flees; Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight each other.
  • Part 2 (370 bars), "Death of Enkidu": The fight in the past, they become friends; but Enkidu falls ill and dreams that he will die; which he does, after twelve days of pain. Gilgamesh cries for him; he seeks eternal life, but cannot find it.
  • Part 3 (525 bars), "The Incantation": Gilgamesh comes to realize that he has not been able to learn the mystery of immortality; Enkidu has to come to life again by an incantation and tell him; in a conversation with his spirit, all that is heard are the words: "I saw".

This is an example of comparative text; Campbell Thompson and Martinů:

R. Campbell Thompson (1928) Bohuslav Martinů (1954)
So when the goddess Aruru heard this, in her mind she imagined / Staightaway this concept of Anu, and, washing her hands, the Aruru / Finger'd some clay, on the desert she moulded it: thus on the desert / Enkidu made she, a warrior, as he were born and begotten / Yea, of Ninurta the double, and put forth the whole of a fillet; / Sprouted luxuriant growth of his hair – like the awns of the barley, /

Nor knew he people nor land; he was clad in a garb like Sumuquan. / E'en with gazelles did he pasture on herbage, along with the cattle / drank he his fill, with the beasts did his heart delight at the water.

Bass solo: To th'appeal of their wailing Goddess Aruru gave ear. / She finger'd some clay, on the desert she moulded it. / Thus on the desert Enkidu made she, a warrior. / In the way of a woman he snooded his locks, / sprouted luxuriant growth of his hair like the awns of the barley.
Chorus: Nor knew he people nor land. / With the gazelles did he pasture on herbage. / Along with the beast did his heart delight at the water, / with the cattle.

Performance history[edit]

The premiere of the oratorio took place on 24 January 1958 with the Basel Chamber Orchestra and the Basel Chamber Choir conducted by Paul Sacher,[10] and it received further performances in Martinů's lifetime, including one in Vienna where the soloists were Marilyn Horne Murray Dickie, Otto Wiener and Walter Berry, conducted by Sacher.[11] The United Kingdom premiere in 1959 was conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent, who had been very impressed with it on hearing during a visit to Prague; Alvar Liddell was the narrator, and it was recorded. Vernon Handley conducted the work in Guildford in 1970.[12] Having made a studio recording for Supraphon in 1976, Jiří Bělohlávek conducted a performance in the Festival Hall with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Jack Shepherd as narrator in 1995, issued on CD by the BBC.

A staged version of the work was presented for the first time by the Brno National Theatre in April 2019 produced by Jiří Heřman, with choreography by Marko Ivanović, with Jiří Brückler in the title role, coupled with Dido and Aeneas.[13]

In 2014, Aleš Březina's critical edition of the Epic of Gilgamesh was published by Bärenreiter within the Bohuslav Martinů Complete Edition.

Subsequent operas on the subject have been written by Per Nørgård and Volker David Kirchner, among others.[13]


  1. ^ Charlotte Martinů: Mein Leben mit Bohuslav Martinů, translated from Czech into German by Štěpán Engel, Presseagentur Orbis, Prague 1978, pp. 129-131.
  2. ^ Theodore Ziolkowski - Gilgamesh Among Us: Modern Encounters With the Ancient Epic 2011 Page 75 "In 1954–55, only a few years before his death, the enormously prolific Bohuslav Martinů (1890–1959), along with Leoš Janáček one of the two leading Czech composers of the twentieth century, wrote his oratorio The Epic of Gilgamesh."
  3. ^ a b Ines Matschewski: "Fragen der Freundschaft, der Liebe und des Todes: Das Gilgamesch-Epos von Bohuslav Martinů", in: Texte zur Chormusik: Festschrift zum zehnjährigen Jubiläum des Internationalen Chor Forums ICF, edited by Gerhard Jenemann. Carus-Verlag, Stuttgart 2001, ISBN 39-230-5394-0, p. 41–47
  4. ^ a b c Mihule, Jaroslav. Commentary in booklet accompanying Supraphon LP 1 12 1808, 1977.
  5. ^ Bo Marschner: „Das "Gilgamesh-Epos" von Bohuslav Martinů und die Oper "Gilgamesh" von Per Norgård“, in: Colloquium Bohuslav Martinů, His Pupils, Friends and Contemporaries: Brno, 1990, edited by Petr Maček and Jiří Vyslouvžil. Ústav hudební vědy filozofické fakulty, Masarykova Univerzita, Brno 1993, S. 138–151.
  6. ^ Miloš Šafránek: Bohuslav Martinů: his life and works, Wingate, London 1962, S. 304–308.
  7. ^ Catalogue data in the library of Institut Bohuslava Martinů. o. p. s., Prag
  8. ^ F. James Rybka Bohuslav Martinů: The Compulsion to Compose 2011 Page 258 "Synopsis of Martinů's “Gilgamesh” - In his approach toward moulding this classical epic into an oratorio, Martinů immediately realized that he could not incorporate many passages of the metaphorical, extant story that is dispersed over the twelve tablets. Even the most coherent versions are disconnected. He anticipated including the Great Flood (tablet IX), but eventually had to eliminate it. Instead, he composes a sectional portrait of Gilgamesh in three parts."
  9. ^ Libretto and translation in booklet accompanying Supraphon LP 1 12 1808, 1977.
  10. ^ F. James Rybka Bohuslav Martinů: The Compulsion to Compose Page 259 2011 - "Although he completed the work in 1954, the premiere of The Epic of Gilgamesh took place on January 24, 1958, by the Basel Chamber Orchestra and Choir conducted by Sacher. This event had a profound personal connection to all ..."
  11. ^ Paul Sacher dirige Martinů : une épopée historique (Paul Sacher conducts Martinů : a historical epic) accessed 6 January 2020.
  12. ^ The Musical Times - Volume 111 Page 723 JSTOR (Organization) - 1970 "Martinu's Epic of Gilgamesh was given its British premiere in Guildford on May 2; the occasion was also Vernon Handley's 100th .."
  13. ^ a b John Allison. Report from Brno. Opera, June 2019, Vol 70 No 6, p706-708.