Martinu and the Symphony

By Entwistle, Erik | Notes, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Martinu and the Symphony


Entwistle, Erik, Notes


Martinu and the Symphony. By Michael Crump. (Symphonic Studies, no. 3.) London: Toccata Press, 2010. [512 p. ISBN 9780907689652. $95.] Music examples, illustrations, tables, appendices, bibliography, indexes.

The year 2009 marked the fiftieth anniversary of Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu's death, and the occasion gave rise to a number of performances and conferences around the world. Many of these involved collaboration with the Bohuslav Martinu Foundation and Institute in Prague, and were organized under the theme "Martinu Revisited." This recent attention coincides with a gradual return to public favor of Martinu's music over the past few decades as well as ongoing efforts to bolster his reputation. Yet despite increased opportunities to hear Martinu's music in concert, the scholarly community has remained comparatively silent; although there have been two notable recent collections of essays (one edited by Martinu Institute Director Ales Brezina, and the second by Czech music scholar Michael Becker man), no monographs on the composer have been published in English since Brian Large's rather slender 1975 biography (Martinu [New York: Holmes & Meier, 1975]). Thus, the recent publication of Michael Crump's comprehensive investigation of Martinu's symphonic legacy is a particularly welcome occasion.

Martinu composed six symphonies, and all are works of his maturity. The first five were written in as many years, between 1941 and 1946, while the sixth (given the added title Fantaisies Symphoniques) did not appear until 1953. The First Symphony, commissioned by Koussevitsky for the Boston Sym - phony, was a crucial work for Martinu ; as a recently arrived refugee from war-torn Europe, the fifty-year-old composer needed to win over the sympathies of his new American audience. Martinu built on the symphony's initial success and soon his music became among the most often performed of living composers in the United States.

Crump examines the symphonies in detail, devoting separate chapters to each one. These form the heart of his study, of course, but in the end these six chapters comprise just under half of the book's total content. Six additional, introductory chapters prepare the reader for the discussion of the symphonies proper. Three of these examine Martinu's earlier orchestral works in their various historical contexts, while the remaining three are devoted to aspects of his compositional style: melody, harmony, and texture and orchestration. Two further chapters, "Between the Sym - phonies" and "Beyond the Symphonies," respectively examine orchestral works written during the seven-year period separating the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, and those composed during the final years of Martinu 's life.

The first of the introductory chapters is of particular interest. Here Crump traces Martinu's early compositional efforts, focusing on the large number of orchestral works written during his student years and subsequent stint as second violinist in the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Martinu's biographers (Milos Safránek, Large and Jaroslav Mihule) have discussed these works in their monographs but without the detailed examination of the music itself that Crump provides. This is particularly evident in the author's treatment of the more notable works such as the Little Dance Suite which, as Crump indicates, "is the nearest thing to a symphony in his early works" (p. 32). Most detailed of all is his discussion of the symphonic triptych Passing Midnight, composed in the early 1920s, of which the second movement, entitled "The Blue Hour," was performed in 1923 by the Czech Philharmonic under Václav Talich. Readers will no doubt be disappointed that scores and recordings of these virtually unknown works are still unavailable, but this situation is bound to be remedied by forthcoming publications from the Bohuslav Martinu Complete Edition.

As Crump states in the preface, he adopts a "point-to-point" approach in his analysis of each symphony in order that the reader will be able to follow his discussions with either a compact disc or a score, or from memory. …

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