The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 1

About the Work

Bohuslav Martinu Composer: Bohuslav Martinu
© Peter Laki

It is certainly no coincidence that Bohuslav Martinu wrote all six of his symphonies during the years of his American emigration. He had tried his hand at the genre before, producing one or two pieces intended as symphony movements; yet in France, where he spent the interwar years, the symphony counted as a rather outdated type of composition. In his orchestral works, the Czech composer explored other forms instead, especially the Baroque concerto grosso of which he was very fond and which he brought back to life in the 20th century. In the United States, on the other hand, symphony-writing was thriving, in part because of the great orchestras that were constantly looking for new works, and what's more, issued commissions for them. No American orchestra did more for new music than the Boston Symphony under Serge Koussevitzky. The Russian-born maestro, one of the greatest supporters of modern music in his time, did not forget his old friend when Martinu arrived in America, fleeing the war. Koussevitzky's wife Natalie had passed away shortly before, and it was the conductor's wish that Martinu's new work be dedicated in her memory. (Stravinsky's Ode, Britten's Peter Grimes, and Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra were likewise dedicated in memoriam Mrs. Koussevitzky.)

Martinu, at 52, was keenly aware of the formal and aesthetic expectations regarding the traditional symphony in four movements. As he wrote in the programme book for the first performance, a symphony called for "elevated thought" which, he was convinced, had to arise from the simplest elements-such as the pair of chords, B minor and B major, heard at the beginning of the symphony, linked by several chromatic runs heard simultaneously. This memorable opening, which returns in the third and the fourth movements as well, has a characteristic, French-influenced sound; in the first movement, it yields to a new tune following an irregular dance patterns, reminiscent of Janácek. The different rhythmic combinations made possible by the 6/8 meter produce a movement that, while structurally cohesive, escapes the constraints of sonata form. At the end, the minor-major opening idea is heard again.

The second movement is in a traditional scherzo form with a regular trio (middle section) and literal recapitulation. Its uniqueness lies in its asymmetrical rhythms and its orchestration. Martinu liked to feature the piano as a regular orchestral instrument that perfectly blends with the strings and winds. Another special feature of the orchestration is the absence of the entire string section in the trio.

There is no doubt that the third-movement Largo is funeral music; it bears a certain similarity to the slow movement of Shostakovich's Fifth (according to tradition, a lament for the victims of Stalin's purges). Martinu couldn't possibly have known this work, but the two movements share a certain characteristic three-note motif. Otherwise, Martinu's harmonic language is very different from Shostakovich's. Shortly before writing the Largo, Martinu received news of the massacre perpetrated by the Nazis in Lidice, a Czech village not far from his birthplace, and musicologist Harry Halbreich, who compiled the catalogue of Martinu's works, must be right in claiming a relationship between the Largo and that tragic event. (The following year, Martinu composed a self-standing work commemorating the massacre, his well-known Memorial to Lidice.)

The last movement of the symphony opens with some light-hearted dance rhythms, and proceeds from there toward the triumphant final section, after revisiting the lyrical mood of the first movement.