performed by the Ensemble Wien-Berlin, or below by the commissioner of the work, the Czech Nonet
subsequent movements can be found in this playlist
This work was an accident. Martinů’s name had been one I was vaguely aware of, but with exactly zero knowledge of him as a composer or any of his works. Earlier this year, I attended this concert, where another nonet was performed, that of Louis Spohr, and it was delicious. In hunting down a recording of that nonet, I found one with Martinů’s work on the same album. This was a very good thing.
Bohuslav Martinů was born on 8 December 1890 in a town in Bohemia. He was for a time a violinist in the Czech Philharmonic, but moved to Paris in 1823 and worked to find his voice as a composer, “his main font for compositional style, the neo-classical as developed by Stravinsky. With this, he expanded to become a prolific composer, composing chamber, orchestral, choral and instrumental works at a fast rate,” says Wiki. Despite working in all the traditional forms (opera, chamber, symphonic, etc.), he didn’t begin writing symphonies until rather late in his career, with his first being written after the composer’s move to America, in 1941. He moved back and forth between Europe and America in the ’50s and died in 1959.
Martinů’s second nonet was one of the last things the composer wrote, and is scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello & bass (or more succinctly written as ‘for wind quintet, string trio and bass). His first nonet, of 1925, is for the same forces with piano instead of double bass, but we’re not doing that today.
In contrast with Spohr’s Grand Nonetto in F, a large-ish work indeed, Martinů’s piece for nine instruments is in three movements, coming in at a total of about 16 minutes. That being said, it’s positively brimming with color and texture and life, and that ‘neoclassical’ ‘Stravinsky’ influence, being in Paris, all of that is evident without being derivative or boring. It’s a wonderful work, commissioned to mark “the 35th anniversary of the famous Czech Nonet, virtually the only permanent ensemble of its kind,” says Edition Silvertrust.
The first movement makes no bones about revealing all its charms right off the bat. As a nonet, in this configuration, we have basically all the sounds an orchestra would have: woodwinds, brass, strings (no trumpet or trombone or the other more elaborate installations that Mahler or Shostakovich might have used). So the piece strides a line between the clear, transparent intimate sounds and textures of a chamber work, while flirting with the robust character of a full orchestra.
From the first chirp of clarinet and the ensemble’s response, we see the vividness of the composer’s one-to-a-part writing; the violin features in some exposed solo-like passages, but really, everything is solo. No one is doubled, and there’s a challenge there to create a warmth and smoothness of timbre while also giving that vivid color, and the first movement does that. It’s buoyant and lively but not exhausting. There’s an almost neo-baroque nature about the work, with each instrument on its own part, and the smallness of the work, but equally a fullness in expression and form, with a climax in the development and a clear recapitulation, with the entire ensemble ending in a united gesture.
The second movement brings a contrast to the first. As we stated, this is one of the composer’s last works, and Silvertrust reminds us that at the time of its writing, the composer was dying of cancer. You’d never know it from the first movement, but the second gives way to melancholy, led by strings, evidence that there’s room for considerable variation and adaptability in this ensemble of nine instruments. Oh, and when the bassoon enters backed by flourishes from its wooden brethren, how melancholy and beautiful it is. It’s mysterious and almost fairy-tale like, but a soaring line from the horn brings at least a moment of hope and heroism. There are true solos here and there, and the music gets increasingly veiled, misty, and here would be as good a time as any to point out that the composer was a teacher of one Alan Hovhaness, a name you may not know, but the similarity comes to mind here. It’s worlds away from the first movement, on another planet, and there’s something otherworldly and ethereal when the clarinet begins its ostinato and the flute gives us a delicate, pensive solo, as if having returned from some magical world of deep blues and greens. Things brighten up momentarily, marked by a few plucks from strings, but end at least somewhat peacefully.
The finale is perhaps the most varied, full-bodied of the three, with the most variation in its little five minutes of music. Where the first movement blossomed from one place and unfurled to reveal its charms, the third movement is one of contrasts. The opening is pastoral and idyllic, full of detail and color from the woodwinds, but a contrasting section brings us a violin solo with horn, and lots of more intricate, folksy rhythms, but never awkward or bombastic. There’s a spirited but light step in this music, until cooler moments roll in like shade and a chilly breeze before afternoon showers. The latter part of the movement gives us some simple but beautiful gems, a spirited coda and quiet finish.
This music embodies an intoxicating richness and vibrance in such a compact but satisfying package that it’s absolutely captivating. This is a composer who sounds to be writing for pure joy, a celebration of art (even though it was a commission), like the music just unfolds, pours out of the pen, and the textures and timbres are exquisitely presented, like the culmination of a lifetime of achievements. It’s a truly stunning, very satisfying work, one that makes a compelling case for getting to know the composer’s other works, which I have begun to enjoy as well.
You never know, in music, or life, what associations or introductions or serendipitous meetings or run-ins you’ll have, and this little piece has been one of the most charming, sparkling discoveries of this year. If you enjoy it, do check out the composer’s other chamber works (string quartets, sonatas for cello or violin and piano) and especially his solo piano work. It’s stupendous.
But stay tuned tomorrow for something enormously different.