A Music-Political Confession Bohuslav Martinu's Memorial to Lidice

By Richter, Petra | Czech Music, July 2008 | Go to article overview

A Music-Political Confession Bohuslav Martinu's Memorial to Lidice


Richter, Petra, Czech Music


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Bohuslav Martinu's Memorial to Lidice was written in 1943, after the Czech village of Lidice had been razed to the ground by the Nazis one year before. This atrocity has led many artists to create diverse works on this subject right up to the present. Martinu's piece is one of the most important and internationally best-known compositions inspired by the Lidice tragedy. Like many other works in music history--like for example Luigi Nono's La victoire de Guernica (1954) and Arnold Schoenberg's A Survivor from Warsaw op. 46 (1947)--Martinu takes war crimes against civilian population in the 20th century as a central theme.

The musical quotations used throughout the piece are distinctive features of Martinus Memorial to Lidice. Thus at the beginning of the work there is an allusion to the St. Wenceslas Choral from the 12th/13th century, which Martinu had quoted in some of his earlier compositions like the Czech Rhapsody (1918) and in the Double Concerto (1938). A second historically important musical quotation, which is heard near the end of the piece, is the so-called "destiny motif" from Beethoven's 5th Symphony.

The life and work of Bohuslav Martinu after 1923

In 1923 Martinu studied under Albert Roussel in Paris. After moving from Prague to Paris, he definitively abandoned his preference and fascination for dreamy impressionism. This was mainly because of his teacher, who had a neo-baroque or neo-classical view of music. In Paris from 1926 to 1929 the composer was attracted by jazz music, which fascinated him with its rhythmic aspects and certain resemblances to Czech or Slavonic folk songs. In France, where he lived until 1940, Martinu achieved his first success outside Czechoslovakia. The French capital became a new home for him, where he made new friends, including some fellow countrymen. Far away from their native country they were brought together by a common language and the Czech tradition in general. Paris in the 1920s was the focal point of many changes on the music scene. This included the activities of the avant-garde group known as "Les Six', although the latter did not appeal to Martinu, who held a more traditional view of music. Instead, he was attracted by Stravinsky's works, which were increasingly performed in Paris at this time.

In the 1930s Martinu's musical style matured and his reputation as a composer grew. 70 new works were written between 1927 and 1932 in Paris. In the summer of 1938 Martinu stayed for the last time in his native town of Policka. In autumn of the same year he composed the Double Concerto. It was a piece in which he went into the historical-political circumstances of his native country, which was soon to be occupied by the Nazis. Political events in his home country made a subsequent return to Policka impossible and when the Second World War broke out, the composer immediately registered as a volunteer at the embassy of the exiled Czechoslovak government in London, but he was not admitted to the army. One of the works written during that period is the Field Mass (1939), which he dedicated to all Czech and Slovakian volunteers who were preparing side by side with the French soldiers for the fight against Nazi Germany.

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In 1940 Martinu had to flee into American exile after the defeat of France by Nazi Germany. This flight was not only necessary because of his connections to the Czechoslovak government in exile, but also because his works were blacklisted in fascist Germany. In the USA Martinu had to rebuild his reputation as a composer. He spent the war years, which on the one hand were characterized by homesickness and on the other hand by artistic successes, close to New York. The Second World War and its terrible impact on his native country did not leave him unaffected and were often reflected in his compositions. It was at that time that he composed Memorial to Lidice.

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