Bohuslav Martinů: Symphony No.1


One of the leading Czech composers during the 20th Century, Bohuslav Martinů wrote over 400 works, including 6 symphonies, 15 operas, 14 ballet scores and a huge body of chamber and orchestral works. After finding his feet in the style of Neoclassicism, Martinů used Igor Stravinsky as a model for his own works. Being taught by the likes of Josef Suk and being educated all over Europe, Martinů’s style encompasses lots of different styles and genres. 


The Music

Martinů composed his First Symphony after he wrote to Serge Koussevitzsky of the Boston Symphony Orchestra showing his interest in writing a symphony. To this point Martinů had mainly worked on his chamber and vocal music, so he wanted to approach the symphonic form to thrust himself into the forefront of the American musical world. Koussevitzsky soon commissioned Martinů to compose a symphony in the memory of his late wife, Natalie. Completed in 1942, the First Symphony was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in November of the same year. 


Movement I – Moderato

The opening movement is vibrant and full of life. Martinů’s rich textures fill the space as the music begins to settle into the composer’s rich and enigmatic style. The rich textures bursts into an upper string melody which is syncopated, but also lyrical. Martinů’s use of the full range of the orchestra creates powerful orchestral swells and intricate quiet passages that bounce off one another. Across his cycle of six symphonies, critics have commented that Martinů’s style is “rich and magical”, and this can certainly be said for this opening movement. The constant feeling of movement paired with the quick glimpses of staticism really make this such an intriguing opener to a symphony. After a quick climactic section, the intensity raises to resolve in the string line. The relief here is unmatched in the rest of the movement, so Martinů concludes the music with gradually diminishing tutti chords.


Movement II – Scherzo

The bouncy Scherzo second movement is full of life and bombastic character. The fast pace paired with the loud interruptions from the brass and percussion ensure that the excitement of this movement is kept at a high level. Fragments of lyrical melodies float around the woodwind section throughout, with one in particular taking hold during the central section of the movement. The huge scherzo theme returns in flashes as the orchestra band together to create powerful statements together. A jaunty oboe solo leads into the final stretch of the movement, with Martinů rounding this movement off just how it started. 


Movement III – Largo 

The slow third movement opens with a dark theme played by the celli and double basses. As the theme grows slowly in dynamic, more voices are introduced. Martinů’s serious and very dark style is showcased in this movement as the music crawls around the orchestra. Coming from the most playful movement, the Largo is pensive and reflective in style. The opening section focuses on the strings, and this is the case for most of the movement, however the woodwinds are also used to create crunchy harmonies and decoration. After a recap of the opening lower string theme, the music reaches its ultimate climax as the strings present the resolution to the theme. Full of intensity, Martinů’s use of chromatic harmony adds to the tension here. The dynamic begins to drop once more before the movement concludes mysteriously. 


Movement IV – Allegro non troppo

The fiery finale movement begins with a jaunty woodwind theme that the strings counter-balance with a fast and intricate theme. The catchy melody in this movement remains at the core of this movement as Martinů moves the theme around different sections of the orchestra. Use of syncopation and subtle rhythmic changes adds light and shade to this movement as Martinů develops the three main themes. After a lyrical central section that features woodwind soloists, the music turns back to the energetic and bombastic character. Led by the trumpets and trombones, the theme goes between the brass and strings. The final minute of the finale builds up to an explosion of orchestral colours created by Martinů’s rich textures. A quick glimpse of prior themes lead the music to its epic finale chord. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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