Martinů's Sinfonietta Giocosa – a brilliant work, written on a tram

Bohuslav Martinů in New York, photo: Bohuslav Martinů Centre in Polička

For our latest edition Sunday Music Show, we commemorate the 130th anniversary of the birth of the great Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů, who was born on December 8, 1890. Although he only lived to 70, the prolific artist left behind an astounding body of work – more than 300 compositions, including five symphonies, several operas and a few ballets. 

Bohuslav Martinů was never defined by a single artistic style, as during his life he experimented with impressionism, neoclassicism and expressionism and drew inspiration from jazz. He had a purely individual style.

At the age of 33, Martinů left his homeland and would live abroad for the remainder of his days. He first settled in Paris, later in the United States and finally in Switzerland. In his work he combined the seemingly incompatible, drawing inspiration from both traditional Czech folk music and contemporary jazz.

His masterpiece is probably the dreamy, lyrical opera Julietta from 1936-7. However, to commemorate Martinů’s birthday, we have chosen his Sinfonietta Giocosa for piano and small orchestra from 1940. This work has been a favourite among audiences since its first performance.

Sinfonietta Giocosa premiered in New York, during the composer's wartime stay in the United States, and is among the composer’s lighter, more playful works. Martinů had written it in France at an unfortunate time, when the family failed to secure visas to American in time but still had to pay for their passage by ocean liner.

“Sinfonietta was written in its entirety while riding in the electric tram from Aix to Marseille, in which I regularly spent long hours constantly commuting in search of other visas” – Martinů recalled in his memoirs. As you can see, an ingenious work can also be put together on a tram…