The French period: Education and Experimentation
Thanks to a modest scholarship Martinů arrived in Paris in 1923 at the age of 33. He felt the need to study different musical schools to overcome the romantic style that had characterized his studies at home and develop his own.
To improve his composition skills, he sought out Albert Roussel, a composer he deeply admired, who agreed to become his mentor.
The Jazz Craze: a Moravian in Paris
The impact with Paris was mesmerizing for Martinů: “It’s driving me crazy, really something exceptional” (Smékalová, 1996). The sparkling atmosphere that permeated Paris during the Années Folles, as the decade after the First World War was called, exposed him not only to the music of Stravinsky and Les Six but also to the jazz craze that swept Europe and France in particular in those years. He witnessed as well the desire of people to have fun, to get together, in cafes and dance halls, or at sporting events. All this had a profound influence on him: “Great new horizons have opened for me here, and it seems to me I’m no longer the same person I was half a year ago.” (Rybka, 2011) he wrote in another letter to a friend.
This wealth of stimuli, musical and ‘cultural’ in a broad sense, pushed him to start a phase of experimentation or fruitful crisis, one might say, which lasted seven years and was seminal in shaping his musical aesthetic.
Fruits of this experimentation can be found in the prolific and, in some ways, surprising production of those years. At least for those who think of Martinů mainly as an author of symphonies. Works like the Quartet for Clarinet, French Horn, Violoncello and Side-drum (1924), the Piano Concerto No. 1 (1925), The Soldier and the Dancer (1926-27), La Revue de cuisine (1927), the Jazz Suite (1928), Le Jazz (1928), the Sonata No.1 for Violin and Piano, the Sextet for piano and wind instruments (1929) and The Suburban Theatre (1935-36) are all indebted, in one way or another, to the jazz idiom and, increasingly, to Stravinsky. Martinů himself wrote about it: “The continuous stream of short jazz notes, the unity in the chaos of rhythms captures the impetuousness and nervousness of the time, and it’s no wonder almost all the young took this style as their own.” (Smékalová, 1996) Martinů was probably naturally predisposed to accept the styles of American jazz since “because of the unusually high-value Moravians place on lively, syncopated dance rhythms, they have a cultural affinity for jazz.” (Rybka, 2011) So it was no accident that Martinů was not the only Czech composer in Paris to adopt the rhythmic and instrumental freedom of jazz. Another noteworthy case being that of Jaroslav Jezˇek.
The Excitement of Crowds and the Fascination for the Machine
The influence of the Stravinsky of the Diaghilev period is evident in Half-Time (1924), crucial work in terms of compositional maturity. But also for the emergence of those stylistic devices that were to become a trademark of Martinů’s production: the use of the piano obbligato, an irregular rhythm, an atonal character, and some brutality in sound.
The inspiration for Half-time was the excitement of the crowd at a football game. To this end, Martinů relied mainly on the rhythm that dominates a theme, which is also more rhythmic than melodic. Here comes to mind the importance given to the obsessive repetition of rhythmic formulae at the expense of the melody typical of the Stravinsky of the Ballets Russes.
Further evidence of his permeability to cultural suggestions in those years is provided by two of the first works written in Paris Le Raid merveilleux – ballet méchanique (1927-28) and La Bagarre (1927). Both works bear witness to the fascination with the machine typical of the historical period: “A real ‘music on the machine’ arose and spread destroying the myth that it has something sinister and hostile to life. It exalted the ‘lyrical qualities’ of technology. The new topic attracted large circles of composers” (Prieberg, 1963) such as Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, George Antheil, Arthur Honegger, Sergeij Prokofiev, and many others.
In particular, the theme of flight, so present in the collective imagination of the time, gave rise to countless works of art, if not even to a real artistic movement intended to celebrate it as in the case of Italian Futurism aeropoetry, aeropainting, and aeromusic.
Martinů’s Le Raid merveilleux was inspired by the failed attempt by the aviators Nungesse and Colli to cross the Atlantic in 1927. The staging included an airplane suspended on the stage, an engine, scenic projections, and headlines made with neon lights.
With La Bagarre Martinů wanted instead to describe the enthusiasm of the Parisian crowd at the arrival of Charles Lindbergh at Le Bourget airport on May 21, 1927.
La Bagarre is “a theme entirely typical of the mechanistic age in music, a theme the propulsive hardness of whose rhythm would not have presented itself to the imagination of a composer a decade ago.” (Šafránek, 1944) However, it is not a description of the landing itself “with its mechanical sounds and incidents” (Šafránek, 1944) but rather, as Martinů himself said,
… an atmosphere of movement, dash, tumult, obstruction. It is a movement in grand mass, an uncontrollable, violent rush … It’s a chaos, ruled by all the sentiments of enthusiasm, struggle, joy, sadness, wonder. It’s a chaos governed by a common feeling, an invisible bond, which pushes everything forward, which moulds numerous masses into a single element full of unexpected, uncontrollable events. (Šafránek, 1944)
It is a theme that would have been appreciated by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti who in 1909 wrote in the Manifesto of Futurism: “We will sing of great crowds excited by work, by pleasure, and by riot” but had little satisfaction in this regard from Francesco Balilla Pratella, official composer of the Futurist Movement.
Although the “machine poetics” will somehow re-emerge during the American period with the composition Thunderbolt P-47, Martinů was not dazzled by the avant-garde’s siren: “He disliked the current desire for novelty at any price. In short, many ideas of this avantgardist period were completely unacceptable to him; and, with few exceptions (the music of Honegger, for example), he remained unconvinced by the new French music that he heard.” (Šafránek, 1944) Martinů was rather influenced by Stravinsky: “… in whose works he found the answer to many of his questions regarding new methods of technique” (Šafránek, 1944).
Concerto Grosso: Martinu Settles on Neoclassicism
As noted by Massimo Mila, Stravinsky’s music exerted enormous influence on twentieth-century music. Some of his works have literally opened new trends in contemporary music: “without Stravinsky’s Sonata for piano, for example, Ravel’s Concerto for piano and orchestra would not have occurred. Without the Concerto in D flat for chamber orchestra and without the Concerto in D for strings there would not be all the abundant neoclassical production of a concertante style, along the lines of the Brandenburg Concerts, in which the compositions of Martinů and the Concerto for piano strings and tympani by Casella stand out.” (Mila, 1977)
Indeed, if in the experimental phase Martinů benefited from the Stravinsky of the Ballets “with his eclectic, jarring, angular rhythms, his visceral, industrial sounds, and his novel ritualistic structuring” (Rybka, 2011), from 1930 his style reached full maturity meeting naturally with a neo-classical language, also indebted to the Stravinsky after Pulcinella (1920). At the same time, he retained devotion to Czech popular music, which he kept as a reference point throughout his life.
A blend that became Martinů’s trademark and greatly stimulated his creative strength leading him to produce a vast amount of works. Among which it is good to remember the Serenade for chamber orchestra (1930), which introduced the new neoclassical manner; the String Sextet (1932), which earned him the Coolidge Prize and was performed by Serge Koussevitzsky with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which greatly contributed to his fame in the United States; the Sinfonia Concertante for two orchestras (1932); the Sonata for Two Violins and Piano (1932); the Piano Concerto No. 2 (1934); the Concertino for Piano, Trio, and String Orchestra (1935); the Concerto grosso (1937); the surrealist opera Juliette, or A Book of Dreams (1938); the Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano, and Timpani (1938).