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The seed of Bohuslav Martinu’s tumultuous life can be traced back to the unusual settings of his birth and childhood. The Bohemian composer was born at the top of the church tower of the small market town of Polic?ka, where his father doubled as fire lookout and church-bell ringer. The isolation experienced in the tower contributed to Martinu’s elusive character, his mercurial and unmethodical tendencies, and his predisposition for depression. The ample horizons he could admire from the height of his first residence indelibly colored his musical language, characterized by syncopated, sprung rhythms and the superimposition of closely spaced harmonies that seem born of a desire to fill vast spaces.
Expelled from the Prague Conservatory in 1910 for “incorrigible negligence,” Martinu’s went on to a life of travels, short-held teaching posts, and extramarital love affairs. As a second violinist with the Czech Philharmonic he traveled Europe, eventually settling in Paris, where he studied composition with Roussel. In the French capital he heard jazz and the music of Stravinsky and Les Six. He composed copiously and frantically, covering all genres of the classical repertoire and showing interest in Baroque forms, as well as in the folk music and culture of his native Czechoslovakia.
A brief sojourn in Switzerland and one year spent assisting artists to escape Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia preceded Martinu’s 1940 flight to the United States. Life in New York proved unsuited for the European-minded composer. Martinu entered a period of deep depression, aggravated by a bad fall he incurred while teaching at Tanglewood. Nevertheless, in 1948 he accepted teaching posts at Princeton and the Mannes School of Music.
It is during this time that, in just a few weeks, he composed the Piano Trio No. 2 in D minor (1950). Martinu’s interest in a variety of compositional methods and traditions earned him a reputation for eclecticism. In fact, Martinu never associated with any particular school, finding his own voice in the synthesis of the most diverse influences. Though the Piano Trio No. 2 radiates the shining energy that characterizes most of Martinu’s music, an underlying heaviness colors this lively piece. The thickness of the string writing in the first movement, Allegro, is reminiscent of Schumann’s chamber music, while the motivic development references Beethoven. The Andante opens with a modernist rendering of a folk chromatic line, complicated by the piano’s initial refusal to follow the strings’ melodic drive. Noteworthy is the bell-like piano mini-chorale towards the center of this movement. The final Allegro is a fantastic ride, a tour-de-force dialog between the piano and the strings, brilliant in energy and dynamics, yet unwilling to mask completely the underlying anxiety that pervades the whole piece.
Martinu left the United States in 1953 to return to Europe, first settling in Paris, then in Nice. In 1955 he again tried a life in New York, but, depressed, accepted a teaching post in Rome and one year later moved to Switzerland, where he died of stomach cancer in 1959.
Barbara Moroncini has a Ph.D in Musicology from the University of California, Los Angeles.