Czech composer Martinů still springing surprises, says institute head

Bohuslav Martinů, photo: archive of Bohuslav Martinů Center in Polička, CC BY-SA 3.0

For twenty years now, the Prague-based Institute of Bohuslav Martinů has been assembling all available material on the great Czech composer, making it available to anyone interested in his life and work. It has also started to publish Bohuslav Martinů’s extensive complete editions, a work which is expected to continue for the next fifty years.

Bohuslav Martinů,  photo: archive of Bohuslav Martinů Center in Polička,  CC BY-SA 3.0
I visited the Institute of Bohuslav Martinů to talk to its head, Aleš Březina himself a composer, to talk about what the institute has achieved over the past twenty years and about its numerous projects, such as the ongoing annual festival of Bohuslav Martinů. But I started by asking him about the initial idea behind establishing the institute two decades ago:

“The idea behind establishing the institute came from Dr Viktor Kalabis, a composer and a chairman of the former Bohuslav Martinů foundation. As a composer and musicologist he knew that it is extremely important for a non-living composer to have his own institute which would edit his works and promote his oeuvre.

“In 1993 he asked me if I would be willing to create what he called at that time a Bohuslav Martinů Study Centre. So for a year I travelled a lot and collected the scores. You have to know that Martinů published in over 17 publishing houses in more than six countries in the world, so that it was quite difficult to find his printed scores and even more difficult to find his original manuscripts.

“And then, on December 8, 1995 we opened the Bohuslav Martinů study centre, which is now the Martinů Institute, and I was the only employee of the institute at that time. Nowadays, we are nine people working on various projects such as Martinů complete edition.”

What are the other major projects that you have been working on?

“One of the major projects from the beginning onwards was to promote Martinů internationally. Most of the literature about him was published in Czech, so that quite a number of people, for instance musicologists, who liked Martinů, were afraid to start publishing about him, because they wouldn't be able to understand the sources, the literature, the correspondence and so on.

“Martinů published in over 17 publishing houses in more than six countries in the world, so it was quite difficult to find his printed scores and even more difficult to find his original manuscripts.”

“We started a series of publications making the relevant documents about Martinů’s life and work available in English. We also started a series of conferences and publishing series called Martinů studies and along with the Martinů Foundation we established a festival, with the aim to perform the composer’s least known.

“We also released a lot of life recordings on CDs and we are currently trying to publish the most interesting historical recordings from the time of his life.”

So what exactly have you prepared for this year?

“The most recent annual CD contains a very rare recording of the composer's own piano playing of his piece ‘Toccata e Due Canzoni’. He played that for his friends in the US and one of the friends was a phono amateur and recorded the composer performing his own music.

For next year we have something even more interesting. It is Martinů performing a Slovak folk song with another friend of his singing that song. So it is now also about rarities and an insight into the composer's life and his own view of his own music and music in general, because Martinů loved Czech, Moravian and Slovak folk music.

And would you say after those twenty years of work of assembling all the materials, do you still come across things that surprise you, something that you didn't know about him?

Aleš Březina,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
“Absolutely. Almost every year we do discover a new piece by Martinů, be it a completely unknown piece of music, or a lost score from the 1930's or 40's, that we knew has been written but has been lost for decades.

“Only recently, about a week ago, we received something we never heard about from a male chorus in Den Haag. It is the first few bars of a piece called ‘A Caravan’, so we are now looking forward to discover what it is.

“But I would say that the era of the largest discoveries, such as the first version of the opera ‘The Greek Passion’, is over now. The only really major piece we know we are missing is a wind quintet from 1930, which we know for sure that it existed but went lost in the 1950s. So we know it will come out one day.”

As you said, you have been trying to improve Martinů's international reputation. Would you say that nowadays he is sufficiently well-known in his country and internationally?

“I would say that nowadays, in the Czech Republic, he is very well known. I tried once to find a day when not a single piece of his has been performed in one of the major concert halls in the Czech Republic, but I couldn’t find it.

“So I would say that he is well established in the Czech Republic and it is more about promoting the least known works of music, for instance music based on religious subjects, because this music has been virtually unknown during the Communist times.

“Almost every year we do discover a new piece by Martinů, be it a completely unknown piece of music, or a lost score from the 1930s or 40s.”

“Internationally I have decided years ago that what we have to promote the most are Martinů’s operas. He is one of the most relevant and prolific opera composers of the 20th century and I guess that’s one of the most difficult goals because opera is the most expensive undertaking.

“It took years to convince opera houses worldwide to take the risk of producing such an expensive production. So that was for a long time our main goal but we see right now that it is paying back.”

Another significant project that you have already mentioned is the complete edition of Martinů. Where have you got so far?

“The complete edition is a long-time project. It is very difficult to explain to people that it took twenty years to prepare the first two volumes. It doesn’t mean that the next two volumes will take another twenty years, but we needed to create editorial guidelines, and an international editorial board and we needed to find a good professional international publishing house which we found in Bärenreiter. We also needed to find and evaluate all the correspondence written by Martinů or sent to Martinů so that we know exactly how many original manuscripts there have been of the piece in question.

“So it was about collecting material and working out the editorial tools. This took us almost twenty years and now we know that we are going to release two more volumes every year. So we should finish in 2067 and I am sure we will.”

The annual festival of Bohuslav Martinů is currently underway. Can you mention at least some of the highlights of this year’s edition?

“For me the highlights are the guest performance of Martinů’s opera ‘The Three Wishes or the Inconsistencies of Life’ which is a very demanding, funny and entertaining opera.

“I think it is one of the discoveries for the international audience so that we know already that many people from abroad will come to see it. It is a production of the Ostrava opera house and it will take place on December 15, in the National Theatre in Prague. So that is certainly one of the highlights.

‘The Three Wishes or the Inconsistencies of Life’ | Photo: Martin Popelář,  Národní divadlo Moravskoslezské
“And for me, being the director of the Martinů Institute, one of the highlights of course is the first benefit concert we are going to organize on December 18 at the Martinů Hall of the Music Academy in Prague, featuring two pianists, one Swiss and one Italian, with jazz influenced works by Martinů, Gershwin and other people.

“So this is going to be our first benefit concert and we do very much hope to find some people interested to support the Institute and the Martinů complete edition in the next 40 years.”