It is perhaps understandable that a person who was born into the world to the accompaniment of festive bells would have grown up to become a great musician. Such, indeed, was the case of the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu.
Bohuslav's father was the bell ringer and watchman in the little Bohemian town of Policka. His job was to act as fire watcher for the village and to ring the church bells for prayers and festive occasions. Thus it was that in the small tower room of the church of St. James, where the Martinus lived, on the public holiday of 8 December 1890, Bohuslav was born with the sound of church bells ringing joyously all round him.

Young Bohuslav, who was tall, thin, and weakly, often had to be carried by his father up and down the 193-step staircase in the tower. He spent the first twelve years of his life looking at his village from this bird's-eye perspective. The memory of this view of the world impressed itself upon Bohuslav's young mind and remained with him all his life, strongly influencing his ideas of composition. As he was to write later in life, it was "not the small interests of people, the cares, the hurts, or the joys" that he saw from that great height, but "space, which I always have in front of me."

When Bohuslav had hardly begun public school, his parents entrusted him to the care of the Policka music teacher. This teacher was the first to recognize the lad's genius and encouraged him to try composing. Bohuslav never forgot that first teacher for pointing him on his way toward the goal of becoming a great composer.

At sixteen years of age, Bohuslav was taken to Prague by his mother to be introduced to real music experts. He carried with him his violin and his first string quartet. The outcome of this visit was encouraging, and later that year he entered the Prague Conservatoire.

But things did not go well for the young man. By the end of his second year he was failing his examinations. He finally left the Conservatoire to continue his studies on his own. He read, studied scores, attended concerts, and composed daily. It was with such intense personal discipline and hard work that Martinu was able to grow into a fine composer. Later, in a letter to the teachers in the Policka Music School, Martinu wrote to remind the students that he "was also a young lad — a student, like themselves — and that everything is achievable if we really want it and if we have the patience to go for it." The key to realizing one's dreams, in other words, is hard work.

It was fortunate for the young composer that in those days Prague was a crossroads of culture. One could hear works by Strauss, Bruckner, Debussy, and even Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Bartók performed in the concert halls of Prague. Martinu's compositions during this time were being received with favorable response among many of Prague's musicians.

After World War I, Martinu became a second violinist with the Czech Philharmonic, where he learned to master the composition of music for a large orchestra. His Czech Rhapsody for solo, chorus, and orchestra was given a performance by the Philharmonic in 1919 and was favorably received.

Some time later Martinu was given the opportunity to travel to Paris to study with the famous French composer Albert Roussel. Martinu composed a remarkable number of works during his Paris years. Among these were Polocas ("Halftime") and La Bagarre ("Tumult"), both for orchestra, and an opera Voják a tanecnice ("The Soldier and the Dancer"), as well as ballets and chamber music. In 1935 he was awarded a Czechoslovak State Prize for another of his operas, Hry o Marii ("The Miracle of Our Lady"). One of his most famous operas, Julietta aneb Snár ("Juliette, or The Key to Dreams"), was first performed before a Prague audience that same year.

With the outbreak of World War II, the Paris years of Martinu came to a close. He visited for a short time in Switzerland before finally making his way to America — but not before waiting anxiously for several months for transportation. Even during these very trying times Martinu continued not only to compose daily, but also succeeded in writing music that is full of strength, vitality, hope, and joy. Among his works of this period are his Sinfonietta giocosa for piano and orchestra and Fantasia and Toccata for piano solo.

Arriving in American in 1941, Martinu had to work hard to establish himself in the New World. But it was in America that Martinu mastered symphonic writing. Fifty years earlier another Czech composer by the name of Antonín Dvorák had won the hearts of Americans. Principally through his virtuoso symphonies, Martinu also was to gain America's respect. Ernest Arnsermet once said that of all musicians of his generation, Martinu was "the great symphony writer."

During the next few years Martinu wrote an almost innumerable number of compositions. But, succumbing at last to a cancer that had been plaguing him for nearly a year, Bohuslav Martinu died on 28 August 1959 in Liestal, Switzerland. At his funeral, the eulogist characterized Martinu's work by saying, "His music is the music of our times, because it expresses profound basic problems; it bears the stamp of individuality, which enables it to ring out among all the rest, and guarantees that he will not be forgotten."


Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory | May 17, 1997