Monday, September 17, 2007

Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959)

Sierra Club


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Born in the Bohemian village of Policka, Bohuslav Martinu was a very prolific and varied composer. He entered Prague Conservatoire as a violin student in 1906 and by 1913 had joined the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. After World War 1, he re-entered the conservatoire and became a pupil of Suk. A year later he moved to Paris and studied under Roussel. The threat of the approaching German armies in 1940 forced him to flee to the United States, where he was encouraged by commissions from Koussevitzky. In 1946 he accepted a post as professor of composition at the Prague Conservatoire, only to return to America two years later. In 1957 he moved to Switzerland where he died.

Martinu's operas include works expressly designed for broadcasting, television or the cinema. His sixteen operas include The Greek Passion, after Kazantzakis, Ariadne, after Neveu, and the radio opera Comedy on the Bridge. Various ballet scores, many unperformed, form part of an interesting if neglected repertoire. Ballet scores include Spalicek, based on fairy-tales and nursery rhymes. An impressive list of orchestral compositions includes six symphonies, the first of them written for Koussevitzky, who commissioned one a year. There are concertos for a variety of instruments, including five for piano and a useful Rhapsody-Concerto for viola and orchestra. The variety of his terms of reference may be seen in his Frescos of Piero della Francesca, The Parables and his earlier Villa by the Sea, based on the evocative painting of Bocklin. His Czech origin is generally identifiable in his music, which nevertheless also reflects the influence of France, while returning at times to earlier musical traditions. Choral works by Martinu include the remarkable Oratorio Gilgamesh, based on the ancient Babylonian epic of that name. There are choral works of biblical derivation and a number of choral arrangements of traditional Czech, Slovak and Moravian material. His songs include Magic Nights, settings of poems translated from the Chinese. There is a bewilderingly large amount of chamber music by Martinu, duos, trios, quartets, quintets, sextets, septets, octets and nonets. Among these the seven string quartets deserve particular mention, in addition to the works for violin and piano and three cello sonatas. In addition to a large number of shorter piano pieces of all kinds, Martinu wrote a Fantaisie and other pieces for two pianos, as well as music for harpsichord, leaving his organ Vigilia unfinished at the time of his death in 1959. [Adapted from Karadar]

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