Thursday 4 December 2014

Martinů’s Letters Home published by Toccata Press is essential reading for anyone interested in Martinů or, indeed, 20th century music

I have a biography of Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959) that has a poignant note written in the front. It is a brief transcript of a BBC broadcast from 28th August 1979 on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the composer’s death.

It reads ‘Martinů’s earthly remains will today be reburied with full state honours in his native town of Polička. His embalmed body is to be placed in the family grave, to join that of his French wife Charlotte who died last November. Martinů was 4 months short of 70 when he died. At his funeral Marcel Mihalovici, a friend from his Paris days, described Martinů’s music as ‘’radiating nostalgia, a desire he carried with him throughout his life for that corner of the world where he first saw the light of day’

A recent publication by Toccata Press , the third volume in their series Musicians in Letters, is entitled Martinů’s Letters Home - Five Decades of Correspondence with Family and Friends. The volume is edited by Iša Popelka and translated by Ralph Slayton.

Toccata Press
(Distributed by Boydell and Brewer)
ISBN: 978-0-907689-77-5
Size: 16.4 x 24.1 cms
Published: March 2013
52 illustrations
Martinů was an exile from his homeland of Czechoslovakia from 1941 until his death in 1959 and, therefore, his letters home to his family and friends have a particular resonance. The book is divided into four parts, Apprenticeship in Polička, Prague and Paris, 1907-1929; Prowess in Paris, 1930-1941; America and Exile, 1941-1953 and Return to Europe, 1953-1959. Thus we have a sample consisting of 121 letters covering a period of over 50 years. Though not a biography, biographical information is given before each section of the book.

The first correspondence is a postcard sent from Smichov, Prague dated 14th November (1907-10) to his sister. By December 1911 he is writing from Prague concerning his examination results ‘I wasn’t expecting anything like this…I don’t know what’s going to happen now, but it’s not really my problem’ a remark that sounds very contemporary. The letters continue through his early days including in July 1920 when he writes of his collecting folk songs in the High Tatras.

The years from 1929 to 1941 he is in Paris where, in October 1929, he writes to the Town Board of his home town of Polička applying for assistance which resulted in an ‘honorary study grant’ of 1,500 crowns.

When he writes on 2nd October 1930 to his family he uses a phrase that continues in his letters to the end of his life ‘My dear ones.’ Here he writes of his symphonic suite La Bagarre that was performed by Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1927 as well as the Czech Philharmonic in September 1930 under Václav Talich.

His letter to his family dated 17th March 1931 concerns an important moment in his life when writes ‘…it’s about Charlotte. I want to marry her and there’s no reason to keep putting it off…write to me soon and tell me what Mum thinks about it…’ He didn’t wait to find out – he married Charlotte Quennehen in Paris on 21st March 1931 – just four days later.

In May 1932 he writes to his friend Bohuslav Šmid concerning the sale of his piano ‘it wasn’t easy to part with…a friend with whom I worked on my compositions and whom in turn, created a lot of work for me…in that piano are lots of memories, hopes, disappointments and successes…’ By November 1933 he is writing from Prague to his family about a contract for the music to a film called Marijka nevĕrnice (Unfaithful Marijka) and his fee of 15,000 crowns.

By 19th October 1934 events in Europe are already looking difficult with his letter from Paris to his family mentioning the assassination of Alexander I, King of Yugoslavia during a state visit to France (Marseilles) on 9th October 1934 and the consequent checking of all foreign passports.

Writing from Paris on 11th June 1935 regarding the death of Josef Suk on 29th May 1935 he says ‘I was very surprised by the news of Suk’s death. He never got much rest – he was always on the verge of leaving the Conservatoire, which was so tiring for him, and now he’s left it for good.’

In November 1935 he writes to his family again mentioning more works, his Piano Concerto No.2 and Cello Concerto No.1 amongst others. Indeed, on pages 60/61 there is a facsimile of an autograph list of the foreign performances of his works.

By September 1938 he is writing to his family from Paul Sacher’s home in Schönenberg, near Basel ‘I’m sending you a letter myself so you don’t worry. We’re still in Switzerland…’ Then from Paris in October 1938 ‘The mood here isn’t good – people are uneasy.’ Again from Paris in March 1939 he writes ‘About America – for the time being it’s only an idea in the event that things get even worse than they are now…’ and in May that year ‘…I’m sure I’d find a career soon enough in America – they say I have a bigger name there than here.’

