Two-year international project “revisits” great Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů

Marking five decades since the death of the great Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů in 1959, a major international project entitled Martinů Revisited was officially launched on Thursday night with a concert at Prague’s Rudolfinum. It features scores of events, both in the Czech Republic and further afield, and will run for exactly two years, until December 12, 2010.

One of the patrons of Martinů Revisited is the renowned violinist Josef Suk.

“I love the music of Bohuslav Martinů. Not only was he a pupil of my grandfather, Josef Suk, but he is a great composer. And I hope his music will be more and more appreciated in the world.”

Aleš Březina, a noted composer in his own right, is from the Martinů Institute and is the man behind what really is a huge project.

Aleš Březina
“First of all I would say, why is it called Martinů Revisited? The name is in English. We haven’t looked for a Czech equivalent to it because Martinů is not only a Czech composer, he is an international composer born and educated in Czechoslovakia.

“But he lived for a long part of his life in France, before the second world war, and then in the United States – he became an American citizen at the beginning of the 1950s. And he spent the last years of his life in Italy, France and Switzerland, where he died.”

The 2009 Prague Spring music festival will be dedicated to Martinů, while the National Theatres in Prague and Brno will also stage new productions of his work. The National Museum, meanwhile, will dedicate a special exhibition to him. But it’s not just a Czech project – many of the world’s leading orchestras and venues are also taking part in Martinů Revisited, says Aleš Březina.

“We tried to get in touch with concert organisers all over the world, but especially in the countries where Martinů lived. We thought it might be good to renew his reputation in these countries. I would mention for example that at the end of the 1940s he was Martinů was definitely the most performed living contemporary composer in the United States: every week there was a performance of one of the major works by all the major orchestras in the US.”

Zuzana Růžičková is a legend of Czech classical music. Now aged 81, she was for many decades considered one of Europe’s leading harpsichordists. Like Josef Suk a patron of the project, she outlines her own relationship to the music of Bohuslav Martinů.

Zuzana Růžičková
“Martinů actually influenced my whole life quite a lot. First of all, I, with the arrogance of youth, thought that contemporary music was not for me. The first time I played Bohuslav Martinů I fell in love with him, and then tried to find other contemporary music and was really very keen on it – and I also found a wonderful Czech composer called Viktor Kalabis, who also became my husband.

“I wanted to graduate with Bohuslav Martinů’s Symphonietta Giocosa – at that time I was playing the piano. But I was warned by the dean of the faculty that in that case I wouldn’t graduate at all. Martinů was thought a renegade – you know the whole story.

“Later I played the concerto [for harpsichord] and of course the solo pieces very much, and I played them until I stopped playing when I was 80, last year. I really was in love with Martinů and I also had some letters from him, discussing with him the interpretation of the Symphonietta Giocosa, which I also gave to the Martinů Foundation.”

Five decades after his death, is Martinů sufficiently well-known internationally?

“I think it’s getting better and better. When I started to play his harpsichord concerto, almost nobody knew about him – everybody thought I was talking about Frank Martin. Nowadays the name is well known and the music is becoming more and more well known. And I think the Institute and this Martinů Revisited project does very much to make him more and more known.”

A few moments ago, Zuzana Růžičková said Martinů had been regarded as a renegade in Czechoslovakia. Aleš Březina explains why – and also considers his reputation today.

“I should start with the situation in the 1950s. When Martinů died he was almost a sort of giant of the past. At that time, in 1959, there was a politically complicated situation. It was the Cold War, so Martinů was regarded in the western part of the world as someone coming from the communist part of the world.

“On the other hand, in the communist part of the world he was regarded as a renegade and a traitor, because he was an American citizen and he lived in western Europe.”

Following Martinů’s death his renown faded, partly due to developments in modern classical music. The fact his oeuvre was so unusually varied perhaps didn’t help either, says the organiser of Martinů Revisited.

“He was partly forgotten or he was remembered for only a few works. These works were different in the western part of the world and different in the, say, communist part of the world. So here in Czechoslovakia he was regarded as someone who used folk music to compose his symphonic pieces and his operas.

“In the western part of the world he was regarded as someone who composed a lot of spiritual or even religious pieces such as The Greek Passion or The Mount of Three Lights.

“It is only now 50 years after he died that both these views are coming to, let’s say…a more proper view of his vast output of more than 400 pieces.

“Now different countries are discovering the parts of his outputs that they never knew or they forgot in the last 50 years. So we would love to say in, let’s say, 2011 that now Martinů is not only more known but also better known in all his variety.”