performed by Emil Leichner, or below by Paul Kaspar
(the above video should start at 27:45)
(cover image by Rhendi Rukmana)
If you assumed from the ‘book III’ in the title of this work that there exist books I and II of Puppets, you’d be correct. However, if you assumed that they were written before book III, you’d be incorrect. There’s not a ton known about the composition of these works, apparently, but book III was the first of the set to be written, and composition began on the set in 1912.
Martinů was 21 years old, and had just endured a rocky journey on his way to earning his degree in Prague. Christian Falvey, writing for Radio.cz, says that:
The Puppets are an extension of Bohuslav Martinů’s great love for theatre and a musical version of the Italian Commedia dell’arte.
Giving a listen to these pieces, no matter which set, may give you the impression that they’re diminutive little character sketches, like a very fancy version of what a music box might chime after you’ve wound it a few times. However, Falvey gives us an indication as to the pieces’ more noble stature:
Each of the short sketches is devoted to a puppet personality, strung together by the dancing, singing and reminiscing Columbine – the poor but cunning coquette of the Italian improvisational theatre whose name means “little dove”. They also combine and perhaps exemplify the many forms of music that Martinů moulded over those years, namely French impressionism, neo-classicism and jazz, and the composers whose work had moulded him, like Debussy and Stravinsky, to name a few.
So as simple as they are, they achieve quite a lot, and that in itself is exciting.
Book III is made up of four pieces with a total duration of about ten minutes:
- Pierrot’s serenade: scherzando
- Little waltz of the sentimental puppet
- Columbine: andantino
- Puppet dance: tempo di valse
The music is even more compelling when you appreciate the broad purpose it achieves with such unassuming stature and simplicity.
In some ways, the music seems quite repetitive. Beginning with Pierrot’s serenade, we hear the heartbeat of the work, a little memorable pattern, about which there isn’t really anything terribly special, except that Martinů presents it in a charming, straightforward way. There’s some chromaticism, and the sense of a ‘serenade’ is almost in a kind of persistent way that a gal might get hit on even if she shows zero interest, or maybe more politely, like the same ‘good morning’ wave every day on the way to or from school.
I know nothing of the actual story, if any, of Pierrot, Columbine and Harlequin.
The second piece, then, presents a ‘little’ waltz that’s almost the longest of the little set of four in Liechner’s recording. Can you hear the similarity in content? It feels drawn from the same spool, but is a little more subdued, without the spring in its step, perhaps the reason for the sentimental, more tender sound here.
The third is, to me, the most memorable, the most charming, as if it may develop into a nocturne, or a true waltz. There’s a sense of romance, of freeness of expression and joy to it, but we can still hear the similarity of the music to the original serenade, can’t we? There are a few crunchier moments, but but by and large, it’s just music to swoon over.
Finally, we have the puppet dance, another waltz. Listen to this opening, and then go back and compare it to the serenade. Same, right? At least they are in the sense of… the general shape, like an outline or template. What stands out here is the thing that I find the most remarkable about this little set of works.
There is indeed a very endearing warmth, a petiteness to these four little pieces, in duration, in voice (no booming fortissimo anywhere), in structure, but aside from that immediate charm, it’s actually a wonderful example of how all that formal stuff, like key and phrasing and staccato or legato playing can affect the entire atmosphere of a piece of music, even if we’re working with such similar content. It’s exciting really, and we needn’t, I don’t think, discuss those influences from people like Debussy or Stravinsky, or Ravel, who I also hear. We may hear the Stravinsky of Pulcinella or even Petrushka, in a sort of distilled, simple way, but ultimately, the young Martinů is presenting a voice that would become his own.
That’s all from Martinů for now, but we’ll see a bit more from him much later this year. We’ve got more petite piano pieces on the way, though, so do stay tuned for those and thanks so much for reading!