Bohuslav Martinů

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 La revue de cuisine ("Kitchen Revue").

In the early 1930s he found his main fount for compositional style, the neoclassicism 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

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

Martinů had an unusual birth setting. He was born in the tower of the St. Jakub Church in Polička, a town in Bohemia, close to the Moravian border. His father Ferdinand, a shoemaker, also worked as the church sexton and town fire watchman. For this he and his family were allowed to live in the tower apartment. As a small boy, Bohuslav was sickly and 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, nor the hours of violin practice required. He was far more interested in exploring Prague and learning on his own, attending concerts and reading books on many subjects. This was in contrast to his roommate, Stanislav Novak, who was an excellent student and a brilliant violinist. They frequently attended concerts together at which Martinů became engrossed in analysing new music, particularly French impressionist works. He could memorize much of 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, while 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 that taught composition, but he 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 ancient choral hymns of the Bohemian Brethren, which would influence his style and musical scope.

As World War I drew to a close, and Czechoslovakia declared an independent republic, Martinů composed the 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 Václav Talich, who was the first major conductor to promote Martinu. He also began formal composition study under Suk. He admired Suk, but his old school style failed to capture Martinu, who couldn't get Paris out of his mind. 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

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 by helping him focus and bring order to his compositions, rather than instructing him in a specific style. During his first years in Paris, Martinů incorporated 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 and motorised transportation.[3] 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). Martinů found friends in the Czechoslovak artistic community and would always retain close ties to his homeland, frequently returning during the summer. He continued 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.

The prime leader of new symphonic music in Paris at this time was Serge Koussevitzsky, who presented the biannual Concerts Koussevitzsky (1921–29). In 1924, he became the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but he still returned to Paris each summer to conduct his Concerts. In 1927, when Martinů happened to see him at a café, he introduced himself, and gave him the score of his symphonic triptych, La bagarre, that was inspired by Lindbergh's recent landing. The maestro was impressed, and scheduled its premiere with the Boston Symphony in November 1927.[4]

In 1926, Martinů met Charlotte Quennehen (1894–1978), a French seamstress from Picardy. She was employed at a large garment factory and, after their romance began, she moved into his small flat and helped to support him. She would become an important force in his life, handling the cuisine and business matters that he found trying. They married in 1931. Culturally, however, the two were quite different, a fact that would cause problems in their marriage over the years.[5]

By 1930, Martinů had withdrawn from his seven years of experimentation to settle on a neo-classical style. In 1932, he won the Coolidge prize for the best of 145 chamber music works for his String Sextet with Orchestra. This was performed by Koussevitzsky with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1932.[6] In 1936, Martinu finished his opera, Julietta, that was based upon a surrealistic play by Georges Neveux that he had seen in 1927. Its premiere was given in Prague under Václav Talich on 14 March 1938.

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, supported by a small Czech government grant to study conducting with Charles Munch and composition with Martinů. Their relationship soon developed beyond that of student-teacher as he fell madly in love with her. After she returned to Czechoslovakia, Martinů became obsessive about her, writing her many long, passionate letters. In one of these, he proposed that he 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 Agreement was sealed between Hitler and Chamberlain (30 September 1938).[7]

After the Munich Agreement, President Beneš began to form a Czechoslovak government in exile set up in France and England. As a significant number of troops became organized into a Czech resistance force, Martinů tried to join them but was rejected because of his age. However, in 1939, he composed a tribute to this force, the Field Mass for baritone, chorus and orchestra. It was broadcast from England and was picked up in occupied Czechoslovakia. For this Martinů was blacklisted by the Nazis and sentenced in absentia. In 1940, as the German army approached Paris, the Martinůs fled. They were sheltered by Charles Munch who had a place near Limoges. Soon, they journeyed on to Aix-en-Provence, 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."[8] 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.[9]

1941–53: US

Life in the United States was difficult for him initially, just as it was for many other artist émigrés in similar circumstances. Lack of knowledge of English, of funds, and of opportunities to use their talents were common to them. When they first arrived, the Martinůs rented a studio apartment at the Great Northern Hotel on 57th St. They were helped by several musician friends who included the pianist Rudolf Firkušný, the violinist Samuel Dushkin, the cellist Frank Rybka, the diplomat Milos Safranek and the multi-lingual lawyer Jan Lowenbach. Martinů 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. On several occasions, he would "zone out" in deep concentration about the music, becoming oblivious of his surroundings and become lost and would call a friend with a car to come find him and take him back home.[10] Thereafter, he began to compose actively. When he contacted Serge Koussevitzsky, the conductor told him that his Concerto Grosso would receive its premiere in Boston the following season. One of the first compositions we wrote in New York was the Concerto da Camera for 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 Martinůs encountered marital difficulties. Charlotte, who never did like America, wanted strongly to return to France. He did not, so when he accepted Koussevitzky's offer to teach at the Berkshire Music School for the summer of 1946, she went to France alone 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, Martinů took his customary walk on the roof, a section of which had no railing, and he fell off, landing on concrete, and was hospitalized with a fractured skull and concussion. He drifted 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 Martinů'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, Martinů was unsure in which country he would live in the future. He had considered returning to Czechoslovakia as a teacher, despite having a powerful enemy there, Zdeněk Nejedlý, who raged that Martinů had abandoned his native, Czech music and became Westernized. Then, any return plan was further mangled in March 1948 when the Czech Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk was assassinated. Soon the Communists took over and the politically powerful Nejedly was appointed Minister of Culture and Education, with Miroslav Barvik as his "hatchet man".[14]

