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In the Key of Dreams

David Pountney on Martinu, the great experimenter

Bohuslav Martinu sprang from a nation whose music is fiercely bound up with its political destiny, and yet his life and his art display an extraordinary degree of rootlessness. Born in a church tower from where his father exercised his profession as fire-watcher, Martinu seems to have absorbed from early childhood the perspectives of the far horizon, and at the first opportunity used his talent as a violinist as a means to travel to Paris.

The Parisian Martinu, complete with beret worn at a rakish angle, went native in a very thorough fashion. Indeed, ‘fashion’ is perhaps the operative word, as Martinu worked his way through the whole gamut of trendy influences on the classical music of the era, above all neo-Classicism, surrealism, film and jazz.

Once the carnival came to an end, however, Martinu found himself an exile not by choice but by necessity. He fled to the USA in 1941, and even on his return to Europe more than a decade later was forced to remain constantly on the move: perhaps the spectacularly fragmented dramaturgy of the original version of The Greek Passion has something to do with the fact that he composed it at an unfathomable number of different addresses. Martinu escaped life under the Nazis, and under the particularly unpleasant puppet Stalinist regime in postwar Czechoslovakia. Yet he also escaped living his creative life under the direct shadow of the Czech musical heritage which, on the one hand, embodied the international genius of Smetana, Dvorák and Janácek, but which, on the other, could display attributes of stupefying provincialism. Comparison with the genius of Janácek is unfair on Martinu, a man who visited many wells but never quite got to the bottom of any; but the difference of their life trajectories could not be more marked. Janácek, an obdurate and uncompromising nationalist, slowly forged his utterly original musical identity in the most provincial of circumstances, and created an absolute freedom of artistic thinking within tightly constrained geographical limits. Martinu ranged magpie-like over a whole spectrum of contemporary European culture without ever really making his home in any one style, and yet always managed to invest each of his borrowings with his own idiosyncratic identity. Where Janácek painstakingly created his musical style out of the music of the Czech language, Martinu composed operas in at least three different languages, sometimes beginning a work in one and finishing it in another. Martinu was the out and out cosmopolitan—a lethal term of abuse under both Fascists and Stalinists, whose sustained attention he was therefore fortunate to escape.

The 20th century’s disjointed politics has yielded up a few very important artistic characters who travelled widely both literally and stylistically, principally Picasso and Stravinsky, both of whom seemed able constantly to reinvent themselves as the century progressed. Stravinsky, like Janácek, is a damaging comparison for Martinu, whose stylistic experiments lack Stravinsky’s unerring instinct for penetrating to the heart of things. Martinu, however, certainly was aware of his debt to Stravinsky, choosing to start his surrealist opera Julietta with what is almost a quote from The Rite of Spring. Curiously, though, whereas in that work the sophisticated Stravinsky went to the heart of raw Russian nationalism even if he himself had no interest in that message as such, when listening to Martinu’s music it is often very difficult to identify any explicit Czech element.

Where Martinu is explicitly Czech is perhaps in one of his strongest suits: his absolute grasp of a certain kind of whimsical, fantastical theatricality. This is the element that makes him such inspiring material for a stage director. This wry, ironic escapism, delivered as if with a gentle, helpless smile, is the characteristic political device of a nation constantly bludgeoned by over-loud and over-powerful neighbours. Where else to find the resources, the language and the metaphors to defy Austrian, German or Russian power if not in the quiet, bitter and resigned humour of fantastical escapism? Martinu married this element with the drafts of theatrical experiment that he imbibed by the Seine, and the result is an absolutely intriguing (and very long!) list of works—almost none of them masterpieces, but almost all of them adding a delicate and unexpected nuance to the richness of the music-theatre genre.

And one thing one must give Martinu credit for: when he took up a ‘trendy’ idea, he did it thoroughly. Lots of composers in this period responded to the explosion of jazz into the musical language of the ’20s by incorporating scattered references to it into classical works, sometimes with utterly individual brilliance like Kurt Weill, and sometimes, like Hindemith, with the slightly embarrassing clumsiness of an elderly uncle trying to be hip. In his early comedy Soldier and Dancer—a setting of a Plautus play—Martinu wrote entire scenes that are accompanied by a sort of Charleston salon band. The remaining parts of this sometimes witty work are set to music of skeleton-rattling neo-Classicism, seemingly designed for a demented harpsichord.

Along with jazz, almost everyone in this era tried out film. Even the austerely cerebral Berg could not resist this particular fad and included it in his already overlong and overloaded setting of Lulu, though at least it spared him for a few pages from the mistake of setting too much unedited Wedekind text. Martinu was more consistent, and dedicated an entire opera, The Three Wishes, to the subject of film, also incorporating such long passages of ‘jazz’ music that it might almost be called a jazz-opera-film-cabaret (before one runs out of categories). It is an absolutely intriguing work, severely flawed, but manoeuvring with characteristic dramaturgical flair between film about theatre and theatre about film. The almost unstageable final climax is a substantial piece of quasi-jazz music written to accompany the final showing of the film whose making has been the envelope for the rest of the maverick plot—which is in itself a kind of French Dadaist extravaganza, a close relative of Poulenc’s Mamelles de Tirésias.

