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Bohuslav Martinů left his native Czechoslovakia for the glamour of Paris in October 1923, having won a travel scholarship from Prague’s Ministry of Education. The scholarship supported a three-month stint in the city – Martinů stayed for 18 years. His father had recently died, and the composer was leaving much of his past behind him (including his role as a violinist). In Paris he absorbed new musical styles and influences, and began a fruitful period of writing operas and ballets in this new cultural environment.
Jazz had manifested itself in Martinů’s work before he landed in Paris during the city’s “Jazz Age” – his foxtrots from 1919 and 1920, for example – but the swinging new sound settled into his compositions for an extended stay in the late ’20s. His first three operas in particular bear the stamp, most notably The Three Wishes (1929), which calls on banjos, saxophones, and flexatone (in addition to a full orchestra) for its film-within-an-opera set in New York City. The last major echoes of jazz came in the ballet King in Check (1930), and the idiom only made subtle, occasional appearances in his work thereafter.
Martinů’s first substantial foray into jazz was with La Revue de Cuisine, a one-act ballet he wrote in 1927 (one of three ballets he wrote that year). It was commissioned by, and dedicated to, Božena Nebeskâ and, though written in Paris, was premiered back home in Prague by the Ballet Group of Jarmila Kröschlová the same year. It was Martinů’s first hit – and one of his personal favorites – and it spawned a concert suite adaptation that premiered in Paris in 1930. (Martinů also wrote a piano arrangement around the same time.) The suite continued to be performed throughout the composer’s life and, of course, beyond it.
Based on a scenario by Kröschlová, this “Kitchen Review” refers to the messy, Shakespearian love triangle between newlyweds Pot and Lid and the libertine tempter, Twirling Stick, bent on breaking up their marriage. Though Twirling Stick does seduce Pot into an adulterous kiss, Pot begins to long for her husband – who himself receives advances from the naturally coquettish Dishcloth. With a kick of almost divine intervention from a giant boot offstage, Pot is back in Lid’s loving arms (or handles, perhaps) at ballet’s end.
Originally titled Pokuseni svatouská hrnec (Temptation of the Saintly Pot) by Martinů, the four-movement suite drips with wit and absurdist humor. The music has a light, self-aware quality, and the jazz elements fit the story’s tone like an oven mitt. These include a lively, trumpet-led Charleston – the American flapper dance that was enjoying its peak when Martinů wrote this work – and a slinky tango, a rhythm native to Latin America but which invaded Paris at the beginning of the jazz age. The distinctly “blue” clarinet is spotlighted, swinging in the Charleston and lightening the march that opens and closes the suite.
By his own admission Martinů was rebutting certain critics with this ballet, who had accused his earlier ballets of being both instrumentally and tonally overburdened. Thus La Revue de Cuisine springs with a joyful weightlessness, unafraid to sweeten its recipe with the trendy dances and beats of its day, and echoing with a bygone revelry that still resonates in ours.