Unknown piece by Bohuslav Martinů discovered after more than 90 years

Bohuslav Martinů

A previously unknown work by one of the greatest Czech composers, Bohuslav Martinů, was recently discovered in the Israeli National Library in Jerusalem. Czech musicologist Natálie Krátká came across the piece while researching the library’s catalogue. On Tuesday night, it was performed for the first time in Prague.

I discuss the discovery with Aleš Březina, head of the Institute of Bohuslav Martinů:

“The composition was written by Bohuslav Martinů in May 1930 probably as a gift to the famous photographer Boris Lipnitzki, who was of Ukrainian-Jewish origin and who took a wedding photograph of Bohuslav Martinů with his wife Charlotte in 1930.

“The complete estate of the famous photographer is now in Israel. This is where my colleague Natálie Krátká found the copy of this short but very original composition.”

What else do you know about the composition?

“We know it is a composition for violin and piano, we know it is an approximately three-minute piece and we know it is very virtuoso for the solo part, the violin.

Aleš Březina | Photo: Petr Veber,  Český rozhlas

“It is a moving romance, a very romantic piece, unusual for Martinů in that time. It was probably composed this way because it was a style favoured by Boris Lipintzki.

“Since we don’t have any correspondence that passed between Martinů and Lipnitzki, we can only assume that it was a gift to the photographer. He could have also commissioned the piece from Martinů, but that remains to be discovered.”

Does this particular piece reveal anything new about Martinů?

“Well, Martinů composed about 400 pieces, so it is difficult to find a new one that would uncover something we don’t know. But it certainly gives us the evidence that he was able to write a short piece in a single day without adding it to his list of works.

“So it really was a gift and Martinů didn’t intend it to be performed by anyone else.  This is why we were now able to perform it in a world premiere last night.”

What was it like to hear this previously unknown piece?

Bohuslav Martinů in New York | Photo: Bohuslav Martinů Centre in Polička

“It is always a surprise to hear a new composition by a well-known composer such as Martinů for the first time ever. It was a moving experience and I heard from the audience afterwards that they enjoyed the special moment of being the very first people listening to this piece of music.”

Is it likely that there are more unknown pieces somewhere in the archives?

“It is very likely, I would say, because Martinů was grateful to many people who helped him with various things, like raising money for his life in Paris or with his emigration from Paris to the United States.

“And because he was always short of money, he preferred to thank people with a personal gift - a composition. This is why we discovered, two decades ago in Marseille, four songs on Czech folk poetry dedicated to Edmonde Charles-Roux, who helped Martinů escape France to the United States.

“So it is very likely we may find something in a drawer of Martinů’s former lover or someone who helped him with something special.”