Tuesday, February 8, 2011: Meet Mr Martinů

Bohuslav Martinů, New York, 1945

Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959), although being a prolific composer, has only in the past several years been getting wide international recognition.

In addition to his nearly 400 pieces of innovative, gorgeous music, the legends and stories about his life create a richness deserving its own bio-pic.

It’s well-known among Martinů fans that he grew up in the top of his small town’s fire watchtower, and his father carried him up and down the 193 steps every day.

As a teenager Martinů was accepted at the Prague Conservatory to study violin, but he was soon asked to leave.

He performed with the Czech Philharmonic for a short time, but eventually left for Paris, in 1923. If you research his life after he reached Paris at age 23, you’ll find that no two biographers agree on the details.

Mainly, though, he wasn’t afraid to be open to new influences in music, such as jazz, expressionism, and the new direction laid out by composers such as Stravinsky. He combined some of these styles with Moravian folk songs and nursery rhymes, giving his work what some reviewers like to call a distinct Czech style. But listen to some examples for yourself, and decide.

In 1941 he moved with his French wife to the US, where he composed five of his six symphonies. In 1953 they returned to Europe, and Martinů continued to compose. He died in 1959 in Switzerland following an illness.

His name is pronounced pretty close to the way it’s written; the little circle above the final “u” just means that you can’t be lazy making the “oo” sound. His birthplace, the town of Polička (Po-lich-ka) in Moravia, today the eastern part of the Czech Republic, holds a Martinů festival every other May. (The latest one was in 2009.) Concerts in The Bohuslav Martinů Days in Prague Festival are held in early December each year. oo

—Mary Matz

Photo Credits: Bohuslav Martinů Centre, Polička

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