Ethereal Sounds from a Czech Composer’s Pen

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Enigma. © Charles Thibo

Danger. Tension. Something is in the air. You can feel it, you can touch it, you can hear it. You can not see it, nor can you comprehend it, it escapes the human understanding. But it is. It is there. Evil. The memory of evil. Crimes against humanity. An aggression war. The betrayal and dismembering of a country. Deportations. Millions of displaced persons. And in the midst of all this negativity – a glimmer of hope. A flute.

Bohuslav Martinu wrote his Symphony No. 5 (H. 310) between March to May 1946, a year after World War II had ended in Europe. Martinu had initially intended to dedicate the work to the Red Cross, in the end the score was dedicated to the Czech Philharmonic, perhaps in anticipation of a return to his home country. His repatriation did not come about, the Fifth nevertheless is the only one of Martinu’s symphonies to have been premiered by a Czech orchestra: Rafael Kubelik conducted the Czech Philharmonic in the first performance, at the Prague Spring Festival on 28 May 1947.

The composer had emigrated to the United States in 1941, fleeing the German invasion of France. It was in the United States that he composed all major symphonic works. He returned to live in Europe for two years starting in 1953, but he settled down for good in Europe only in 1956. His musical bearing points were firmly anchored in Europe: he admired Suk and Dvorak, and the two non-Czech modern composers who were most decisively influential were Debussy and Stravinsky.

You will find some Debussy-inspired material in the Fifth Symphony, the ethereal sound blocks in the first movement. You will find Stravinsky-inspired tension building elements in the first and second movement. The last movement however is closer to the language of the late Romanticists. The symphony is a fascinating piece of music that has to be discovered through repeated listenings. Like an archeologists you will need to uncover one layer after the other.

The general plan of the symphony does not adhere to the traditional form. Instead, Martinu said, it has a “more modern, better structure”. This involves the alternation of slow and fast sections in all of the movements, and the symphony’s most distinctive feature is its enlivenment by rhythmic devices. Jan Smaczny and Michael Crump write in apiece for Oxford Music Online that “to some extent, the sense of isolation which characterized his [Martinu’s] personal life guaranteed his musical individuality; although he was responsive to new ideas, he was never part of any identifiable school.”

Symphony No. 5 has been recorded by Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Jiri Belohlavek.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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