About this Piece
Bohuslav Martinů remarked from time to time on his birth and upbringing “193 steps above the ground” in the tower of St. Jakub’s Church in the small town of Polička, not far from the Moravian border. His father was the town watchman, church sexton, and shoe repairman and was frequently called upon to transport his son up and down the stairs because of the child’s poor health. The sound of the organ, church bells, and tick-tock of the tower clock were the soundtrack of Martinů’s childhood.
Displaying an aptitude for music at a young age, he was given a violin and, at age 16, sent to the conservatory in Prague to study. Unable to keep up with the rigorous demands of the violin faculty, he followed his predecessors Dvořák and Janáček and continued as an organist, before being dismissed entirely in 1910 because of what was described as “incorrigible negligence.”
Returning to Polička, he devoted himself to the analysis of mostly French music, composed modest works for piano, chamber ensemble, and choir, and began teaching. His first public recognition came after the premiere of a cantata, Czech Rhapsody, celebrating the declaration of Czechoslovakia as an independent republic in 1918. He joined the violin sections of the Czech Philharmonic and National Theater orchestras and was mentored by the great conductor Václav Talich. In 1923, Martinů moved to Paris to study with Albert Roussel.
While in Paris, Martinů attracted the attention of several prominent composers and conductors including Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony, who frequented Paris during the off-season and who would premiere Martinů’s La bagarre (1927), a work inspired by Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight.
Blending influences from Eastern European folk music, the neoclassicism of Les Six (a group of composers that included Poulenc, Milhaud, and Honegger), impressionism, jazz, and the modernist styles of Stravinsky and Bartók, Martinů developed a highly personal musical language that served him over the next three decades.
The acerbic and concise String Quartet No. 3 was composed in 1929. The opening movement features plucked cello and viola playing col legno (with the wood of the bow), supporting elusive figures in the two violins that seem to threaten to break into a jazz riff. Unapologetically dissonant, the four very independent—and very argumentative—musical lines rise and fall together but, it seems, uneasily. With the hints of jazz resonating in our ears, the second movement takes on a bluesy quality, with the viola often given the primary musical line. The Finale is a scorcher (marked half note = 132), demanding incredible virtuosity and attentive ensemble playing.
Martinů fled Paris for the United States in 1940. His friendship with Koussevitzky paved the way for many commissions, but his time here was not entirely happy. Never able to master English, he did manage to do some teaching and continued to compose. One night, taking his usual evening stroll, he misjudged a flight of stairs and took a serious fall. He drifted in and out of a coma for days. After months of recuperation, he eventually regained his ability to walk, talk, and compose, but he was never quite the same. After World War II, Martinů taught at the Mannes College of Music and Princeton. He was a frequent visitor at Tanglewood, and his works were performed by all the leading orchestras including Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Chicago.
He left the U.S. in 1953, settling in Nice and then Switzerland, where he died in 1959. He was buried in his hometown of Polička.