Although Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů does not enjoy the same fame as other composers of the same period, he certainly has a prominent place in twentieth-century music. Martinů is also well known by theremin enthusiasts thanks to Fantasia for theremin, oboe, piano, and string quartet, the composition commissioned to him in 1944 by Lucie Bigelow Rosen. Let’s try to understand a little more about him and follow the path that led him from a Moravian small town to Manhattan, where the fortuitous meeting took place.
Prologue: Escape from Paris
When Bohuslav Martinů reaches New York, together with his wife Charlotte, on March 31, 1941, aboard the S.S. Exeter docking at the New Jersey pier in New York harbor, he has just turned fifty and has an aged look. He has lost weight, has an emaciated face, a tired appearance, and a sad look. The difficulties and hardships that Bohuslav and Charlotte had to endure since the day they left Paris threatened by the arrival of the Nazis have left a visible mark on the Czech composer.
In 1940, while still in Paris, instead of returning home to accept an assignment at the Prague conservatory, Martinů began studying English motivated by the firm decision to move to the United States, where Edvard Beneš, president of the Czechoslovak government in exile had already arrived.
Like many other Czech artists living in Paris, Martinů believed he could be helpful as an artist by increasing the world’s awareness of the tragedy of his motherland and by raising the morale of the Czech resistance troops organized by President Beneš.
So in 1940, he composed his Field Mass (La Messe aux Champs d’Honneur) for baritone, chorus, and orchestra as a tribute to the Czechoslovak resistance army. The work was broadcast on British radio and heard in occupied Czechoslovakia. For this reason, Martinů was blacklisted by the Nazis and sentenced in absentia. The performance of all his works was prohibited in occupied Prague, and all compensation deriving from international royalties blocked.
Following all this and with the awareness that German troops were approaching dangerously, on 10 June 1940, Martinů and his wife left Paris by train for the south of France to reach Portugal and sail from there to the United States. Thus ended the French period of Martinů, an artistically fruitful time destined to leave an indelible trace in his poetics.