Martinů Violin Concerto no. 1, H. 226

performed by Josef Suk and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Václav Neumann

“…for me this will mean great publicity, as well as a great deal of work.”

Martinů, of his first violin concerto

(cover image by Gonard Fluit)

He was wrong. But he shouldn’t have been.

Martinů’s first violin concerto dates from 1933 and was for some time considered lost, or I guess more accurately was potentially just not discovered until much later. It was written in Paris, begun in 1932, and was a commission from violinist Samuel Dushkin (for whom was also written Stravinsky’s violin concerto), who apparently left his stylistic mark on some aspects of the work. As the opening quote (included in Joseph Stevenson’s discussion of the piece) states, the composer had high hopes for this work, as Dushkin was apparently a rather high-profile performer.

Alas, it would not be so. For reasons unknown, Dushkin never performed the piece; in fact, no one did in the composer’s lifetime. Martinů apparently may have known it would not come to fruition, for, as Stevenson says, the manuscript was lost, and once found, it, rarely for the composer, apparently, didn’t even have tempo markings. The work was finally given its first performance on October 25, 1973 by Josef Suk (grandson of the other Josef Suk) and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Sir Georg Solti. Of this premiere, Bärenreiter says:

It was not until 1961 that musicologist and collector Hans Moldenhauer bought it from Boaz Piller, contrabassoonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Moldenhauer approached Czech violinist Josef Suk, who gave the world premiere of the work with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Georg Solti in October 1973.

This recording was made very shortly (only months, I think) after that premiere.

It’s a superb work, with all the things that you really want in a concerto, but we’ll get to that. The piece is in three movements, as follows, with a playing time of about 25 minutes:

  1. Allegro moderato
  2. Andante
  3. Allegretto

The work begins with an arresting, angular figure, which affords it, at least to my ear, a spirit akin to, say, Prokofiev, as it’s forceful, colorful, and clearly in a modern vocabulary.

The orchestral opening is already energetic and bold, but the violin adds yet another layer to it with showy, rich triple and quadruple stops, plucking, and all sorts of showmanship. Even with this first little section underway, there’s such a satisfying quality about this writing. That opening figure serves as a pattern that shapes the entire rest of the movement, but there is ultimately contrast. Aleš Brezina says:

Quite unusual for Martinu is the vast space he gives to the variations of the opening cell. It is not until the middle of the movement that he introduces a contrasting motif, in a mild E minor, where the violin sings in one long phrase a melody of outstanding beauty and simplicity, in the style of a Moravian folk song.

A solo cello appears here as well, giving this exciting first movement a more intimate quality, if only for a passing moment. We need not worry about following Martinů’s train of thought, for one because he makes it so easy to see the music develop, and secondly because even if we couldn’t, it’s just enjoyable.

The second movement in this fast-slow-fast model presents a different side of the violin, with long arching lines over crystal clear, thinner orchestral texture. From the beginning of the movement, with the woodwinds, there’s already a refreshing quality, and the violin doesn’t interrupt that. We have, overall, a warm movement full of tender beauty, but the climax of this andante reaches an almost cinematic scale, like the final kiss scene of a movie from a half century (or longer) ago. There are charming, or folksy, elements to this movement, roughly half the length of the first, but then we jump headlong, without pause, into the finale.

This is the most rustic, folklike movement of the entire work, and in case you hadn’t already had enough fun, or gotten your fill of truly extravagant, knock-your-socks-off fiddlework, here it is. It’s not all showy, though. There is a sense in the almost Stravinskian, neoclassical color of the second movement that it’s related to the first, and I hear a sense of connectedness, be it from the playful, energetic atmosphere, the use of pizzicato, or the superb writing for violin, in how this breathtaking finale wraps up this piece.

There’s an assumption, maybe just by me, that a work which the composer himself let die, or or disappear, or that he just plain forgot about, is an inferior work, especially when he or she would go on to write others in the form (Bartók is also here). But Martinů clearly had high expectations for the piece, and I’m not entirely sure why it fell into obscurity. It seems to me to be exceptionally effective, very enjoyable. It’s not the soul-stirring, life-altering journey that, say, Beethoven or Sibelius give us, but it is a hell of a good time, and beautiful to boot.

We’re jumping ahead nearly a decade for Thursday’s installment, which you should know by now (following the pattern we established with Rosenberg) is a symphony, so stay tuned for that and thanks so much for reading.

(As a side note for either of you who get this far, there was no small degree of confusion about this piece. I prepared my playlist in Spotify for the next few months of music, and in doing so, added what was labeled as the first violin concerto. I listened to it many times, as I do, but once I got down to writing the article and doing a bit of research and note-taking on it, nothing seemed to jive. After some comparisons and a bit more research, it turns out that Spotify has the concerto for violin and piano, H. 342, mislabeled as the first violin concerto. It also turns out that this title (the correct one) was on the cover of the Supraphon album (in Czech), and Spotify has also just disabled their ‘Suggest an Edit’ feature (actually something called “Line-in”) so I can’t suggest that it be fixed. In case you’re wondering, the three-movement work on this album labeled as the first violin concerto is actually the far more bland concerto for violin, piano, and orchestra, H. 342. I did think it was odd that there was so much piano in that violin concerto…)

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