Bohuslav Martinů

(d. 28 August 1959)

Bohsulav Martinů was a Czech composer and violinist of the 20th century. Although not one of the foremost 20th century composers, his music is consistent, innovative, and of a high quality. Having studied in Paris, his works are very much influenced by jazz and neo-classical composers. His Czech roots are also obvious in his abundant use of folk songs. Martinů’s music has a very distinctive style, most likely resulting from his isolation in a church tower as a child. He composed a significant number of works, despite beginning to be a composer of note in his late 20s.

Bohuslav Martinů was born in 1890 in the small town of Polička, Czechoslovakia, on the Bohemian side of the Bohemian-Moravian border. His father worked as a cobbler, fire-watcher, and rang the church bells. For these reasons, the family lived in a church tower. The isolation and distance provided by the tower later influenced his personality and compositional style. At a young age, Martinů started violin lessons, where he developed rapidly. He led the Polička quartet and made his first solo appearance at the age of 15. It was also around this time that he wrote his string quartet, The Three Riders (1902). Due to his promising talent, the town raised funds to send him to the conservatory in Prague. His studies however, did not go according to plan; he was a terrible student. His poor attendance eventually led to his expulsion.

While in Prague, Martinů met the violinist Stanislav Novák and the two became friends; Novák had a strong influence on Martinů. Martinů was exempt from WWI because of health problems, both physical and mental. During the war he lived with his family in Polička. Despite his health problems, he taught himself violin and concentrated on composition. In 1913, he began performing with the Czech Philharmonic, where he later became a full member. His compositional output from these years has a very strong Czech influence. His Czech Rhapsodie (1918) was premiered for President Masaryk and led to a drastic increase in his popularity and reputation. Martinů also began attending composition classes at the Prague Conservatory, led by Josef Suk, who had a significant impact on Martinů’s work. A performance of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande also had a particularly strong impact on young Martinů.

Martinů was fascinated with Paris and was eventually able to study composition there with Roussel with a scholarship from the minister of education. After moving to Paris, he never lived in Czechoslovakia again. The 1920s were very important for Martinů. During this time he composed La Bagarre (1926), an allegro for orchestra that was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Koussevitzky. Also during this time, he composed several operas including The Soldier and the Dancer (1927), Les Larmes du Couteau (1928), and Les Trois Souhaits (1929). In addition, he completed several chamber works during this time, including his second string quartet. Pieces from this period on show a clear Parisian/French influence; elements of jazz are also very notable. While living in Paris, he was also introduced to the music of Stravinsky and Les Six, both of which had a profound impact on him.

His Czech Rhapsodie (1918) was premiered for President Masaryk and led to a drastic increase in his popularity.

By the 1930s, Martinů’s style was firmly established and his reputation continued to grow steadily. In 1932, Martinů, along with Arthur Honneger, Henri Tomasi, Jacques Ibert, Darius Milhaud, and Jean Françaix, among others, founded the group Triton, dedicated to contemporary music.

Martinů’s works were sometimes even performed in Prague and Brno. Cello Concerto No. 1 (1931) is a clear example of Martinů’s characteristic style. It is influenced by the baroque concerto grosso form, has elements of Czech folk music and jazz, and also many elements of 20th century style and harmony. He revised this concerto two times throughout his life. The concerto features a virtuosic solo part and is very accessible to the listener despite its later frequent shifts in meter and sudden character shifts. Other pieces from this period include his opera/ballet Chap-Book (1932), Variations on a Slovak Folksong (1959), and his only piece for organ, Vigilie (completed by Jánaček). Martinů was one of four great Czech composers of the time, including Dvorak, Janáček, and Smetana. His use of the Czech musical language was clearly influenced by Janáček. 

Martinů avoided military service yet again in WWII, as he was too old. When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, Martinů helped bring artists to Paris as refugees. In addition, he wrote Field Mass (1939), dedicated to the Free Czechoslovakia Army Band. His music was thereafter blacklisted by the Nazis in the areas of Bohemia and Moravia. As the Germans closed in on Paris in 1940, Martinů fled to the south of France, where he composed Sinfonietta Giocosa (1940). After several months, he departed to the United States of America. He settled in New York, but depression, homesickness, and his lack of English made for a rocky start. His compositional activities increased after a commission from Koussevitzky for a symphony, which became the first of six symphonies. While living in New York, he taught at Tanglewood, Princeton, and the Mannes School of Music. He was also offered a teaching position in Prague but never ended up going, as he was recovering from a fall off a balcony at Tanglewood, and was suffering from depression, headaches, and tinnitus.

In 1948, Martinů became prolific again with his composing. In this period, he composed Sinfonia Concertante (1949) and a piano trio. He also began to compose what would become one of his greatest works, The Greek Passion, which he completed nearly 10 years later. Several cantatas were also composed during this time, and are marked by a nostalgic interest in Polička.


He then moved to Europe to teach at the American Academy of Music in Rome, and later moved to Switzerland, where he lived until his death in 1959. Martinů remained very productive until his death and was able to complete The Greek Passion (1957) and compose an impressive amount of chamber music. His chamber music includes sonatas and sonatinas for various instruments; the sonatinas, for trumpet, clarinet, and violin as well as the Flute Sonata and Cello Sonata are all scored for solo instrument and piano and are very neo-classical in form. They are very light and characteristically French, featuring many short rhythmic motifs interspersed with long lyrical lines. The sonatinas, along with most of his works, are formally and rhythmically very unique and free. Without standard thematic structures and identifiable reference points, they bring more challenges than expected.

After a year-long battle with stomach cancer, Martinů died in Switzerland in 1959.

Antonín Dvořák

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