Spring Symphonies 31/60 - Martinu: Symphony No 1

Spring Symphonies 31/60: 
Bohuslav Martinů: Symphony No 1, H289

All of Martinů's six symphonies were written in his exile to America during the Second World War, this first symphony proper was started in 1942.  His progress out of his home town of Polička (in what was then Bohemia, now Czech Republic) via Prague, Paris, Aix en Provence, Madrid and Portugal was a matter in part of avoiding the First and Second World Wars but also expanding his musical reach and experience.  Along the way he played fiddle in the Czech Philharmonic, had lessons with Roussel, picked up a French wife (and a Czech mistress), and wrote a great deal of music in virtually every genre.

There's much that is distinct in Martinů's music and treasured by those who know it.  But his symphonies, written far from home when the composer was in his 50s, are of a singular style (perhaps his 6th symphony takes things a little further) but it is was his First Symphony which grabbed me and is still thrilling, individual and rich yet compact.  It's a shame it's not heard more in the concert hall.  It employs a pretty much standard late romantic symphony orchestra - one Dvorak would have recognised, he perhaps would have recognise date ingenuity Martinů brings to such matters as the textures of four horns operating independently, the subtle use of percussion and the marvellous woodwind writing.  It's worth recalling that by 1942 Martinů had written in virtually every form except the symphony - the symphony is Opus number 289.  It is, for mid 20th Century, music largely conservative and well-mannered. But it is less obviously Czech - in the style of Dvorak or Smetana except in it's use of folk material.

The first movement lifts off the ground like a rapidly rising helium balloon and sweeps into a melody which has a distinct Czech feel.  Martinů’s music is suffused with the music of his homeland in many ways but less obviously than that of Dvořák and Smetana.  The first movement tune is derived from a hymn-like traditional melody, a call to the heroic goodness of the Dark Age king and saint, Wenceslaus.  It sets the tone for the work - and it’s ancient roots ground the symphony in a common language that could reach from United States to Central Europe which was war-torn and ravaged.  The melody is serpentine and smokily harmonised in a way we will come to expect in the following symphonies. For all that, this movement has a simple charm and yet an intense energy and ardency.  By the end of it we have heard the meat of Martinů's amiable style, there's a great deal to enjoy here. I think it celebrates Martinů's homeland albeit from exile a bittersweet celebration.

The scherzo utilises a kind of pointillistic and percussive quality and is orchestrated lightly at first with growing passion - the rhythm motoristic and the content a broad fusion of Bohemian-style melodies and offbeat, jazzy sensibilities. It works wonderfully to a high spirited polka-like coda - just like Dvorak or indeed early Bruckner might do.  The trio is marvellously other-worldly - time and depth all curiously distorted.

The opening of the third movement, Largo, is immensely long breathed and rich and heartfelt.  It has a tolling bell-like bass line: a nod perhaps to Martinů's early family life and birth place - the tower of St Jacob's Church in Polička.  There are some wonderful novel sounds from the orchestra - where a piano acts like a harp and the massed strings and winds sound like an organ.  The broad breathed movement circles higher and bigger to a climax and then the music fades to an uneasy pulse with winds and then trumpets appearing as lone, somewhat melancholic voices.  Much is made of the place of the piano in Martinů's music and even amongst this fulsome orchestration it keeps distinct role.  The slow music in this movement might owe something to American landscape music of the period - though Martinů keeps a tighter control. It is a love letter to Bohemia like no other. Dvorak seems to be a distant memory of a more distant view of the place.

The final movement, Allegro non troppo, is full of celebratory trills and percussion decoration.  It reeks of old Bohemia in it's solos and looks within the work for some of it's most appealing ideas.  The dazzling orchestration seems to mix up the traditional modes of orchestration - the piano playing woodwind decoration, the winds sweeping sheets of glissandi rather than the strings and the strings adding a colour to the brass chords. It is exciting, noble and grand - but still never overwhelming those moments of quiet reminiscence.  It is a fine example of how skilled composers maintain a compact style whilst giving space for solo voices need to stop time with singing ideas.  The coda is fast and takes some of it's style from Bartok and the like but as always from the music of the land of origin.

Martinů's First Symphony may not be the towering masterpiece people might expect for this series: but it is music of character which is my starting point and it is under-appreciated.  Martinů came back to Europe after the war but with Czechoslovakia under Soviet rule, he didn't return to Polička but to France.  It is worth noting one small part of his legacy - whilst in the States one of his pupils was Burt Bacharach: how small these musical circles can be.

YouTube has provided us with the excellent Jiri Belohlavek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a live performance here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XzrHLcmmRJI


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