March 1938: German troops occupy Austria, supported by thousands of local Nazi sympathizers. April 1938: Adolf Hitler orders preparations to invade and annex Czechoslovakia. September 1938: Through bluffing and unscrupulous blackmailing, Hitler wins French and British approval to annex the Czech territories of Moravia and Bohemia. While political tensions in Europe reached a first culmination point, a Czech composer was busy writing a concerto upon a commission of the Swiss conductor Paul Sacher for the Basel Chamber Orchestra, a concerto grosso in three movements. It became known as Bohuslav Martinu’s Double Concerto, H. 271. It has been recorded by the Essener Philharmoniker under Tomas Netopil and the pianist Ivo Kahanek.
Fear. A man trembling for the survival of his home country. Martinu spent much time in Paris in the 30s, but in July 1938 he had traveled to Prague. Germany had massed troops at the border. Hitler couldn’t be sure that the army would be strong enough to withstand a French-British retaliation attack upon a German invasion. But he rightly judged that Paris and London would betray the Czechs and not go to war to save Prague. Or later Danzig for that matter.
When the Munich Pact, giving Hitler a free hand in Czechoslovakia, was signed, Martinu had just finished the score for the double concerto. The piece expresses the thoughts and emotions of a terrorized soul. It is a brutal piece, an honest piece. I hear the lament over the cowardice of the European powers, I hear the marching boots, I hear the strident voice of the Führer, I hear the resignation, that the right of the strongest prevails over law and justice. In 1942 Martinu wrote about that time: “With anguish we listened every day to the news bulletins on the radio, trying to find encouragement and hope that did not come. The clouds were quickly gathering and becoming steadily more threatening. During this time I was at work on the Double Concerto, but all my thoughts and longings were constantly with my endangered country.”
As I have noted in a previous post on Martinu’s Symphony No. 4, the composer liked to use two separate orchestras and set them against each other to perform the different parts in a polyphonic exchange, very much in the Baroque tradition of vocal pieces where different sections of singers would sing the different voices. The Double Concerto is scored for two string orchestras, piano and timpani. It is a very impressive works and its unyielding, forceful character reminds me very much of Dmitry Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 “Leningrad”, written four years after Martinu’s work as German troops laid siege to the city of Leningrad.
Fear. I am not easily afraid, however the number of global challenges with which humanity is confronted, the fact that irresponsible politicians and hate groups have started to destroy the social fabric in many Western societies, the broken promise of freedom, democracy AND prosperity that our governments do not seem to be able to deliver anymore, all these developments make me feel insecure. It didn’t take much in 1938 to see an apocalyptic war coming. It doesn’t take much today to see that our societies are in imminent and mortal danger. Right now, right here.
© Charles Thibo