Martinů Symphony no. 1, H. 289

performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Jirí Bělohlávek, or in an actual video that doesn’t have a weird stock photo with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony under Andrés Orozco-Estrada

You cannot change a single note…it is a classical symphony…

Serge Koussevitzky

(cover image by Daniel Olah)

This is the kind of piece for which I chose Martinů to be part of the Editor’s Choice series. It is a jaw-dropping, wonderful symphony. To say that it has ‘something for everybody’ might perhaps to some be equal to saying it’s pedestrian or pandering. Far from it. It is a remarkable work, of extraordinary power and beauty, and I cannot fathom that the vast majority of people wouldn’t greatly enjoy it. It’s quite the first symphony.

It is sometimes only stated that Serge Koussevitzky, an enormously influential man and long-time conductor of the Boston Symphony, commissioned from Martinů the first symphony. The more complete story, as it may be, includes a letter dated December 19, 1941, wherein the composer requested that he would like to write a symphony for the Boston Symphony.

The following year, as in just a number of months later, Koussevitzky did indeed commission a piece from Martinů, with no other specifics except that it be a large orchestral piece, and was to be in memory of his late wife Natalie. It was this opportunity that Martinů took to write his first symphony, although the commission did not dictate the form.

Work on the piece began in the middle of that year, sort of all over the place. Wikipedia tells us that the first movement was composed in Jamaica, of all places, the middle movements in Middlebury, Vermont (it would please me so if that was a decision based on the place name), and the finale in Lenox, Massachusetts. The score was completed on September 1 of that year and premiered a few months later, on November 13, 1942 with Koussevitzky at the helm. Wiki also tells us that the publisher lists the premiere date as August 13, which would be in clear contradiction with the September completion date. One of those two would certainly be wrong.

The work is in four movements, as follows, and has a playing time of about 36 minutes:

  1. Moderato—Poco più mosso
  2. Scherzo: Allegro—Poco moderato
  3. Largo
  4. Allegro non troppo

This symphony is a glorious example of how something can be modern but not necessarily challenging or offensive. The opening of this first movement sets us awash in a swimming sea of rich blues, a mysterious, magical world that is at once dissonant and yet sublimely beautiful. There are pulses, flashes, of changing color, when a harmony or texture changes, and one remembers that Martinů studied with Albert Roussel, which may not be a super familiar name to some of you. How about the Debussy of La Mer? That may come to mind. But it’s not all shimmer and sparkle.

The by this time 52-year-old Martinů clearly knows what he’s doing. Don’t let the ‘first symphony’ label fool you; there’s the bigness to match Bruckner, a stunning, truly breathtaking color of orchestration like we might hear from Strauss. There’s a lighter, syncopated second subject, but the intensity remains, and the development ratchets up the intensity yet again, and finally, at the end of the piece, at the return of earlier material, we have a resolve. It’s so utterly satisfying.

The second movement scherzo is really just one of the most exciting things I think has ever been written. Think of the kind of driving, wild intensity of The Firebird or something. Give it a more Romantic appearance, dress it up in scherzo attire… but keep all the fire, and you’ve got something approaching this scherzo. It feels like it’s bordering ever so closely on a march, but some way or other, it manages to continue to dance rather than march. It’s a scintillating scherzo, the roaring brass section serving as the engine that propels everything forward here, with remarkable color afforded by trills from flute, or the timbre of piano. In beautiful contrast, though, is the trio, a quiet, pastoral thing featuring an oboe solo. How perfect. It’s astounding.

The third movement is where we hear what may be the only part of this piece that would suggest it’s in memory of a recently-deceased loved one. It opens quite ominously with low strings, and piano and the rest of the string family join the dirge. This approaches the irresistible, mournful beauty and motion of Barber’s adagio, if you ask me. It’s gorgeous, and moving, and after this heavier section, there is presented a lighter central passage, with an English horn solo, and flute. This movement manages to build to immense weight, something akin to Shostakovich (actually sounds very much like one of Allan Pettersson’s symphonies), but manages to finish calmly. Here’s your tragedy.

The finale, though! It’s the most varied of the entire work, offering color galore, energy, a triumphant spirit, both melodically and rhythmically interesting. There are moments of almost jazzy playfulness, and what sound like a few climaxes suitable for the end of the piece, but the music just keeps coming. There are passages of soft, heartwarming tenderness, like an English horn solo with bouncy piano in the background. It’s just sublime. Franklin Stover says that “The ending is among the most boisterous and exciting to found in a twentieth century symphonic work.”

Martinů’s first symphony came rather late in his career, but he played that first card exceptionally well, for a stunning piece that I’m surprised isn’t played very regularly.

I don’t know if this happens to you, but in listening to a work like this, trying to get an overall feel for it and remember it in the context not only of everything else that Martinů wrote, but of everything everyone else wrote, you have to latch onto, or file away, certain details about the piece that will jog your memory to the work as a whole, like thumbnails of a video. Each piece, no matter how small, has its own shape, contours, trajectory, a fingerprint made up of that as well as its sound, its history, its emotional impact for you, and developing something of that impression is immensely helpful in the recall of pieces. Perhaps you have an instant impression of the Beethoven piano concertos, or what makes each Bruckner symphony unique: “The one with the…” or “written for/in…” This first symphony of Martinů certainly lends itself to being very memorable, but the details everyone walks away with or records will be different.

We’re moving on next week to a few composers whose timelines sort of overlap. We’ll be hitting the string quartet of one, then going to three works from another, then back to the first the following week. It will (maybe) make sense when you see it, but they’re all also in my Editor’s Choice series, so please stay tuned for that and thanks so much for reading.

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One thought on “Martinů Symphony no. 1, H. 289

  1. I love the slow movement of no.1, which I find to be the most deeply felt such movement in the entire cycle, even given the predominantly (and some might say uncharacteristically) dark hues of no.3.

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