By 8th December 1940 he is in Aix-en-Provence writing ‘My Dear Ones. Today we celebrated my fiftieth birthday! I’m sure you were thinking about us…’ A facsimile of this letter is printed on the following pages. It is in French due to censorship laws.

Martinů’s move to America draws nearer as by 14th March 1941 he is in Lisbon writing ‘it’s beautiful here, but it rained the whole time. We’ll leave in a couple of days…’ They sailed for New York on 21st March 1941. He would never see his homeland again. There is even a facsimile of the Martinůs’ reservation for their voyage from Lisbon to New York.

The first letter from New York is dated 14th April 1941 to his family ‘I’m sure you’ve been waiting impatiently for news from us…we got here right, although it was quite rough at sea, and our friends were waiting for us…’  Martinů didn’t have to wait long for work, writing to his family on 21st November 1941 (Jamaica, Long Island, New York) ‘We’re back from Boston and from my first big concert in America! I have a great success…’ This was his last letter to his family until 1945.

In a letter from New York to Frantisek Martinů dated 27th June 1945 he gives his address a South Orleans, Massachusetts, USA going on to say ‘I heard about Mum.’ This was the death of his mother.

He is back in Basel by the time of his letter dated 29th August 1948 staying with the Sachers. Between then and his letter of 13th August 1949 he seems to be darting around between Europe and USA. In this letter he says ‘…I haven’t had a chance to write. Everything is in such a state of confusion and we’re constantly travelling…’

His letter written at Christmas 1949 to his ‘dear ones’ is perhaps for the first time rather reflective ‘Again a Christmas filled only with memories…’ He mentions his award of the Academy Prize for his Third Symphony and also figures such as the conductors Rafael Kubelík Kubelik and Ernest Ansermet.

To the family of Ladislav Pražan dated December 1950 he writes ‘I thank you most heartily for your letter and for your good wishes on my 60th birthday…I’m still with you in spirit…with the hope that I’ll see you once again…’

On 4th April 1953 he writes from New York to his sister Marie ‘Let us pray that the powers that be will come to an agreement so that I might come home for a visit.’

Although Martinů received American citizenship in 1952 he started to think about a return to Europe even though a visit to Czechoslovakia was uncertain.

His letters from May 1953 (when he writes to his family ‘we’re back in Europe…we’ve decided to spend the whole year here.’) are from Paris, then for a few months from Nice. In March 1955 he writes poignantly from Nice to his family ‘I have the picture on the table in front of me. It makes me feel closer to you.’

To reinforce the fact that Martinů wasn’t forgotten in his homeland his letter of March 1956 from New York to the local Office of the National Council in Polička relates ‘it gave me great pleasure that the work (The Opening of the Springs) had its premiere in our hometown and that it was received with such enthusiasm.’

In July 1956 he is back in Scönenberg writing to his family about the Polička Music School as well as his works to be performed at the Salzburg Festival. His letter to his family from Rome dated 16th December 1956 shows an increasingly sad outlook ‘How many Christmases have we already spent without you…’

From Schonenberg dated January 1958 he writes to Miloslav Bureš ‘I heard about the celebration in Polička and was glad of it even though I wasn’t able to be there.’ Martinů refers to a permanent exhibition at the Polička Museum and a memorial plaque with a portrait in relief of the composer at the entrance to the tower of the Church of St James. Soon after he writes to his family ‘A representative of the Composer’s Union was here from Prague – sent expressly for the performance (a performance of The Epic of Gilgamesh in Basel).

On 17th May 1958 he writes to his family ‘You know with what a heavy heart it was that I wrote to you of my decision (not to visit Czechoslovakia). And now there really remains nothing left to us but hope.’ 

He writes to Marie and Jindřiška Martinů on 1st October 1958 from Nice on the death of his brother and on 11th December 1958 letter from Schönenberg to sister Marie ‘We’re back in our own home…we’re at the hospital for a check-up again…’ He was suffering from cancer.

Martinů appears in an optimistic mood when he writes, on 15th March 1959, from Schönenberg to Miloslav Bureš ‘Give my regards to everyone back home, and write me when you get Mikeš (Mikeš of the Mountains)’re going to like it!’ This is the last letter. Bohuslav Martinů died on 28th August 1959.

This book is full of photographs, facsimiles of letters and documents and usefully includes an Appendix of addressees and an Appendix on Martinu the cartoonist. Though his efforts might be termed doodles, it adds another personal touch to this book. There is also an index of Martinů’s works and a general index.

If I have gone on at length it is because this book is so fascinating and is surely essential for anyone interested in Martinů or, indeed, 20th century music.

1 comment:

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