About this Piece
Although he had an insatiable musical curiosity, Martinu˚ was not a successful student in his years at the Prague Conservatory. He was expelled from the Conservatory’s organ department in 1910 for “incorrigible negligence” and the following year failed in his first attempt to get a teaching credential. Martinu˚ had been a prodigy on the violin, however, at least by the standards of Policˇka, his Bohemian hometown, and did play in the Czech Philharmonic in the early 1920s.
But his interest was always focused on composition. Martinu˚ moved to Paris in 1923 to study with Albert Roussel and began a prolific period of composition in all forms and genres. He gradually developed a significant reputation, with important premieres in Paris, Prague, Berlin, London, and Venice, as well as performances of several pieces by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony.
When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, the opposition government appointed Martinu˚ its cultural attaché in Paris, where the composer aided large numbers of refugee artists. He composed a Field Mass for the Free Czechoslovak Army Band and found his music proscribed in his homeland by the Nazis. When the fall of Paris became imminent, Martinu˚ and his wife fled, first to what became Vichy France, then to Portugal, and eventually to the United States.
After the war, Martinu˚ was offered a post as professor of composition at the reorganized Prague Conservatory. But while teaching at Tanglewood in the summer of 1946, he suffered a near-fatal fall from a balcony. He remained in the U.S. and spent most of 1947 recuperating and composing chamber music, beginning with the Three Madrigals. They were inspired by a performance of the Mozart Duos by his friends Joseph and Lilian Fuchs, the brother- sister duo to whom Martinu˚ dedicated the Madrigals (and another violin/viola Duo he composed in 1950).
The Three Madrigals share the imaginative textures, virtuoso interplay, and three-movement form of the Mozart Duos. The name suggests the further influence of English madrigals, which Martinu˚ had first encountered in the 1920s and which were an enduring love of his. The sprung rhythms and free mix of polphony and chordal writing that were so characteristic of Martinu˚ ’s music are a legacy of those madrigals, as much as of the Bohemian and Moravian folk music that also resonates powerfully in this music.
The opening movement moderates driving energy with an infectious bounce. The texture switches mercurially between orchestrally rich double stops and brittle hocketing, across the full range of both instruments.
Mystery lies at the center of this trio of movements, a temperate Andante that begins in soft trembling and trilling. There are hints of Bachian counterpoint and smoothly flowing passages, but trills and tremolos and arpeggios always reassert themselves, sometimes vociferously, in music of often dark but always sonorous beauty. A meter change before the end soothes some of the urgency, but with its own unstable undertow.
Martinu˚ turns to folk dance for his finale, an exuberant mashup of hoedown and Bach invention. He pulls in the middle movement’s tremolos to cloak transitional moments, and offers a lyrical but harmonically searching slow central contrast before the opening returns in full vigor and humor.
— John Henken