The mention of Dadaism brings us to the surrealists and to the first of Martinu’s two operatic masterpieces. His setting of Georges Neveux’s play Juliette, ou La Clé des songes brought out Martinu’s exceptional ear for atmospheric effect, for the delicacy of fragile and whimsical half-realities, and for his truly original sense of theatrical dramaturgy. Surrealism is of course much easier as a visual language than as a literary one, but nonetheless it is surprising that an artistic movement that had so much to offer to music—especially in its avoidance of the mundane reality about which music rarely has anything significant to say—should have attracted so few composers. But then it is a sad truth that, apart from Janácek and Wagner, most composers are dull dogs in
confronting radical dramatic ideas. Not Martinu! Julietta, with its deliberately ill-defined, shifting ambiguities and its reliance above all on atmosphere over core dramatic content, was the perfect vehicle for Martinu, and with it he fashioned a work that is both utterly French and utterly Czech—truly a venture into that unknowable but very musical part of the human personality that does not respond well to logical analysis. Martinu captured something here of the essentially indefinable subtlety of a very French culture of personal relations—the absolute opposite of Cartesian rationality—which also reflected a very Czech sensibility towards the infinite privacy of the personal world, especially when confronted with the oppressive bureaucracy of the ‘Office of Dreams’. In Julietta, Martinu used a French work to tap into the rich Czech tradition of fantasy as exemplified by Kafka, Capek and, later, Kundera, and embodied in music of haunting poignancy the sadness, fear and bewilderment of our emo-tional lives. That perception, expressed in music and theatre, is absolutely sufficient to define a masterpiece in
anyone’s terms. 

Martinu’s restless theatrical inventiveness did not stop there. He even made a bold and explicit attempt to reintegrate himself with his Czech heritage with his fascinating setting of three Czech religious mystery plays, The Legends of Mary. Once again Martinu was bang up to date, even in advance of many others such as Britten, Honegger and Stravinsky, in exploring more ‘primitive’ forms of theatre that were conceived for
performance outside conventional theatre spaces. The Legends of Mary combine the naivety and sculptural primitivism of mystery plays with a heartfelt degree of religious ecstasy, and the simple, diatonic harmonic language touches an important source of Czech musical tradition. Martinu’s open-minded theatricality creates marvellous opportunities for inventive stagecraft, and I suspect that of all the lesser-known Martinu works this is the one that would most reward a serious production.

Not surprisingly, when Martinu chose right at the end of his life to avoid the dangers of dramaturgical experiment and settled down to set an existing play (Goldoni’s La locandiera) constructed on expert but conventional lines, his innate sense of theatre almost guaranteed a success. Mirandolina is a genuinely funny opera—uncomplicated and undemanding, but none the worse for that. This is also the work where Martinu’s strain of fast-moving, neo-Classical style comes into its own—an ideally adroit and light-footed vehicle for shifting this typically mechanical plot along with needlepoint precision, while finding room for witty and ironic musical references to Italian madrigals, French vaudeville and Italian opera buffa.

This is, however, merely a felicitous pendant to the moment when finally all the elements of Martinu’s scattered life and diverse stylistic experience came together in one of those happy moments of creative synthesis to inspire his greatest work, The Greek Passion. The Legends of Mary had reconnected him with a simple musical
language of religious feeling, and here he was able to invest it with great intensity and power. The subject of forced migration confronting intolerance and bigotry clearly touched a composer who had spent his life in exile, the latter part of it enforced. In many of Martinu’s other works, brilliant as they often are, one has the impression that he is toying with stylistic ideas in a very clever way, without always homing in on the essential moment of truth that turns diverting theatre into compulsive theatre. In The Greek Passion this is not the case. There is an honesty about this work, for all its intricate dramaturgy, that makes any decent performance of it a compelling experience for an audience. And that problematic dramaturgy is also the perfect demonstration of Martinu’s theatrical range and skill. 

Martinu’s original version is an extremely ambitious, complex dramaturgical response to Kazantzakis’s novel Christ Recrucified. He uses a huge palette of different theatrical styles to bring together epic scenes of mass religious emotion, small-scale spoken dialogues, passages of objective narration, dream, dance, humour and violence; these co-exist like episodes on some Giotto fresco where little detailed events unfold within the context of a vast overarching statement of compassionate religious feeling. This is the summation of Martinu’s long life of theatrical experiment, and page after page shows that for him there were really no boundaries between all possible forms of theatre. He cuts between them all with startling dexterity, but there is never a feeling of experimentation for its own sake, simply the desire to find the most appropriate way at each moment to convey the detail and the intensity of his story.

But the result is very demanding, and it is perhaps no wonder that in 1957 the Board of the Royal Opera House, steadfastly maintaining their long tradition of being at least 50 years behind the times, were utterly flummoxed by this new work, which Rafael Kubelík had recommended to them, and duly rejected it. Martinu was understandably devastated, as he must have been at least instinctively aware that this work marked the summit of all his achievements so far. His ultimate response was drastic: when offered the chance of a premiere in Zurich he determined that the work would not be rejected again, and used his theatrical fluency to rework the whole score into a relatively conventional operatic format. The dialogues, the narrator, and many of the cinematically intercut small scenes were excised, and in its place he created a perfectly effective and certainly much more easily performable opera, which was premiered in German. (The original version was written in very bad English, which has since been tampered with by Brian Large without improving it in the slightest.)

Having had the benefit of working on Ales Brezina’s reconstruction of the original version for Bregenz and, at long last, for Covent Garden, I am of course biased. First, I find the diversity of theatrical techniques in the original in itself fascinating, and second, the composer’s lifelong career of experimentation is much more truthfully represented by his original thoughts. And though it is true that the conventional Zurich version also works, the fact is that Martinu was never really interested in ‘opera’ as such. He simply wrote stage works with music, and in
passages of some of these works you could say that he got so bound up with the stage effects he was creating that he forgot to write sufficient music. But for those who love to explore the many possibilities of music theatre in all its diversity, Martinu’s oeuvre is an essential hunting ground. Two undoubted masterpieces remain: Julietta and The Greek Passion. They may not be mainstream works, but they are indispensable pieces without which the achievement of opera in the 20th century would be immeasurably poorer.  

2016 Raina Kabaivanska 12th April - 17th May
Opera Awards in association with OPERA Magazine