The Kennedy Center

The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca

About the Work

Bohuslav Martinu Composer: Bohuslav Martinu
© Thomas May

Bohuslav Martinů's aesthetic sense was, as the composer himself remarked, inevitably shaped by the striking visual perspective that he enjoyed during a peaceful childhood spent in the sleepy, medieval Czech town of Polič ka. Located near the border between Bohemia and Moravia -- between the towns where Mahler and Smetana grew up -- Policka was dominated by the neo-Gothic Church of St. James. An apartment nestled high above the bells and clock of its campanile was where the composer's family made its home (his father, a cobbler, doubled as the town's fire lookout and bell-ringer). Separated by a precarious flight of 193 spiraling and sometimes wobbly steps from the world below, Martinů gazed out from the tower windows for hours.

The composer later speculated that the long flight up and down may have influenced the sense of unfolding space that can be discerned in his music. The memory of this bird's-eye view stayed with Martinů throughout his long exile from his homeland: first in Paris, then as a reluctant U.S. resident who had fled the Third Reich, and, in his final years, back in Western Europe. It's perhaps not surprising that during his first sojourn back in Europe after the war, Martinů was haunted by his encounter with the art of Piero della Francesca (c. 1420-1492), whose mastery of a unique sense of geometrical form profoundly influenced the development of visual perspective among Renaissance artists.

In 1955, Martinů made a visit to central Italy and chanced upon Piero's Resurrection in the small town of Sansepulcro (which had narrowly survived shelling toward the end of the war). He proceeded to investigate Piero's frescoes in nearby Arezzo -- particularly the sequence of episodes collectively known as The Legend of the True Cross and painted in the Basilica of San Francesco. The sequence traces the history of the Cross on which Jesus was crucified from the death of Adam (the tree planted at his burial was believed to be the original source of the wood of the Cross) up to the Eastern Roman Empire in the 7th century.

The experience moved the remarkably prolific Martinů to compose his first orchestral music since coming back to Europe in 1953. Brian Large, the composer's biographer, observes that in these frescoes "Martinů found the substance of all that he wanted to put into music, the peace and colors of nature, the simplicity of form, the philosophy of acceptance and resignation." The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca distills Martinů's experience of the larger sequence into a tripartite piece for large orchestra, dedicating it to fellow Czech Rafael Kubelík, who led the first performance in 1956.

Martinů didn't intend his composition to provide simple one-on-one correspondences or to be perceived as "program music" accompanying the frescoes. Rather, it renders in sound his admiration of the extraordinary serenity Piero communicates through his geometry of form and use of color. The composer characterized this quality as a "solemn, frozen silence and opaque colored atmosphere, which contains strange, peaceful, yet moving poetry."

Martinů, does, however, refer to specific frescoes as points of inspiration for the different movements. The first (Andante poco moderato) concerns the Queen of Sheba crossing a bridge to Solomon's palace; she is granted a revelation that its wood is fated to be used in the Cross. The immediately evokes a cloudy, opaque atmosphere, drawing on the composer's long-ago infatuation with Impressionism. Bright, ceremonial melodies cut through with clarity, but the mystical tone of the opening returns to frame the movement, the fog at last resolving into a lucid major chord.

The second movement is an Adagio prompted by the fresco of Constantine's Dream, in which an angel assures the future emperor he will conquer the rival Roman leader Maxentius by following the sign of the cross. Martinů's score captures the dreamlike sense of battle to come by giving the call to arms to a solo viola (the single programmatic moment acknowledged by the composer in his comments on the work). Serenely celestial harmonies contrast with a quickening sense of agitation.

The final movement (Poco allegro) is the shortest and mixes the composer's responses to two of the crucial battle scenes in the cycle (that of Constantine at the Milvian Bridge and that between the Eastern Empire and the pre-Islamic Persian King Khosrau II). An almost jazzy theme is set against more overtly martial strains, but after the tension reaches a climax, Martinů quickly resolves the piece on a widely spaced chord that echoes the closure of the first movement and brings the fantasy to a close.