Bohuslav Martinu: The Com Pulsion to Compose

By Entwistle, Erik | Notes, September 2012 | Go to article overview

Bohuslav Martinu: The Com Pulsion to Compose


Entwistle, Erik, Notes


Bohuslav Martinu° : The Com pulsion to Compose. By F. James Rybka. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2011. [374 p. ISBN 9780810877627. $85.] Illustra - tions, bibliography, index.

In a recent review in these pages of Michael Crump's Martinu° and the Symphony (London: Toccata Press, 2010; reviewed in Notes 67, no. 4 [ June 2011]: 744-45) I noted that no monographs on the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu° (1890-1959) had been published in English since Brian Large's rather slender 1975 study of the composer. As if on cue, the appearance of a new, full-length biography has finally addressed this long-standing lacuna.

F. James Rybka's provocative Bohuslav Martinu° : The Compulsion to Compose is destined to play a controversial role in Martinu° scholarship, owing to its central premise that Martinu° suffered from the autistic spectrum disorder known as Asperger syndrome. As the author states in the preface, "We believe that Martinu° is the first composer to have met the DSM-IV criteria for a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome" (p. ix).

DSM-IV is the abbreviation for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fourth Edition), published in 1994 by the American Psychiatric Association and covering all mental health disorders for both children and adults. In this work, Asperger syndrome gained official recognition as an autistic spectrum disorder. Since that time, public awareness and perception of Asperger's has been shaped by an increasing flurry of films, books and media attention; the syndrome has even acquired a certain cachet resulting from its association with genius-level aptitudes. Those diagnosed with it often call themselves "aspies."

If Martinu° indeed suffered from Asper - ger's, it would help to explain some of the quirks in his personality, some of which could be seen as typical of those who are diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder. Rybka's claims are intriguing and he carefully builds his case with the evidence available to him. He is confident enough in his diagnosis to state that "I believe that there is so much solid evidence that Martinu° had Asperger syndrome, that, to make a case against it, the burden of proof, while not insurmountable, is nevertheless overwhelming" (p. x).

However, such an identification appears ill-advised for a number of reasons. First, attempting to posthumously diagnose an individual with Asperger's, given the current complexities and controversies surrounding the accurate diagnosing of living patients, cannot lead to a conclusion of any certainty. Despite Martinu° 's welldocumented social awkwardness and compulsive working habits, it is impossible to retroactively prove that he had a developmental disorder of the brain. Certainly we can speculate about the possibility, just as we can speculate on how spending most of his time for the first eleven years of his life in relative seclusion in the church tower of Policka may have affected his personality and music. In a recent op-ed in the New York Times ("Asperger's History of Over - diagnosis," 31 January 2012), psychiatrist Paul Steinberg points out that "[s]ocial disabilities are not at all trivial, but they become cheapened by the ubiquity of the Asperger diagnosis, and they become miscast when put in the autism spectrum. . . . We can only hope that better physiological markers distinguishing between the autismspectrum disorders and pure social dis - abilities can stem this tide of ever more pathologizing."

Secondly, there is the likelihood that the term "Asperger syndrome" itself will officially cease to exist as a separate syndrome when the fifth edition of the DSM is published in 2013. From that point on, patients will rather be diagnosed more generally within the autism disorder spectrum. Thus the specificity of an Asperger's diagnosis for Martinu° , even if it could somehow be proven, would no longer even remain defined as such.

Thirdly, as Rybka aims to illuminate aspects of Martinu° 's personality, the Asperger's diagnosis becomes an idée fixe throughout the biography, providing the subtext for descriptions of incidents throughout his life as well as attempting to account for many, if not all, of the composer's eccentricities. …

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