Bohuslav Martinů began his first symphony at age 51, and then wrote about one a year until he completed six. Later-in-life symphonists aren’t unheard of: Johannes Brahms was 43 when he completed his first, after struggling for more than two decades with the imposing genre. Martinů, however, didn’t appear to have any particular interest in writing a symphony until the Second World War, when he was forced to move to the United States and restart his career in a country where he was hardly known. A large commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra was a good beginning.
Martinů was born in 1890 and grew up in the belltower of a church in Polička, Bohemia. At age 10, he composed his first string quartet, and at 16 he entered the Prague Conservatory, which expelled him for “incorrigible negligence.” He eventually found work as a violinist with the Czech Philharmonic, and fell in love with Paris while on tour there in 1923. He relocated and established himself as a composer within the French musical scene, writing in a distinctive neoclassical style.
After Nazi Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938, Martinů was named a cultural attaché for the government-in-exile, and helped innumerable Czechoslovakian refugees obtain papers to settle in France. His music was banned by the Nazis, and he fled Paris just days before the city was occupied, eventually making his way to New York.
Luckily, Martinů knew Serge Koussevitzky, who was the music director of the Boston Symphony, and a prolific champion of new works. He extended Martinů a commission—it didn’t have to be a symphony, but it was supposed to be dedicated to the memory of Koussevitzky’s late wife, Natalie. Martinů wrote the first movement in Queens, New York, in June 1942; he wrote the middle movements in rural Middlebury, Vermont, in July; and wrote the finale in Lenox, Massachusetts, where he was on the summer faculty of the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood. He completed revisions by the Massachusetts seaside. Martinů liked to compose while going for walks, and the story goes that he was arrested on the beach late one night under suspicion of being a German spy. He had to explain to the local police that he was actually a Czech composer with insomnia.
Koussevitzky premiered the Symphony with the BSO on November 12, 1942, at Harvard University, repeated it at Boston’s Symphony Hall the following day, and then at Carnegie Hall in New York soon after. Martinů wrote something of an editorial as his program note, criticizing other composers of the time for “the tendency to mask a lack of real music and to replace it with noise.” He contrasted that with his own work:
As for my symphony, it follows the classical division into four parts—Allegro [sic], Scherzo, Largo, Allegro. In preserving this plan, I have also followed an aesthetic plan which my conviction dictates, and this conviction is that a work of art must not transcend the limits of its possibility in expression… I have tried to find new sound combinations and to elicit from the orchestra a unified sonority in spite of the polyphonic working which the score contains. It is not the sonority of impressionism, nor is there the search for color, which rather is integral in the writing and the formal structure. The character of the work is calm and lyric.
Listeners might disagree slightly, finding some charming noise in parts of Martinů’s First Symphony. The unique opening connects a series of chords with dense, dissonant crescendos (the nearest point of comparison could be the chaotic orchestral climax in the Beatle’s “A Day in the Life,” 25 years later). The rest of the movement is carried by tuneful, syncopated material that catches in the ear.
The second movement is a real scherzo with a more pastoral trio: neoclassical in form, but jazzy in style.
The somber Largo might be the memorial for Mrs. Koussevitzky, but it might also be a reaction to news of the Lidice massacre, a Nazi atrocity in June 1942 intended to avenge the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by the Czechoslovakian Resistance.
The Finale is a urgent rondo with hints of Czech folksong. Reviewing the premiere, the usually cranky composer and critic Virgil Thomson declared: “The Martinů Symphony is a beaut. It is wholly lovely and doesn’t sound like anything else.”