Six things you should know about Bohuslav Martinů

Whilst Czech composers Dvořák, Smetana and Janáček are firm concert favourites here in the UK, it is quite rare to hear the music of their fellow compatriot Bohuslav Martinů. The composer’s music and his biography are not what you might expect.

Read on to find out more about Bohuslav Martinů’s life and hear some of his music at the Barbican on Wednesday 6 October, when Antoine Tamestit opens his LSO Artist Portrait by performing his ravishing, late Rhapsody-Concerto, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

1. Martinů had an unusual childhood

Bohuslav Martinů’s was born in a church tower, where his father was employed as the town lookout, in the Bohemian town of Polička, and lived there for the early part of his life. The church tower may sound like a fairytale, but in reality Bohuslav was a sickly child and was unable to leave the tower much during the first twelve years of his life.

Martinu as a child c Bohuslav Martinu Centre Policka

                                                                           (Bohuslav as a child playing the violin)

2. Bohuslav was a rebellious pupil 

In 1906 he went to study the violin at the Prague Conservatory, but he was far from a model student. Martinů was expelled from the Conservatory for ‘incorrigible negligence’ in 1910.

3. He was inspired by cultural revolutions occurring in 1920s Paris.

After feeling stifled living in Prague, the composer moved to Paris in 1923. The city was abuzz with pioneering literary and artistic movements of the age (including Dada, Cubism and Surrealism). This invigorated Martinů and his music – he wrote a surrealist opera, The Tears of the Knife, and a jazz-inspired ballet score La Revue de Cuisine.

Georges Braque 1912 Violin Mozart Kubelick c Metropolitan Museum of Art 500w

                                               (Georges Braques, Mozart Kubelick, Metropolitan Museum of Art)

4. The composer was blacklisted by the Nazis in the Second World War for his Czech nationalism.

Martinů was outraged by the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939 and tried to join the Czech Resistance in France, but he was rejected as he was considered too young. Instead, his act of defiance to the Nazis came through music. He composed a cantata for baritone, chorus and orchestra, Field Mass, to pay homage to the overthrown Czech government and Czech citizens opposing the Nazis in France. The piece was broadcast on the radio in England and in Czechoslovakia. Martinů was branded an enemy of the German state, and fled with his family first to Spain, then Portugal, leaving for the US in 1941.

5. Martinů composed his first symphonic works in his twilight years.

Otherwise known as the ‘American Symphonies’, all six of his symphonies were written, and, with the exception of the Fifth Symphony, premiered in the US. His symphonic works are of crucial importance in the composer’s oeuvre, and they helped to cement his reputation as the ‘20th-century Dvořák’.

Frederick Jacobi and Bohuslav Martinu US 1942 c Frederick A. Jacobi 500w

                                              (Martinů in the US with Fredrerick Jacobi preparing for a concert)

6. Despite his wishes, Bohuslav would never return to Czechoslovakia in his lifetime.

Martinů clashed with the eminent Czech musicologist Zdeněk Nejedlý, who became Minister for Culture and Education after the war – the composer was called an enemy traitor in 1948. He was granted American citizenship in 1952 but during the Cold War visits to his homeland were impossible. Martinů would never return in his lifetime, but his body was posthumously transferred to Polička in 1979.

Artist Portrait: Antoine Tamestit
Wednesday 6 October 7pm

Bohuslav Martinů Rhapsody-Concerto for Viola and Orchestra
Dmitri Shostakovich Symphony No 1

Sir Simon Rattle conductor
Antoine Tamestit viola
London Symphony Orchestra


For further information on the full series of Antoine Tamestit's Artist Portrait concerts click here.

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