Martinů String Quartet no. 1, H. 117, ‘French Quartet’

performed by the Panocha Quartet

(Oops! We have a rare case with no YouTube video for the work. If you’re intent on hearing it, you can purchase the first three movements individually from iTunes, part of the Panocha quartet set. Since the finale is over 10 minutes long, you can only purchase it as part of the ‘album’ which likely means you must purchase the entire box set, which might be a bit much.)

(cover image by Jon Flobrant)

We’ve seen Bohuslav Martinů before, almost a year ago, with a very late work of his, but he’s back this week. He was a prolific composer, to a fault, some would say, so we’re just barely getting started. He wrote five numbered concertos for piano, two for violin, two for cello, among much other concertante works for those instruments and many others, including viola and oboe, as well as concertos for multiple instruments. He wrote 16 operas, almost as many ballets, six symphonies, and a very large body of chamber work.

But we’re just starting with his first string quartet. And this isn’t actually his first. There was an earlier one, in E-flat minor, with the catalogue number H. 103, but it was lost, and later reconstructed. It was written, mind you, at the age of eight, so I can’t imagine it’s any work of genius (at least I hope it’s not). We’re sticking for today with the formal first quartet, completed in 1918.

Despite that date, though, the composer had to wait until 1925 for hopes of a premiere in Paris, which were dashed, the work not getting its first performance until 1927 in Brno. Wikipedia cites the Panocha quartet liner notes (in Czech) in saying:

His typical individual style is not yet apparent, but the quartet contains the unquestionable quality and counts among the interesting examples of the composer’s early chamber works.

Unfortunately, however, the first quartet, ‘immature’ as it is said to be, is the only one with a Wikipedia article dedicated to it, but that will hopefully change soon.

First (well, like third or fourth) impressions of listening to the piece are that it’s very nice, a work that certainly wouldn’t disappoint on the right chamber program, but that, when all is said and done, might just be a little bit easy to forget. Again, it’s his largest work, and there are a few major things about it that really stand out as especially nice, and we’ll discuss them here as we move briefly through the four movements.

The composition is titled ‘French’ by the composer himself, but from the opening, the first impression is more like a greeting from Dvořák. Let us not forget that Martinů himself is Czech, not Romanian or whatever as some people might think (they’re thinking of Enescu). So to have this first and largest quartet sound like one of his homeland’s greatest composers maybe shouldn’t come as a surprise. What does come as a surprise is that, to me, it’s not the Dvořák of the 7th symphony or 8th symphonies, but of the American quartet or quintet, of the 9th symphony, a pentatonic, down-to-earth rustic kind of organic sound, but as if that famous sojourn had taken place in the French countryside rather than the American one. Maybe.

It does become undeniably French-sounding, in texture and color and delicacy, like the famous Czech composer from the previous century speaking in a foreign language. Jonathan Woolf at MusicWeb says that by this time, “Martinů’s musical horizons were already formidably Parisian.” We hear this not only in the way the Dvořák-ish themes are shaded and colored, but also in how they’re handled. There are cyclical elements to this piece, as we shall see. As such, the first movement bears the responsibility of setting that foundation, and it does well. The opening is perhaps the most memorable moment of the work for me, which may not be a compliment but serves the structure of the piece quite well.

After that is the second movement, our slow movement, and do you not hear echoes of the opening of the first here? You would if there were a YouTube video for it. This form also perhaps is softer, a simple ternary form (I think?), and Woolf speaks of “the lyricism touched by a degree of youthful sensuousness, and the key keeps shifting as if to keep us on our toes.” That’s something more modern for you. But we’re still mostly orbiting around that opening theme, which I don’t mind yet. It gives weight to this cyclical form, which must certainly call Debussy to mind.

The scherzo then moves perhaps the farthest away from that idea. It’s marked ‘allegro non troppo’ not prestissimo or anything. It’s more diaphanous, not dense or aggressive but with the forward motion you’d expect from a scherzo. The trio is “full of supple lightness,” says Woolf but perhaps just a tinge more melancholy. You might think the scherzo could be a more memorable moment in this quartet, but if so, it is here only because it makes the least use of that first movement theme.

The finale sees us return to that content from the opening, much like Hindemith did with his first, but more spaciously here. Listening to the young Hindemith quote the beefy first movement of his quartet in the six-minute finale felt like the way you write faster and smaller to cram a word into the end of a line on a piece of paper. We have more room here, maybe too much, but if you’re pleased by this quartet so far, you won’t mind the length. Woolf says that it “rather outstays its welcome despite the return of the earthy Dvořák influence.” That’s certainly in its favor, that we haven’t wandered off entirely.

Could this work accomplish more in less space? Maybe. Is it on the top of the waiting list for entry into the standard string quartet repertoire? Probably not. The finale, as large as it is (relative to everything else), does present some convincing material, but the overwhelming takeaway is that by the end of the quartet, we’ve returned home, back to familiar territory. And that’s nice.

I don’t think this work is in any danger of becoming overplayed in concert and recital halls across the world, but it can tell us a little something interesting about the composer’s background, this interesting admixture of French and Czech (or just Dvořák) influence. At the very least, it’s a jumping off point. It may not have been an undisputed masterpiece, but there’s no denying Martinů is already displaying an exceptional talent, a touch for the string quartet form, and we have another half a dozen to enjoy from him eventually.

But for now, we’ll focus on the earliest of some of his other efforts in various chamber forms next week, so stay tuned and thank you for listening.

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