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I was halfway down the vertiginous bell-tower where Bohuslav Martinu spent his boyhood before I understood why this most fertile of melodists became my private passion. Half a century after his death in Swiss exile in August 1959, the Czech composer is receiving sporadic exposure this year – starting, on Friday week, with the first performance in London for three decades of his greatest opera, Julietta, the late-1930s story of a man in pursuit of the voice of his dreams.
As graphic a study in romantic obsession as Korngold’s Dead City, Julietta is playing for just one night at the Barbican, despite having Magdalena Kozena, Simon Rattle’s partner, in the title role. Book now, or miss it forever. No promoter is likely to take another big punt on a composer who has dropped so far off the public radar that the Barbican box-office asks you to spell his name.
Martinu, born 1890, is a casualty of the 20th century’s musical wars, an original mind who refused to follow either of the dominant ideologies, nationalist or atonalist. Prolific beyond belief, with more than 400 works to his credit, he is all too easily dismissed as a central European windbag without a defining hit. His last opera, The Greek Passion, has been staged twice at Covent Garden, but otherwise you can go from one decade to the next without hearing more than ten minutes of Martinu at a stretch – and that, all too likely, in the insomniac hours of classical radio.
Yet ten minutes is all it takes. Sleepless in a hotel room somewhere in Germany, I heard a seductive trickle coming from the radio and, before I rose next morning, was hooked on a mission to hear more. This was music like no other, an adhesive sound. It had a certain Czech cadence, not dissimilar to Janacek’s, but the personality was altogether softer, more inviting. Gathering an armful of recordings, his Rhapsody-Concerto for viola and orchestra struck me as the most eloquent statement for that disparaged instrument since Berlioz’s Harold in Italy. The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca were as exhilarating as the original pictures in the Arezzo basilica.
Like Shostakovich, he had a four-note signature theme. There was quirky humour to his jazzy tour of French restaurants, La revue de cuisine, and a sweaty matiness to his football piece Half-time, intended to entertain the crowd during the break. Last and sweetest, the nonet that he wrote on his deathbed is the least regretful valediction in western music, fifteen minutes of smiling and fond farewell. I was smitten.
On a research trip, I managed to catch 11 of his 16 operas in a fortnight in Prague and Brno. I visited the birthplace in the small town of Policka, climbed the tower, delved into the archives and commissioned a biography for a series of books I was editing from the foremost Martinu scholar who, under communism, earned his keep sweeping streets. Sadly, he was appointed ambassador to Holland and had to return the cheque.
One way or another, I was determined to share my Martinu passion with sympathetic partners but every BBC lapel I clutched yielded the same world-weary sigh: ‘Oh, Martinu, there’s so much of it, we can’t get excited.’
True, the life was not the stuff of erotic thrillers. Raised in two tiny rooms in a church steeple where his father was firewatcher for the province, Martinu got his first job as a violinist in the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra before he headed to Paris, where he moved in with a dressmaker called Charlotte and lived off her earnings until he could afford to marry her. When the Germans invaded France, he fled to the US where he had five symphonies commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and wrote an opera for NBC television in the false dawn when it seemed the mass media might be interested in new music.
During those American years, Bohuslav Martinu was right up there with Stravinsky and Bartok among the living greats. He wrote pieces for Albert Einstein to play on his violin and mingled with the Manhattan intelligentsia. But he was never comfortable with celebrity and suffered depression and tinnitus before returning to Europe, where he was looked after during his fatal illness by the Swiss valium heir, Paul Sacher. He was, by all accounts, a quiet, unassuming man.
As for any erotic byplay, there was a yearlong affair with an alluring Czech composer, Vitezslava Kapralova, which left an imprint on his opera, Julietta. Martinu, though, was never going to leave Charlotte, so Kapralova went off with the artist Jiri Mucha, shortly before her own death of tuberculosis in 1940. Two other known affairs dent the placid conformity of Martinu’s life, suggesting that he had much to suppress behind the solemn expression of his publicity portraits.
It is impossible to know and futile to speculate what goes on in an artist’s mind while a work is being made, and Martinu gave nothing away behind that poker face. What puzzled me is why his music has faded to silence in the half-century his death. Most of what he wrote meets Sir Thomas Beecham’s definition of great music: it penetrates the ear with facility and quits the memory with difficulty. Why Martinu fell out of concert usage is a conundrum that taxed my mind until I was halfway down the bell-tower, having visited the dizzy room where he lived until he was twelve years old.
It is 198 stone steps up the tower and even in peak condition I was gasping for breath. The view from the steeple is all-encompassing in four directions. One puff of smoke in a distant field and Martinu or his father would ring the bell to summon the fire-trucks. The perspective from the tower is, however, deceptive. It leaves you feeling part of the world, yet above and detached from it. Martinu once spoke of this as a weakness in his music, a failure to achieve total engagement.
But that is not all. Halfway down the staircase, I caught myself wondering what young Martinu must have felt if he left his sandwiches at home and had to run back up 198 steps to fetch them. The discipline required of a boy living so high above his friends may have yielded a voluminous output. But it also eliminated the creative abandon that can produce the greatest inspiration.
This is not to diminish Martinu, far from it. He is a great composer and I am thankful that the BBC has as its chief conductor Jiri Belohlavek, the finest Martinu champion of recent times, who will conduct Julietta next week, some more works at the summer Proms and a full symphonic cycle in the autumn. And Garsington Opera, bless 'em, are giving the UK premiere of Mirandolina. This may be Martinu’s last chance – and ours to hear him. He is not a Stravinsky who bangs at our ears, or a Schoenberg who batters the mind. Martinu is an eagle in a high eyrie, almost unreachable. You have to seek out his cry, his signature tune. But once he becomes part of your listening world, he is indispensably heart-warming. My life would be much the poorer without him.
Essential Martinu on record
1 Rhapsody-concerto for viola Josef Suk (Supraphon)
2 Nonet, La revue de cuisine Lahti ensemble (Bis)
3 4th symphony, Memorial to Lidice Jiri Belohlavek (Chandos)
4 Cello sonatas Steven Isserlis (Hyperion)
5 Frescoes of Piero della Francesco Rafael Kubelik (EMI)
6 The Greek Passion Sir Charles Mackerras (Supraphon)
7 Piano concertos Rudolf Firkusny, Libor Pesek (BMG)
8 Symphonies 5 and 6 Karel Ancerl (Supraphon)
9 2nd violin concerto Isabelle Faust (Harmonia Mundi)
10 Tango and madrigals Villa Musica (MDG)
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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]