Martinů's Symphonies

(revised 27 March 2024)

...are worth a listen. There are six of them. The first five were written in successive years between 1942 and 1946; the sixth came later, in 1953. The first five are also in many respects much alike; Martinů ranks poorly on the how-many-different-kinds-of-symphony test, but the symphonies are more differentiated than some of his concerti, which regrettably bring to mind the old crack about Vivaldi having written the same concerto 500 times.

All six employ progressive tonality; the second, which we will take a closer look at, begins and ends in D but it does not just stay there in the manner of the Classical unity of tonality: it gets there.

Martinů's second symphony is also his shortest, and, in some sense, "clearest"; and it contains classic examples of the Martinů tropes, so it is a good place to start. Here is a score video (from the publishers themselves, no less!):

Martinů's orchestral sound is unique. You hear one flavor of it right at the beginning: D minor in the winds, plus fuzz in the harp and the piano. But there are two different kinds of heterophony (the technical term for fuzz). This way he gets a very complex texture, but everything is dead easy, except for the piano part. On one level, the idea comes from Le Sacre du Printemps, but the implementation and the effect are new.

Then look at how the tune is split between the first and second violins -- and the violas are not merely accompanying. Notice the characteristic rhythms within 6/8, and the subtle placement of the B-flats and E-flats. All of these things gradually intensify on the next two pages as the music moves into G minor. In 20th (and 21st) Century tonality, the first move away from home can be a very significant foreshadowing. In this case, the move from D minor to G minor might be expected to set up a general leaning to the flat side, or specifically some kind of triangulation between D, G, and a third key. The most obvious choice would be B-flat -- and sure enough, this movement ends in B-flat!

At this rate, a couple of dozen pages of detailed analysis could be written about this symphony; we are not going to do that, but the point is that the things that we have pointed out, which are so easy to hear and see, are what make the style sound the way it does.

The ordering of the two inner movements does not conform to the principle of maximizing contrast, particularly of tempo. From that standpoint, the scherzo ought to have come second. The slow movement (which is lighter, really an intermezzo) does come second, and it moves from C minor to F. The scherzo begins and ends in C, so the overall tonal path of the symphony would have worked either way.

The scherzo (page 46) begins in C minor/major with a spiky, almost Shostakovian tune, but by page 50 it has resolved into a characteristic Martinů out-of-doors march in B-flat. Note the offbeat rhythms ("syncopated" is not quite the right word), which suppress the pulse just enough to enable the metric modulation into 3/8 on the bottom of page 50. Tonality and meter are both somewhat oblique in this music: comparably oblique, even though the comparison must be qualitative rather than quantitative. There are no throwaway gestures, either on the surface or in the structure: everything has a purpose and an effect.

If the game is to get back to D -- we know that it is, because we have looked ahead, but we should probably pretend that we do not know that -- then we need sharpness. The simplest approach would be to start the finale on A, and so he does. The final arrival (back?) on D, at page 106, is reached by a process (spread over the preceding seven pages) whose workings do not leap to the eye; close analysis would be required to understand exactly what is going on. But it works -- for me, at any rate.

The other Martinů symphonies are all worth your time. The first has a particularly impressive slow movement. The fourth perhaps came closest, when it was new, to gaining a toehold in the standard repertory; its scherzo is Martinů's best-known orchestral movement, and would be recognized by many people who could not necessarily name its origin. The sixth is one of those symphonies (like Sibelius 7 or the Schumann D-minor) that was originally meant to be titled a "symphonic fantasy"; it contains a fascinating passage in which Martinů strips down the orchestral texture and shows us how its components fit together.

When I said above that this is the clearest of Martinů's symphonies, I was pointing to things like the proportionality between the handling of tonality and meter, and the almost pedagogical simplicity of the global tonal scheme. The style is legible and self-explanatory as well as economical; none of these things come free by themselves and still less in combination. But the range of contrast could be wider; and if one were to binge-listen the first five symphonies, they might begin to dedifferentiate. He has a bag of tricks, and very fetching and distinctive tricks they are, but ultimately he does not rank high by the criterion of don't-repeat-self.