Martinů 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[15] and the Berkshire Music School (Tanglewood). At Princeton he was warmly received by faculty and students. 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 Violin Concerto 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. "His standing was... one of the very few subjects on which Olin Downes and Virgil Thomson, the warring critics of The New York Times and The New York Herald-Tribune could agree.[16]

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. Olin Downes knew Martinů more depth fully. For his interviews of Martinů he had the benefit of having Jan Lowenbach, a friend of both men, present as an interpreter. Downes' defense of the composer came out in an article, "Martinu at 60".[17] "Martinu [...] is 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." [18] 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.[19]

Martinů's 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

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 28 August 1959. His remains were moved and buried in Polička, Czechoslovakia, in 1979.[20]


For a comprehensive list, see List of compositions by Bohuslav Martinů

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 violoncello, viola, violin, oboe and five for the piano; his anti-war opera Comedy on the Bridge; his chamber music, including eight string quartets,[21] three piano quintets[22] a piano quartet,[23] a flute sonata, a clarinet sonatina and another for trumpet, both from his 1956.[24]

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.

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. 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 3 November 1945, joined by the Koutzen Quartet, Robert Bloom (oboe), and Carlos Salzedo (piano).[25][26]

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.[27]

Personality and Asperger syndrome

Martinů was a quiet, introverted and emotionally stolid when grouped with persons he did not know well. He answered questions slowly, even speaking in his native Czech. He might fail to reciprocate socially when people might compliment his music or do favors for him.[28] A few people who met Martinů casually thought that he was aloof, unfriendly, or possibly stupid. But if they got a chance to know him better, he would usually open up and display none of these negative traits. Close friends found him to be a kind, gentle man who was self-effacing and 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 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.[29] In 2011 Rybka published Martinu's biography. This contains a discussion of such traits of Martinu as his failure of social reciprocity,[30] lack of facial expressions and animation,[31] phobias and extreme stage fright, inflexible adherence to a ritualized schedule, and zoning out into a suspended state when deeply engrossed composing while walking.[32] This last trait proved to be a very dangerous one. At Tanglewood in 1946, it nearly killed Martinů when, one night, he walked off an unguarded second floor veranda in Great Barrington and suffered a concussion and fractured skull.[33] The biography suggests both 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 skilfully. But it also left him unable to promote or showcase his music and caused him to be timid and misjudged.[34]


  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. Martinu, Bohuslav, 1924 Texts on Stravinsky, Lucie Berna, editor, Martinu Revue, May–August 2013, vol XIII, No 2.
  4. Safranek, Milos,Bohuslav Martinů, The Man and his Music, pp. 32–33.
  5. Rybka, pp.6263
  6. Safranek, M. p. 43.
  7. Rybka, FJ pp. 82–83.
  8. Charlotte Martinů, My Life with Bohuslav Martinů, Prague: Orbis, 1978.
  9. Rybka, FJ p 93
  10. Rybka, FJ p. 110p
  11. Rybka, FJ pp. 59, 105
  12. Rybka, FJ pp. 126–127.
  13. Rybka, FJ pp 151-154, 157, 161-165.
  14. Svatos, Thomas, "Sovietizing Czechoslovak Music: The "Hatchet Man" Miroslav Barvik and his Speech,The Composers Go with the People Music and Politics vol IV/1 (2010) 1-35
  15. Rybka,FJ pp 182–87
  16. Steinberg, Michael p367.
  17. The New York Times January 7, 1951.
  18. Rybka, FJ, pp. 321–22.
  19. Rybka, FJ pp. 134–35.
  20. Kapusta, Jan (2014). Neuveřitelná kauza Martinů. Arbor vitae. ISBN 978-80-7467-043-5.
  21. 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.)
  22. from 1911 (premiered 2012) (H.35), 1933 (premiered 1934) (H.229) and 1944 (premiered 1945) (H.298). See Simon, pp. 36–38.
  23. and one other quartet with piano, one with oboe, violin and cello from 1947
  24. Simon, p.39
  25. Simon, p.38
  26. Downes, Olin (4 November 1945). "Lucie Rosen Plays Theremin Program". New York Times. Retrieved 18 January 2016.
  27. 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.
  28. Rybka and Osonoff, p. 42.
  29. Martinu's Impressive Quiet, Czech Music, 23 (2009), 31–50
  30. Rybka, FJ p 293
  31. Rybka, FJ p 294
  32. Rybka, FJ pp. 293–307.
  33. Rybka, FJ. pp.198-200
  34. Rybka, FJ pp 315–23.


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