Martinů Cello Sonata No. 1, H. 277

performed by János Starker and Rudolf Firkušný, or below by John Walz, cello; Edith Orloff, piano

Imagine being in a foreign country and hearing news of the Nazi invasion of the country your family still inhabits. What kind of music would you write? What feelings would you have, and how would you express them?

It’s 1919, and the First World War is just now over. Martinů composed a cantata, Czech Rhapsody, to commemorate the establishment of Czechoslovakia as an independent republic. He toured through Europe as a violinist, and eventually became an official member of the Czech Philharmonic. At the time, it was led by Václav Talich, one of the earliest conductors to promote Martinů as a composer. He began his studies with famous Czech composer Josef Suk, to whom he had previously submitted some of his compositions. Suk encouraged him to pursue formal composition studies, but it was only now that he was able to do so. Suk’s “old school style failed to capture Martinu,” says Wikipedia, and he was determined to go to Paris.

Before leaving Prague, as we mentioned last weekend, he managed to finish his first string quartet. He ended up in Paris in 1923 and began his studies with Albert Roussel, and if we jump ahead a few years,

Kenneth Dommett, writing for Hyperion, mentions that the temporary relocation to Paris became permanent due to being on the Gestapo blacklist, but this obviously skips over all the political developments as events of the Second World War unfolded. Dommett continues, saying that “the tribulations of his homeland affected Martinu profoundly, and its occupation by the Germans in 1939 caused him infinite sadness.” His family still lived there, and this remove and inability to go back, or perhaps even hear word from them, obviously weighed on him. Dommett claims that “He found an outlet for his feelings in the Sonata for cello and piano No 1.”

David Patrick Stearns speaks at Gramophone of the sonatas as a whole, describing them as “dense, heterogeneous works, bursting with ideas, maybe too many for their own good, sometimes knocking into each other, particularly in the piano-writing.” In fact, both the Gramophone and Hyperion articles reference recordings made by Steven Isserlis (different pianists: Olli Mustonen on BIS and Peter Evans on Hyperion). I’d like to compare his two readings, not only with each other, but also with the recording I have, by Starker and Firkušný, who played the piano part for the premiere (with dedicatee Pierre Fournier) “in Paris one year later on the very eve of the collapse of the composer’s settled world: ‘The last greeting from a better world’, Martinu recalled many years later.”

This sonata is the only work attributed to 1939, dated May 12. And if you read/listened to the violin sonata from earlier in the week, you’ll notice that this work is quite different from that one of a decade earlier. However, it’s not completely apparent at the beginning. Piano leads, and cello enters after a brief introduction, emphasizing what we might expect to develop into a jazzy kind of motif, but there comes to be an uneasy, unstable nature about the movement. It’s a comparison that one might not think of making, but this work steers us closer in sound, as we said of Hindemith last week, to something like Prokofiev or Shostakovich. The movement is most unsettled in its latter half, once the opening material reappears, followed by what seems to be a terribly troubled coda.

The second movement begins unsettlingly with piano, an eerie melody backed by rumblings in the lower register. But this eerie, quiet nature quickly turns to near-chaos, with the cello belting out melodic lines over the piano’s cacophony, like a speaker trying to be heard above an angry crowd. I find this movement far more compelling than what came before, because while the chaos is convincing, it’s not all chaos; there is a tender, heartfelt melody that spreads its wings among the seeming disorder, leading to a pizzicato passage that leads us out in much the same way we entered.

The finale also begins frenetically, setting us quite on edge. It’s unrelenting, even grating at times, quite different from the first movement, which began with hopes of sounding almost light. There are splashes of sarcasm and dark humor here that one would expect to come from those modern Russian composers I keep mentioning. Despite the strife that runs like a thread through this entire work, only more apparent with each movement, there is still a sense of elegance or charm, as with the way this work ends.

It’s not all anger, it’s not a ‘war sonata’ by any means, and I don’t hear it as strikingly dark as Dommett or some others may portray it to be, but who knows how one would feel in the composer’s situation. I would imagine that a sense of deep regret and sadness would overshadow any anger or bitterness toward the political parties involved, but who knows? And maybe it’s that emotional conflict that’s strongest here.

But that’s all for now from Martinů. As mentioned in one of these articles, it is quite late in his career, after his move to America, that he began writing symphonies, but he was a prolific composer, so we shall make an effort to cover more of his work, as everything I’ve heard up to this point has at the very least a captivating charm, if not a compelling intensity of color and expression. Stay tuned tomorrow for something very special indeed. There are also just a few more weeks of this chamber music business, with only two more featured composers left before we start doing something very different. Thank you for reading.

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