Simon Thomas continues our series on personal operatic passions, looking at the works of Bohemian composer Bohuslav Martinů
There are great composers and there are second rate and third rate ones. That may sound a snobbish thing to say but listen to Beethoven followed by Finzi or Elgar followed by Coleridge-Taylor and see if it’s not true. There are of course nuances of grading and music lovers could argue endlessly about which composer deserves to be in which category. I am going to risk the wrath of Martinů lovers by suggesting he is not in the top rank (just listen to him after Jánaček and you may see what I mean).
The thing about lesser talents is that they can still be very fine and distinguished musicians (even Salieri, though no Mozart, was most accomplished despite the modern obsession for setting the two against each other). They can also be enormously enjoyable and inspiring. I’d certainly count Martinů among my favourite composers and he’d probably make it to my desert island line-up.
Bohuslav Martinů was born in Bohemia in 1890 and after an important period of his career spent, like his fellow countryman Dvořák, in the USA, he died in Switzerland in 1959. He was an enormously prolific composer, leaving over 400 works ranging from symphonies, piano and violin concerti, oratorios, operas, ballets, string quartets, songs and a wide variety of orchestral works. So much for quantity; how about quality? Whether or not you rank him among the greats (who cares anyway?), he was a completely individual artist with a sound world all his own.
Assuming I’m not preaching to the converted and you’re new to Martinů, I’d suggest listening to his first symphony. The second movement Scherzo is as characteristic as anything he wrote, full of crazy syncopations and sweeping lyricism paving the way for a yearningly tragic Largo and thrilling last movement. It may not be as sophisticated as, say, his Sixth and final Symphony (“Fantaisies symphoniques”) but listen to it and see if you’re not hooked. It’s a sound like no other, both very Czech in feel and completely unique.
One thing Martinů did frequently was include unusual instruments in his orchestrations (not gimmicks like vacuum cleaners or rare exotic fish sounds, which seem obligatory for some contemporary composers) but instruments like piano, which is not that common in symphonic works, and the accordion. He’s certainly not the only composer to use a piano in his symphonies but he does it brilliantly (you’ll hear it in that first symphony). The accordion is a highly unusual part of an opera orchestra but Martinů used its strange and individual sound, in sparing bursts, with great effect in several of his stage works.
Late in 2009, prior to the 50th anniversary of his death the following year, I wrote a round-up of all Martinů’s operas, which you can read here. It gives an overview of his operatic output, from the earliest Dadaist efforts to his late great religious drama The Greek Passion. Even as recently as that article, his operas were hardly performed in the UK but we have seen a number of stagings in the last dozen years.
One of his best operas Juliette (or Julietta) received a semi-staged performance at the Barbican, with the late Jiří Bělohlávek conducting and Magdelena Kožená in the title role, followed by a full (and rather overblown) staging by Richard Jones at ENO in 2012. A fellow countryman and champion of the composer, Bělohlávek was to leave a fine legacy of recordings.
Based on a Goldoni play, Mirandolina is one of Martinů’s most joyous works, although the production at Garsington in 2009 handled the comedy rather heavily (“It’s unfortunate… that the work gets so perfunctory a performance as it does in Martin Duncan’s colourful but empty production” I wrote about that one). Much more successful were a couple of different stagings of the delightful short-length Comedy on the Bridge by students at Guildhall, good both for them and for the audience. Guildhall students (among them tenor Nicky Spence and baritone Duncan Rock) also impressed in the clunkier The Marriage, another short work, this time based on Gogol.
Following a revived staging of The Greek Passion at the newly refurbished Royal Opera House at the turn of the century, the work was produced again only last year by Christopher Alden for Opera North.
We haven’t exactly been overwhelmed with Martinů stagings, and there are a number of operas still screaming out for productions, but he’s certainly not as great a rarity as he once was. There have also been performances in London in recent years of the oratorio The Epic of Gilgamesh and the gentle and moving Field Mass, as well as various concert works.
At the end of my article in 2009, I advised you (assuming that you’re not already a knowledgeable Martinů admirer) to “sample any of his works that come your way”. I’ll update that now to say, with so much material now available through streaming services and with most of us having a bit more time on our hands at present, go out of your way to find any Martinů you can. Perhaps you’ll get to love him as much as I do.