Bohuslav Martinů – Quartet (1924)

Some historians think Bohuslav Martinů suffered from Aspergers syndrome. He was shy in conversation, had extreme stage fright, and endured significant motor clumsiness. But he was also a prolific composer, and his music is as outward facing as his personality was inward.

I. The Stravinsky Connection

In 1923 Martinů abandoned his life in Prague and moved to Paris hoping to escape Prague’s conservative tastes in music. He was 32. Paris in the twenties was ground zero of the advancing phalanx of modernism in music, and it swept Martinů right up. He became a champion of Igor Stravinsky’s music, and that composer’s influence is ever-present in one of Martinů’s first significant compositions in Paris: the Quartet for Clarinet, Horn, Cello, and Side Drum from 1924.

Stravinsky cuts a remarkable swath across the twentieth century because his style varied so much. (Even while always being unmistakably his own.) Different composers can reflect the influence of different Stravinsky pieces, say The Rite of Spring or Petrushka or Symphony of Psalms, without sounding remotely like one another. The inspiration for the Quartet was clearly Histoire du Soldat.

II. Quartet for What?

Martinů’s choice of instruments seems arbitrary. An obvious speculation is that he had four friends who played them and wanted to offer them a bonbon. But if we recognize the influence of Histoire the choice becomes easier to understand on its own. Both pieces deploy heterogeneous textures and feature drums in unusual prominent positions. (Martinů’s side drum seems oddly more daring than the snareless drums in Histoire, even if it is much more restrained.) The opening cello line seems almost a direct copy of the double-bass part in “Petit Airs”.

Another technique that Martinů lifted from Stravinsky is chopping up and repurposing nationalist tunes. The Quartet is based on the medieval Czech hymn Svatý Václave (Saint Wenceslas Chorale). But Martinů’s treatment of it in the outer movements is decidedly more at home in a Paris cafe than in a church. By contrast, the inner movement is introspective and spiritual. A notable feature is the arresting harmonic shift at more-or-less the Golden Ratio point.

Finally, a feature that perhaps also reflects Stravinsky’s influence is Martinů’s use of rhythm. But Martinů displays a youthful brashness that supersedes the uneven pulsations of Histoire. He challenges his players with overlapping polymeters that do not fit comfortably in any time signature. A more practical choice (along the lines of Histoire) might have been to write them out in a simple 2/4 framework with occasional deviations. But Martinů chose instead to write longer bars with uneven subdivisions (and parts that don’t match the subdivisions) that present formidable ensemble challenges to any group assaying the piece.

III. The Usual Suspects

The horn part demonstrates no awareness of the low register but otherwise lies fairly well on the instrument. It only ascends above written G5 once or twice, with a high B5 at the end. The tessitura may lie slightly higher than many players will find comfortable, especially since there are long passages without rests. But any player that can negotiate the rhythms and passagework will probably have no trouble with the range.

For a piece in this style, the lack of low notes is unsurprising. (Stravinsky also ignored the low register is his Septet from three decades later.) However, there are times the Quartet might have benefited from low notes. An example occurs at bar 91 of the first movement. It is not that the cello’s tremolo low C is uninteresting, but the same horn pitch (written G2) seems like it could have added a great deal of timbral interest to the texture.

IV. The Long Road to Your Music Stand

The Quartet’s performance history resembles somewhat that of the Vaughn Williams Quintet in D. Upon completion of the manuscript (in Paris), Martinů shipped it to his homeland. There it lay in private hands, inaccessible to the public, until finally the National Museum in Prague purchased it. The piece appeared in print in 1975 and is now available from Schott in all the usual channels.

Even today there is still much discussion over Martinů’s place in the pantheon of twentieth century composers. Perhaps he belongs with Samuel Barber as a composer whose direct influence on other composers may have been limited but who left behind many beloved works that are still often performed. Be that as it may, he is nevertheless an important figure in the development of nationalism in music. And the Quartet is one of the first works that shows Parisian modernism blossoming in his output. As such it deserves a more prominent position in the repertoire of horn players than it currently seems to have. One can only wonder if its late publication has contributed to this relative neglect.

Leave a Reply