Not being much of a performer, Martinů was one of those composers that I just flat-out missed during my undergraduate studies. Several of his earlier chamber works would appear on some of my friends' recitals, but they never really registered as anything special and were often accompanied by complaints of the performers about how hard they were and how low the payoff ended up being.
This all changed in my masters when I was introduced to his orchestra music—namely his symphonies and concerti (it is ALL about his orchestral works!). Of these works, he often gets a lot of attention for his first piano concerto and his sixth symphony, albeit way after slogging through the importance of his chamber pieces. One of my more favorite pieces in this part of his output is actually his first symphony, which you can listen to here.
A Brief Overview of Martinu
Bohuslav Martinu was one of those composers who embraced a pretty typical trajectory of many early 20th Century composers. He was famously born at the top of a church tower in then-Czechoslovakia, and has stated that his residence in said tower drastically influenced his objectivity towards his own music. At the age of 16, he departed to Prague to study violin, and promptly earned expulsion. He "deputized with the Czech Philharmonic before playing three seasons as a full member," and then departed to Paris in 1923.
As was the case at the time, Martinu's existence was steeped in the influence of Igor Stravinsky, French Impressionism, and American Jazz idioms. He admittedly embraced the influence of the Russian prodigy, observing a severe change in Stravinsky's output from piece to piece due to inventive and unabashed experimentalism. Many of his pieces from this time reflect the culmination of these influences and include some of his most-performed works.
Upon the occupation of France by the Nazis in 1940, Martinu fled to the United States, where he received a sudden and warm embrace by many of the major musical forces on the East Coast, most prominently from Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony. It was in this period of his output that he began producing much larger works, including a symphony a year nearly every year in the early 40s, and some truly remarkable works like his Concerto for Two Pianos. Some typical elements found in his music during this time included musical chattering, focus on the construction of phrase over meter—typically resulting in atypical patterns within a written meter, strong references to Czech folksong, and more minor aspects such as the near-exclusive use of minor modes for pitch, and the heavy use of orchestral piano.
Boosey and Hawkes' Patrick Lambert makes the claim that Martinu's music was a pre-cursor to aleatory—I find them hard pressed to credibly back this up—but there is speculation that his compositions, if examined more readily and significantly in academia, might yield great insight into the trajectory of American music given his status as a composer and pedagogue for the better part of a decade.
A bit about the piece
This piece reminds me that there was a whole of cool stuff going on in the 40s and 50s that just get ignored by academics across the world. First off, this work basically hits you in the face to start with some masterfully orchestrated ascending strands that snap into a full-on presentation of a Czech lullaby. Its charm is in the delicate and deliberate colors that support a lesser-common metric presentation of a melody (I say lesser-common in the sense that the piece really is just in a constant compound meter in which the melodic contours do not readily fit).
His harmonic palette is pretty tame for the time, except for a wonderful flavor of blue notes that permeates the textures of the second movement and characterizes the melody of the third movement. By today's standards, it is not anything terribly different or new, but at the time standard harmonic convention was unconventional as it were (think of what was going on in the output of other compositional giants such as Bartok, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg). Later symphonies—most notably his sixth symphony—relied heavily on pitch saturation, depicting clearly Martinu's interest in planing 4th and 7ths instead of 3rds and 6ths as a way to create a larger sound with a more-complete harmonic resonance than was typical in more Germanic styles of composition.
What I find his works following this one is the apparent direct link to Martinu's famous falling accident. As described on many a website, Martinu took a "near-fatal fall off of an unprotected terrace." This accident resulted in "complete deafness in one ear for the remainder of his life.". More interesting, though, is that his letters indicate that he was not deaf, but was plagued by an incessant buzzing in one ear, a characteristic that apparently not only significantly influenced his output from that point on, but was audible pre-fall and only became louder post-fall, as was confirmed by several of his students over the years. It reminds me so much of Percy Grainger's piece, The Immovable Do, except that it was for EVERY piece after that moment, and not just the one piece written on that one instrument.
My thought is that the significance of most of Martinu's works written during and after World War II remain to be discovered, but for those interested in exploring a very different facet of a composer typically boiled down to a handful of early chamber works, this is the gateway to something extraordinary!