Bohuslav Martinů: Concerto for String Quartet
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.
Inspired by polyphonic music from the baroque era, Martinů’s Concerto for String Quartet sits firmly in the traditional concerto grosso form. After composing a number of more ‘conventional’ concerto grosso works, the Pro Arte Quartet mentioned to Martinů about writing a piece that the quartet could play in an orchestral concert. From there the idea to compose such a work was taken on by Martinů and the concerto was premiered in 1932 in London, performed by the Pro Arte Quartet and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Malcolm Sargent.
Movement I – Allegro
Throughout the concerto Martinů ensures that the string quartet stay at the forefront of music and that their distinct voices are heard above those similar in the orchestra. The bold opening sees a call and response figure between the intricate themes within the quartet and the bold lines from the orchestra. Throughout all movements, but in particular the first, Martinů writes other polyphonic lines within the orchestra to counter-balance those voices in the quartet. He uses the trumpet more than once to gain this effect. Martinů’s crunchy harmonic language adds to the excitement of the music as themes are passed around really quickly. The tight rhythms paired with the injection of energy throughout creates a real spectacle of an opening movement.
Movement II – Adagio
The slower second movement sees Martinů give each voice within the quartet a melody to develop, but handles the orchestra as an accompanying voice. The mysterious and sombre atmosphere created at the start of this movement carries through the first half of this movement, with a harmonic shift during the central section signifying a slight change in character. Unlike the previous movement where the two ensembles were used fairly, Martinů really focuses on the quartet in this movement, and it isn’t until the last two minutes that we properly hear the orchestra. As the music winds down once again, the string quartet concludes this movement quietly.
Movement III – Tempo moderato
The dance-like finale movement is full of dramatic twists and turns from both the orchestra and the quartet. The music jumps between the two ensembles as Martinů explores a ‘one voice’ approach to the movement. The bright character washes away the sombre mood of the second movement and adds a sense of hope and joy to the music. Martinů does play with the tempo throughout, with dramatic slowing down of themes opposing the mostly quick tempo. As the music becomes more frantic the dynamic of the music increases until the final climax ends this concerto off with a rousing finish.
Ⓒ Alex Burns
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