A Trio Born in Prague, Influenced by Paris

Rays of light in the darkness. © Charles Thibo

The first movement sounds at first like a cry of despair, a confused, agitated mind looking for help, for orientation, for the light at the end of the tunnel. A slow transition to a kind of monologue, a mind wandering into unknown territories, the pizzicato* introduces a phase of consolidation and of consolation. The second movement has the texture of a prayer, a lullaby, a long, drawn-out sigh expressing a certain resignation, a certain peace of mind, albeit on the background of an overall depressed and confused mood. Occasionally gentle, optimistic figured for the violin are pitched against the darkness, but they cannot prevail. The last movement however has a hopeful, playful general mood and finishes on a strident, agitated repetition of the central theme giving the third movement a bitter aftertaste.

Bohuslav Martinu wrote this piece, the String Trio No. 1 (H 136), in 1923 while he was packing his bags to move from Prague to Paris. the recording by the Jacques Thibaud String Trio contrasts the trios written by Martinu with those of his contemporary Darius Milhaud, whose String Trio Op. 274 I have presented in a post a year ago. Around 1920 Martinu had begun to take formal composition study under Josef Suk, a composer that has surfaced on this blog for the first time this summer. Anton Dvorak, Suk and Martinu – three impressive Czech composers with very different musical languages.

The influence of Stravinsky and Debussy

Martinu admired Suk, but his style failed to capture Martinu, who had set his sights on Paris and the new French avant-garde. A small scholarship made the Paris adventure possible and he sought out Albert Roussel to receive informal lessons. Roussel would teach Martinu until his death in 1937, helping him to focus and bring order to his compositions, rather than instructing him in a specific style. “In Paris his range of musical experiences vastly increased: apart from lessons with Roussel he heard the music of [Igor] Stravinsky and Les Six [a group of composers including Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger, Georges Auric, Louis Durey and Germaine Tailleferre] and jazz” writes Jan Smaczny for a biographical note in Oxford Music Online.

Trio No. 1 is on of those works I had to listen to several times before I started to really appreciate the subtleties in Martinu’s language. While the first movement is somewhat disturbing – and I am sure Martinu wanted it to be disturbing – the Andante strikes me by its rough, unpolished beauty, its hidden gentleness and the third movement, well it’s just fun. And it is striking how Martinu manages such a brutal emotional change from the second to the last movement without sacrifying the overall idea of the trio.

Martinu’s musical language reflects the style of his composition teachers, at least partly, as Smaczny explains. “Suk in the use of Impressionist orchestration and Roussel in his discrimination concerning orchestral timbre; among his Czech predecessors [Martinu] admired Dvorak, and the influence of [Leos] Janacek on his setting of the Czech language is clear. The two non-Czech modern composers who were most decisively influential were [Claude] Debussy and Stravinsky. The presence of the former can be felt at its most undiluted in the First String Quartet.”

© Charles Thibo

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