Symphony Study 56 | Martinů: Fantaisies symphoniques (Symphony No. 6)

by Glenn on December 22, 2016

I’m not sure which is more delightful, Bohuslav Martinů’s music or the affection that Michael Steinberg seems to have for him. Steinberg met Martinů at Princeton as a senior while Martinů was on “a three-year stint on the faculty.” Steinberg says, “the only two people interested in him and his work were a brilliant pianist who was actually a graduate student in Romance languages (Charles Rosen) and a musicology student with no talent for composition (myself).”

Here’s how the teaching went:

“Martinů dutifully came down from New York to spend Thursday afternoons on campus. Charles and I would meet the two-car shuttle train from Princeton Junction, take him to Lahière’s for lunch (at least it had a French name, and one could get a glass of wine there—wine that always caused him to make a face), and then sit in the Pekin Room, a quaint octagonal excrescence to the student center, where we would talk and listen to records. Afterwards we would feed him tea (liberally laced with bourbon) and take him back to the train.” [The Symphony, p. 365]

Steinberg reflects, “I treasured those Thursdays.”

Martinů was a Czech exile. As an American it’s difficult to relate to the complicated relationships of people from Eastern Europe to their homeland (I almost wrote “country”, but there are regions in Europe that have been called different things at various points during the 20th Century.) According to Steinberg, Martinů “deplored [his country’s] provincialism, but loved it ardently.”

“Czechoslovakia was a land whose national aspirations had been repressed under Austro-Hungarian dominion; that between the wars had impressed the world as a model democracy; that England and France betrayed to Germany in the Munich pact of 1938; and that, after 1945, had a respite of less than three years before a Communist coup d’état enslaved it again.”

Martinů would live over half of his life away from his homeland, although fifteen years were “by choice.” He was the inheritor of a musical legacy. Steinberg writes, “Though he would never have presumed to make such a claim, he is the heir of Smetana and Dvořák.”

Bohuslav Martinů [1890–1959)
Fantaisies symphoniques (Symphony No. 6)
First performance: 7 January 1955 | Boston Symphony | Charles Munch

I. Lento—Andante moderato—Allegro—Allegro vivo—Lento
II. Poco allegro
III. Lento—Poco vivo, adagio—Più mosso—Andante—Allegro—Moderato—Allegro—Allegro vivace—Lento


Steinberg declares this “the summit of [Martinů’s] achievement as a composer of music for orchestra.” It is a work written by a mature composer who turned to symphonic writing later in life, like Bruckner (42), Brahms (43), and Elgar (51). Martinů wrote his Symphony No. 1 when he was 52. This one was completed when he was 63 (26 May 1953). It was “dedicated to Charles Munch in honor of the Boston Symphony’s seventy-fifth anniversary.” (The Boston Symphony “had given the first performances of any of his music in America.”)  This symphony was awarded the New York Music Critics’ Circle Award” when it premiered in 1955.

What’s interesting about this symphony is that you don’t really get any sort of full expression of Czech music. There are some lovely tunes, but we never get to hear them in a satisfying way because they aren’t presented fully. They start and then they are covered over by something—brass peroration or harmonic distress or mood shift. Mostly, this symphony is about colors and textures and motion.

My working theory, without knowing really anything (this is my first engagement with Martinů’s music as I continue to recognize how xenophobic I was as a music student), is that since Martinů is a poet in exile, we are getting a glimpse of what it’s like to be him. We don’t get to hear all about home because the composer isn’t home. We get remembrances, glimpses. The moments that make you think you are hearing something from the old country are, sadly, short-lived.

The first movement has a shimmering quality at the opening. There’s a lot of French impressionism in this music—an international quality/style rather than a Czech style? From the first we hear some qualities of this music that carry through the entire work—total clarity, interesting counterpoint, and an underlying urgency.

The second movement introduces tension. The interplay between and among the various instrumental sections is delightful.

In the third movement we have some resolutions, but they are not big and triumphant. Subtle and restrained are the watchwords for this music. The tune we get in this last movement is the longest appearance of any in this “symphony”, but it, like the others is taken away. There is quite a strident tone (the music, not the playing) at the end, but even as mid- 20th century music this is not music that has to be endured.

This symphony doesn’t make extraordinary demands on us as listeners. Martinů doesn’t overstay his welcome in terms of length and doesn’t appear to be pushing the boundaries in terms of musical progress, a loaded term. I suppose I am partial to the destination symphony, the symphony with the grand tune that carries us to the finish with a big statement—Beethoven’s Fifth, Elgar’s First, Mahler’s First and Fifth, for example. But I am learning to appreciate alternate views and approaches.

I will listen to more of Martinů’s music—but first I have the remaining 62 symphonies from my list.

From a footnote in Steinberg’s text:

“The Fantaisies symphoniques turned out to be Martinů’s only symphony without a piano in the orchestra. He used to say that the reason he started using the piano in his orchestral scores was that he had not learned to figure out the complicated transpositions that writing for the harp required.”

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