Martinů, La Musique de chambre, No. 1

April 3, 2016

Bohuslav Martinů ((1890-1959))

Chamber Music No. 1.(1959)
Bohuslav MartinůAfter Janáček, Bohuslav Martinů may well be the most significant Czech composer of the 20th century. He grew up in the small town of Polička in Bohemia close to the Moravian border, a place especially rich with musical tradition. Martinů moved to Prague where he did poorly at the conservatory but expanded his cultural awareness including the discovery of Debussy's music that imparted a lasting influence. He began composing, teaching and playing with the Philharmonic until a government scholarship enabled him to move to Paris in 1923, in his early thirties. There, he studied with Roussel and encountered the intoxicating avant-garde trends that made Paris a hotbed in the 20's including Stravinsky (another crucial influence), Les Six (Honegger, Poulenc, Milhaud, Tailleferre, Auric and Durey) and Jazz. Martinů would continue obsessive musical forays for the rest of his life, further absorbing a diversity of influences including the Baroque era, Medieval polyphony, folk music as a rather serious ethnomusicologist, as well as the Romantic music of his numerous noteworthy Czech forbears. Despite his persistent homesickness and occasional holidays back home, Martinů would never live in Czechoslovakia again. The constant turmoil from WWII and later the Communist occupation, combined with Martinů's international travel found Martinů living in New York, Paris again, and then Switzerland until his death in 1959. A peripatetic soul with an obsessive work ethic made Martinů an extraordinarily prolific composer with nearly 400 compositions embracing all genres, including 6 symphonies, 15 operas, and reams of chamber music including 8 string quartets.

In 1959, Martinů composed his very last published chamber work entitled La Musique de chambre, No. 1, a curious irony for multiple reasons, including that there is no subsequent "No. 2." It is truly one of a kind, beginning with its unusual scoring for clarinet, string trio, piano and harp. Martinů wields his palette with exquisite sensibility for color, sonority and transparent texture, painting a three-movement fantasia so rich in sound and evocative expression that words fail to describe it. Each movement comprises a number of vivid sections in a fluid adventure of timbres, melodies, moods and rhythms that elude obvious formal models. There is a dominant rhythmic complexity and motoric vitality here, and in much of Martinů's music, with shifting, shimmering ostinati evoking Stravinsky and also, curiously, the minimalists such as Riley, Glass and Reich who would begin to emerge only a few years after Martinů's death. The harp is crucial for creating "atmospheres" as well as carefully calibrated sonorities in conjunction with the other players, while maintaining an unusually sharp and effective contrast with its close relative, the piano. Though each instrument remains essential, the clarinet is another effective locus of color and character evoking, in passing, influences from Mozart to Strauss. Martinů's lifelong musical wanderlust brings several different flowers to this very poetic musical bouquet including French and Czech accents, folk music, ancient polyphony, fanfares and processions, a touch of jazz, and in the middle movement in particular, an almost Zen-like graceful stillness. A mesmerizing sheen persists throughout. Martinů's final chamber work is a revelation, certainly a beguiling invitation to discover more.

© Kai Christiansen. Used by permission. All rights reserved.