Martinu and the Symphony.
The year 2009 marked the fiftieth anniversary of Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu's death, and the occasion gave rise to a number of performances and conferences around the world. Many of these involved collaboration with the Bohuslav Martinu Foundation and Institute in Prague, and were organized under the theme "Martinu Revisited." This recent attention coincides with a gradual return to public favor of Martinu's music over the past few decades as well as ongoing efforts to bolster his reputation. Yet despite increased opportunities to hear Martinu's music in concert, the scholarly community has remained comparatively silent; although there have been two notable recent collections of essays (one edited by Martinu Institute Director Ales Brezina, and the second by Czech music scholar Michael Beckerman), no monographs on the composer have been published in English since Brian Large's rather slender 1975 biography (Martinu [New York: Holmes & Meier, 1975]). Thus, the recent publication of Michael Crump's comprehensive investigation of Martinu's symphonic legacy is a particularly welcome occasion.
Martinu composed six symphonies, and all are works of his maturity. The first five were written in as many years, between 1941 and 1946, while the sixth (given the added tide Fantaisies Symphoniques) did not appear until 1953. The First Symphony, commissioned by Koussevitsky for the Boston Symphony, was a crucial work for Martinu; as a recently arrived refugee from war-torn Europe, the fifty-year-old composer needed to win over the sympathies of his new American audience. Martinu built on the symphony's initial success and soon his music became among the most often performed of living composers in the United States.
Crump examines the symphonies in detail, devoting separate chapters to each one. These form the heart of his study, of course, but in the end these six chapters comprise just under half of the book's total content. Six additional, introductory chapters prepare the reader for the discussion of the symphonies proper. Three of these examine Martinu's earlier orchestral works in their various historical contexts, while the remaining three are devoted to aspects of his compositional style: melody, harmony, and texture and orchestration. Two further chapters, "Between the Symphonies" and "Beyond the Symphonies," respectively examine orchestral works written during the seven-year period separating the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, and those composed during the final years of Martinu's life.
The first of the introductory chapters is of particular interest. Here Crump traces Martinu's early compositional efforts, focusing on the large number of orchestral works written during his student years and subsequent stint as second violinist in the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Martinu's biographers (Milos Safranek, Large and Jaroslav Mihule) have
discussed these works in their monographs but without the detailed examination of the music itself that Crump provides. This is particularly evident in the author's treatment of the more notable works such as the Little Dance Suite which, as Crump indicates, "is the nearest thing to a symphony in his early works" (p. 32). Most detailed of all is his discussion of the symphonic triptych Passing Midnight, composed in the early 1920s, of which the second movement, entitled "The Blue Hour," was performed in 1923 by the Czech Philharmonic under Vaclav Talich. Readers will no doubt be disappointed that scores and recordings of these virtually unknown works are still unavailable, but this situation is bound to be remedied by forthcoming publications from the Bohuslav Martinu Complete Edition.
As Crump states in the preface, he adopts a "point-to-point" approach in his analysis of each symphony in order that the reader will be able to follow his discussions with either a compact disc or a score, or from memory. Practically speaking, however, the reader will want to have ready access to the scores in order to follow Crump's commentaries because they are highly detailed, covering all relevant aspects, and are not meant to be followed casually. Another reason that scores become a necessity is that the music examples provided, while well chosen, are insufficient given the detail of the analyses; one frequently longs for a music example to substitute for, or at least complement, Crump's lengthy descriptions of what is happening in the score, well-written though they may be. With the score in hand, readers may easily reference the passages in question using the cues in the text pointing to rehearsal numbers in the score.
Crump demonstrates a deep knowledge of the symphonies in his analyses and proves to be a persuasive advocate for these scores. His discussions are particularly concerned with what characteristics separate each symphony formally and stylistically from its neighbors, how the movements work individually and as a whole, and, finally, what animates each symphony from a general aesthetic point of view. His judgment of each work is carefully considered and on the whole convincingly relayed. Crump is not afraid to adopt a critical tone when examining Martinu's compositional methods. He is also careful to contextualize Martinu's symphonic works in light of his contemporaries and predecessors. Points of comparison arise with composers such as Sibelius, Nielsen, Stravinsky, Bartok, Suk, and even Brahms. In retrospect, more of these would have been welcome, as such comparisons afford a greater sense of Martinu's place in the Western music tradition.
There is much food for thought in these six chapters, though again some may find the level of detail to be overwhelming. This is because Crump's point-to-point approach involves discussing multiple aspects of the music at once, rather than separating them out for greater relief. This has the advantage of thoroughness, even if as a consequence a reader looking to mine the analyses for specific formal aspects or stylistic features is likely to be thwarted.
Among the most effective aspects of Crump's discussions are his motivic analyses., where he effectively illuminates this characteristic aspect of Martinu's compositional method. In this regard his discussion of the Third Symphony proves to be one of the most revealing in the book, tracing motivic identities and transformations across the work's three movements. Here the attending music examples are clearly labeled and help the reader to follow the exemplary discussion.
Capping the book as a whole is Crump's discussion of the Sixth Symphony. Crump asserts that "it is [Martinu's] supreme artistic testament, and deserves a place among the very greatest pieces of orchestral music of the twentieth century" (p. 408). In the course of his discussion Crump examines in detail the symphony's unique sound world, elaborates on the work's intriguing connections with Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, traces the fate of its principal four-note motive (F-G flat-E-F, a possible reference to Dvorak's Requiem), and considers the composer's quotation of a passage from his opera Julietta in the final movement. Writers have long speculated about the possible program behind the work, and Crump posits his own theory, concluding with the following caveat: "My attempt to guess the programme may have no validity whatsoever--but it is such an enthralling, communicative, and vibrant work, such a compendium of emotional states, that it is endlessly capable of supporting all manner of theories and responses" (p. 408).
This is but one example of how Crump enhances his analyses with subjective commentaries. These are often presented in the first person, and combined with Crump's occasionally anthropomorphic musical descriptions provide a personal perspective that acts as a counterweight to the more formal analysis. This dual approach seems perfectly suitable, and indeed reflects the music of Martinu itself, which, while in some ways readily accessible, more than repays serious and detailed study.
Longy School of Music
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||May 27, 2011|
|Previous Article:||The Reinvention of Religious Music: Olivier Messiaen's Breakthrough Toward the Beyond.|
|Next Article:||THE NINETEENTH CENTURY: Of Poetry and Song: Approaches to the Nineteenth-Century Lied.|