Bohuslav Martinů, Puppets, and the first masterpiece of a Czech maestro

Bohuslav Martinů, photo: Centre of Bohuslav Martinů in Polička, Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0

Of the hundreds of works of the great modern Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů, one of his earliest and easiest pieces still shines through for its simple elegance and sophistication. In our first broadcast of 2014, we explore Martinů’s cycle of short piano pieces, Loutky, or “Puppets”.

Bohuslav Martinů,  photo: Centre of Bohuslav Martinů in Polička,  Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0
Bohuslav Martinů was a fantastically inspired musician – something one could perhaps put down to a natural consequence of being born at the top of a bell tower, overlooking the beautiful East Bohemian landscape above the town of Polička, at the end of 1890. If tales of his youth are true then we can say that he was composing music for about 60 of his 68 years, eventually amassing half a dozen symphonies, some 30 operatic and ballet pieces and hundreds of works of smaller scale. He was indeed a modern composer and much of his work is highly complex – particularly if one’s head is still spinning from New Year’s Eve – so this seems a good opportunity to give you something much simpler, but just as inspired, in my opinion, as anything else Martinů wrote. It is a cycle of 14 short piano pieces called “Puppets”, composed over the 12 years between 1912 and 1924, and beginning at the end with perhaps the most well-known of the pieces, Columbine Dances, performed here by Emil Leichner.

The early writing of Puppets in 1912 began just as trying times were coming to an end for 21 year-old student Bohuslav Martinů. His years of study at conservatory in Prague had been tumultuous; he had failed his exams repeatedly and seems to have found little inspiration in his teachers, who in turn, had little hope for him. He had failed his first year, received the lowest marks in his second and fared no better when he switched to the organ department - in his youth he had honed his great ability for the keyboard through instinct, and the lack of professional instruction made it hard for that instinct to shine through in school with the best young players in the country. He was finally kicked out of conservatory in 1910 for “incorrigible negligence”. Such a situation must have been all the more difficult for a young man who owed much of his opportunity to the kindliness of his small-town neighbours, who had believed in his talent enough to raise the money to send him to the big city for an education. Nonetheless, in 1912 he could at last write home that he had earned his degree. And it was then that he began the composition of the first Puppet pieces, which he completed in 1914 to much acclaim. They include Pierrot's Serenade, Columbine and the Puppets’ Ball.

The Puppets are an extension of Bohuslav Martinů’s great love for theatre and a musical version of the Italian Commedia dell’arte. Each of the short sketches is devoted to a puppet personality, strung together by the dancing, singing and reminiscing Columbine – the poor but cunning coquette of the Italian improvisational theatre whose name means “little dove”. They also combine and perhaps exemplify the many forms of music that Martinů moulded over those years, namely French impressionism, neo-classicism and jazz, and the composers whose work had moulded him, like Debussy and Stravinsky, to name a few. Through these he put together a style of music that was unique to him, and in some way, uniquely Czech, despite the fact that he spent more than the second half of his life outside of Czechoslovakia. Looking back, he considered Puppets to be the only composition written before his 33rd year that was actually musically mature. The next set of pieces, composed during the years of WWI, include The Puppet Theatre, The Harlequin, Columbine Reminisces, and The Sick Puppet.

In the years that followed the composition of Puppets, Bohuslav Martinů became one of those few composers whose work was widely appreciated during his own lifetime. In 1940 he fled Paris, where he had spent the last 17 years, just ahead of the German invasion, eventually securing teaching positions in several prestigious schools of music in the United States and establishing himself there as a “20th-century Dvořák”. His vast repertoire of about 400 works makes him perhaps the most prolific Czech composer of classical music, but still through the tremendous successes of complex works like the opera Julietta, the Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, the oratorio Gilgamesh and countless others, the Puppets are rarely neglected in any discussion of his musical legacy. Today as much as ever, the pieces are a staple of any young pianist’s education, particularly in the Czech Republic, simple as they are on the one hand. On the other though, they are works full of nuance and sophistication that only the most advanced performers can play perfectly.

The cycle was completed during Martinů’s last two years in Czechoslovakia, 1922 and ’23, when he was a violinist for the Czech Philharmonic. Played here from that last series are The New Puppet (labelled a “shimmy”), The Shy Puppet (a chanson) and The Dance of the Puppets.