Saturday, May 26, 2007

Music by a Czech emigre

I've been listening to more and more mid-20th-century symphonies lately. It's a musical niche to which I find myself increasingly drawn. And it's not a very small niche, thanks in part to the work of conductor Serge Koussevitzky (right), who was music director of the Boston Symphony from 1924 to 1949. Koussevitzky championed contemporary composers and commissioned scads of works from them. Some day I think it would be interesting to study the musicological impact of a few people like Koussevitzky, along with Nadezhda von Meck (the rich lady who championed Debussy and Tchaikovsky), Paul Wittgenstein (a wealthy, one-handed pianist who commissioned many works for "piano left hand"), and Nadia Boulanger (a composer herself, but mainly known by the long list of prominent musicians who were her students).

But for now, I'm content to listen to the music they helped make possible.

Last night my main musical selection was the First Symphony by Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959), pictured at the left. Martinů was a tremendously prolific composer, considered one of the great Czech composers along with Dvořák, Janáček, and Smetana. (I just love making Blogger cough up those weird letters.) Martinů wrote loads of operas, ballets, chamber and choral works, concertos, and eventually six symphonies. The symphonies were all written after Martinů emigrated to the U.S. in 1941, and in various ways express his longing for his homeland and his anxiety about what was going on in the world at that time. His music is often classed as "neo-classical," though it was influenced by jazz, folk music, the Baroque concerto grosso, and music by more modern composers such as Debussy and Stravinsky.

The First Symphony, commissioned by Koussevitzky, is in four movements. The first two and the last one are, to varying degrees, fast, intense, bustling movements, full of insistent rhythms. The third and slowest movement is a brooding, tragic piece that rises toward a passionate climax near its end. The themes, while not extravagantly lyrical, are pointed and distinctive. The variety of textures is mostly clear and easy to understand. The harmony is unusual but beautiful; you get the impression that Martinů worked with a very broad sort of tonality. Martinů's use of orchestral colors was unique yet effective, blending piano and a variety of percussion instruments into the palette, and combining groups of instruments to create worlds of sound I had never heard before.

One thing that caught my attention in this symphony was a rising motif, repeated frequently in the first two movements, once or twice in the third, and perhaps only hinted at in the finale. It usually emerges from the background, overlapping or intertwining with whatever else is going on in the music, and winding upward from a very low to a very high register. It never causes an ugly clash, but it never seems to belong to the same world as the music it cuts across. This rising figure reminded me of bubbles rising through liquid, or of incense smoke rising and dissipating, or of a spirit being borne away on the wings of a dream.

So maybe there is a significance in this motif's gradual disappearance from the symphony. Maybe it has something to do with the brutal machine of Fascism damping the levity of Martinů's homeland, banishing its good dreams and hopes and aspirations. Maybe it's about reality destroying the buoyant ideals of youth. Maybe it's about the soul of Koussevitzky's late wife (in whose memory the work was commissioned) rising out of this care-filled world. Or maybe it's just about the noise and bustle and chaos of New York City obliterating the composer's peaceful memories of home.

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