War and peace set to music by a Czech refugee

war and peace
Once they came as liberators…

Victory. Liberation. Can you jubilate after a war with 60 million people killed? Hardly. Relief was the first impulse that the composer Bohuslav Martinu felt after Germany had surrendered. It gave gradually way to unbound joy, but the memory of the deadliest conflict in human history lingered on. Such a tragedy could not be brushed away in a few weeks or months.

Remembering past horrors

By the beginning of 1945, an Allied victory was almost certain, and Martinu started to compose a new work. On November 30, 1945 his Symphony No. 4 in B flat major was performed for the first time – in Philadelphia. The Czech composer, born in 1890, had studied and lived in Paris before World War II. When Germany invaded his home country, his music was forbidden. He had an idea what might happen if ever Germany would occupy France. He did not wait and left for the United States, where he taught composition between 1941 and 1953.

Martinu’s style reflects the influence of Paris: Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel but also Igor Stravinsky count for the modern, occasionally dissonant elements in his works, while generally his compositions move in the range of traditional tonalities. He developped over time a fascination for Baroque composing techniques e. g. Corelli’s Concerti Grossi, where different instrumental groups enter into a dialogue. Martinu belongs to a small group of composers that might qualify as neo-classicists, though this attribute is just as vague as the label “impressionist” for Debussy.

I heard Martinu’s Symphony No. 4 yesterday performed by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in Luxembourg, led by Jiri Belohlavek. A beautiful and impressive piece. An outstanding performance, widely applauded. The crowning of a first class music event with the South Korean violinist Ye-Eun Choi  performing Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major before the pause.

Parallels to Shostakovitch

In a program note of the Seattle Symphony I found a set of guidelines for the listener: What to listen for? An excellent idea, and I am glad to credit the editor here. Movement one is a set of jaunty melodies, interrupted twice by threatening crescendos, very close to Dmitry Shostakovitch’s symphony “Leningrad”. Peace reigns, but the risk of a war breaking out is palpable. The second movement illustrates war with march-like rhythms: Cymbals, drums, trumpets drown a pastoral episode inspired by a folk song and played by the woods. Fear and violence annihilates everything that is pleasant, delicate, sensitive. Again Shostakovtich’s symphony comes to my mind.

Now to the largo, the elegiac third movement: a calmly flowing stream of thoughts – was it just a dream? No, it wasn’t, but peace has finally returned. Time to pray, time to remember, time to mourn. Very emotional, very honest, very much “it-makes-me-shiver”. The last movement takes up earlier material, becoming gradually more intense and leading to the final triumph. An older recording of Martinu’s fourth symphony by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra has been remastered in 2003.

Lessons learnt?

Looking back to the performance, I found the first movement extremely inspiring. The Czech composer sought refuge in the United States at a time when nationalism, political terror and autocratic leaders were the rule rather than the exception in Europe. And today? Today it would appear that the danger would rather lie on the other side of the Atlantic where an unpredictable man with questionable ideological convictions seems hell-bent to shatter the existing world order. We have been warned: It can happen anytime.

© Charles Thibo

P.S. The late bird catches the worm. I bought my concert ticket just a few days ahead of the concert and found out last night that I happened to sit just behind our head of state, Grand Duke Henri. And I am very pleased His Royal Highness is well-mannered and not excessively tall.

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