Reckoned one of the world’s leading composers in the 1940s and ’50s, Bohuslav Martinů’s music is no longer a frequent presence in our concert programmes, still less our opera houses. Yet he was extremely prolific: he wrote about 400 works, including ten operas, six symphonies, many ballets, a wealth of chamber, vocal and instrumental music, and nearly 30 concertos of various kinds. He achieved a unique synthesis of disparate elements: Baroque forms seen through 1920s Parisian neo-classicism, jazz, and the folk music of Bohemia and Moravia. He added to this a very personal sense of rhythm, an experimental attitude towards structure and new media, and a delight in instrumental colours that tends towards the luminous and fantastic. In Bohemia and Moravia he’s considered Czechoslovakia’s leading 20th-century composer, heir to the traditions of Dvořák and Suk, yet his music is also highly cosmopolitan.

A shoemaker’s son, Martinů was born and spent most of his childhood in a church tower in Polička, on the borders of Bohemia and Moravia. A hundred feet up in the air, the sickly child, who seldom descended to earth, enjoyed a panoramic view of the Czech countryside. What he saw then, he recalled long after, was ‘the vast and boundless space I am always searching for in my music’. Perhaps this feeling of living in an eyrie, observing the world from above, accentuated the feeling of being an outsider which his music often gives off. Although he identified passionately with the Czech nation and countryside, Martinů never really seemed to be at home anywhere; he spent much of his life outside his homeland, first by professional choice and then, with the coming of World War II, in enforced exile.

Martinů’s early musical life saw him take up composing from a young age, suffer an ignominious exit from the Prague Conservatory only to return later under the tutelage of Suk, and play violin for the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1923, he moved to Paris to try his luck as a full-time composer, studying privately with Albert Roussel. He spent 17 years in Paris from 1923 until 1940, making annual trips back to Czechoslovakia, and marrying a French wife in 1931. For the first time in his life he was able to devote himself entirely to composition, and throughout those years he refined and perfected his technique and cultivated his individual approaches to form and sonority.

He now put aside his early, rather Romantic style and freely consorted with the artistic avant-garde. Though he experimented with Dadaism and Constructivism, in the 1920s his dominant idiom was a rather chic and sometimes sensationalist neo-classicism. He began to acquire some international celebrity with works such as the football rondo Half-Time (1924), the noisy showpiece La Bagarre (1926) and the witty chamber ballet La Revue de cuisine (1927), whose characters consist of kitchen utensils including a pot, a lid and a dishcloth. Throughout the 1930s, however, his music gained in power and distinctiveness, speaking ever more plainly in a highly personal voice, for example in the Czech choral folk ballet Špalíček(1931) and several operas (some of them designed for radio) with absurdist elements. Julietta, or the Key to Dreams (1936-7) was his masterpiece for the stage. Martinů was fascinated by the interplay of the dream-world with reality, and in Julietta the protagonist Michel’s dilemma, his tragic uncertainty whether his passionately-loved Julietta is a real person or a figment of his imagination, is explored in Martinů’s most glowingly lyrical music.

On the orchestral front, he sought a new counterpart to Baroque Concerto grosso form, pitting one group of instruments (the concertino) against a larger body (the ripieno) in a seamless polyphonic discourse. This became one of his favoured genres in the 1930s, and reached its climax in the magnificent Double Concerto for two string orchestras, piano and timpani (1938): his ultimate refinement of the form, in terms that were unmistakably, indeed urgently, contemporary. Swiss conductor Paul Sacher commissioned the work for his Basle Chamber Orchestra, but at the first rehearsal even Sacher’s crack players, familiar with contemporary repertoire, found Martinů’s new work too great a challenge, and refused to go on with it. ‘But gentlemen,’ Sacher is reported to have said, ‘you do not realize that you have before you a chef d’oeuvre!’

Taut, dark-hued, tragic in utterance, the Double Concerto is one of the most dramatic of all Martinů’s works, with a profundity and intensity of emotion that had seldom been heard in his music up to that time. He implicitly accepted the judgement of audiences and reviewers that this turbulent, passionate utterance reflected the tragedy of Czechoslovakia, which was annexed by the Nazis while he was at work on it. Yet there could be a more intimate reason for the music’s turmoil: he was embroiled in a dangerous and foredoomed love-affair with his most gifted student, Vítězslava Kaprálová, who in 1940 would die of tuberculosis at just 25, leaving a handful of brilliant works. The Concerto’s mood is shared by the sombre and volatile First Cello Sonata, which was premiered by Pierre Fournier and Rudolf Firkušný in Paris on 19 May 1940, the very eve of the city’s fall to the Nazis.

The following month he and his wife fled from Paris with a single suitcase and, travelling via Aix-en-Provence and Portugal, eventually reached the US. He taught at Tanglewood and settled in New York. Although he did not enjoy the atmosphere in the US, which he found cold and materialistic compared to Europe, it was good to him. He received a stream of commissions (notably from conductor Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra) which provided the spur to the composition of many of his finest works – notably, his first five symphonies, powerful and imaginative utterances that enhanced his international stature. Contemporary wartime events also inspired him, for example in the searingly tragic Lidice Memorial in memory of the victims of the notorious Nazi massacre; and in lighter vein, in the brilliant orchestral scherzo Thunderbolt P-47, a tribute to an outstandingly successful American fighter-plane.

Shortly after the war Martinů was seriously injured by falling from a balcony at Tanglewood, necessitating several years’ convalescence during which he taught at Princeton University. He had been offered a professorship in Prague, but because his distrust of the new Stalinist regime he never in fact returned to his homeland. From 1953, however, he lived in Western Europe, principally at Nice, Rome and Basle. He died of stomach cancer in Switzerland in 1959.

Martinů had always been interested in the resources of instrumental colour and timbre, but in his final decade he explored them with a new fascination in a series of works which show remarkable powers of sonic invention and creative renewal. Martinů referred to these works as ‘fantasies’, but he also saw them as works of imaginative protest. On the score of the piano-and-orchestra Incantation (1956) which he catalogued as the fourth of his five piano concertos, he wrote: ‘The principle governing our present life is, it would seem, uncertainty; let us add to this its mechanisation and uniformity, which must be protested against’. This chimes with his lifelong desire to create beauty in music: ‘It must be beautiful, or it wouldn’t be worth the effort’.

The archetypal example of these late ‘fantasies’ is his Sixth Symphony, subtitled Fantaisies symphoniques (1953), but almost as remarkable are such scores as the stirring Babylonian cantata The Epic of Gilgamesh (1955) and the shimmering Frescoes of Piero della Francesca (1955) and Parables (1958), both for orchestra. He continued to produce operas, ending in 1958 with two of his best, Ariadne to a libretto by Georges Neveux, the librettist of Juliette, and Greek Passion after the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. His last work of all, the cantata Prophecy of Isaiah, for male chorus with viola, piano, trumpet and timpani, is infused with a new sense of Old Testament severity and vision. It seems to open a new stage in Martinů’s music which he might have explored further; but in any case his output is a veritable treasure-house of creativity, full of jewels which deserve to be displayed more often.

Calum MacDonald