Martinů’s Notes on Art

Opus Osm

Francesca's mastery of perspective is clear in this painting, which is almost like two different works stuck together.

Martinů’s Notes on Art
Martinů’s Frescoes: A World, in 20 Minutes

Bohuslav Martinů’s Frescoes of Piero della Francesca is a three-part orchestral work lasting less than 20 minutes. But it contains an astounding variety of moods, tempos, and colors.

Next Wednesday and Thursday the Prague Symphony Orchestra (FOK) gives you the chance to hear it in person, as the FOK opens the second half of its concert season with the piece.

Martinů resisted talk about specific imagery and his music, according to music historians. He believed if a composer tried to represent a picture in music, his work would often be regarded as simply descriptive – mere program music on a specific subject.

So it’s ironic that his composition has the very specific title and reference to Piero della Francesca’s paintings in the Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo, Italy. The murals, known as “The Legend of the True Cross,” depict the life story of the wood used for Christ’s crucifix.

It’s hard to imagine getting more specific than that.

But, as Martinů allowed, the first movement refers to the frescoes portraying the Queen of Sheba’s revelation that the wood in the bridge she is crossing will be used in Christ’s cross. The second movement contains a sense of battle and agitation, from Constantine’s dream that following the sign of the cross will lead him to victory on the battlefield. The third movement is, as Martinů reportedly said, a kind of general view of all the frescoes.

Francesca was a 15th-century, early Renaissance painter and scholar who was among the first to use geometry in painting. (Look at an example, his famous “Flagellation of Christ,” above. Notice the feeling created by the perspective lines in the floor, ceilings, and walls on the left, in contrast to the softness of the men’s clothing on the right.) His ability to observe and apply linear perspective signaled a revolution in how space was beginning to be perceived at this time.

Martinů, traveling through Italy in 1955, came across these frescoes, and described the artist’s style as a “solemn, frozen silence and opaque colored atmosphere, which contains strange, peaceful, yet moving poetry.”

Most likely, listening to Martinů’s Frescoes of Piero della Francesca won’t land you in a mental journey to Arezzo, Italy. Where his piece does take you is entirely up to you.

The Prague Symphony Orchestra (FOK) opening concert is at 7:30 pm Wed, Sept 5 and Thurs, Sept 6 at The Municipal House. Also on the program: Smetana (Wallenstein’s Camp); Dvořák (the glorious Te Deum, with guest artists and the Prague Philharmonic Choir); and Beethoven (Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 4 in G Major, Opus 58). — oo

– Mary Matz

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