Friday, July 08, 2005

Martinu's Sextet appeal

This week I have been rehearsing a string sextet by Bohuslav Martinu, the 20th-century Czech composer. Martinu wrote the piece for two violins, two violas, and two cellos - then he wrote a double bass part as well, marked "ad libitum"; the idea being, I guess, well if you've got one around anyway, what the hay.... It just doesn't seem to have been the cool thing to do, writing a septet, Beethoven's excepted - my theory is that if people had started calling it a "heptet" it might have caught on much better.

I'm sort of a non-essential chamber music employee this week, I guess, but the great thing about chamber music is that the less you have to play, the more you can listen to what everyone else is doing and pick on them in rehearsal. "Mr. First Violin, can't that pianissimo trill sound more like a baby sparrow cooing to its mother? Ms. Viola, can those sixteenth-notes be like the insistently crashy waves on a Mediterranean Sea beach in Tel Aviv?"

I spend a lot of the rehearsals making up all kinds of stories about what is going on in the music - we've decided that the last movement is a dramatic chase scene, in a park on a Sunday morning, with the hero being pursued by a sadistic grandmother. The sillier and less pertinent my comments are, the more difficult they are to contradict!

Martinu is a pretty fascinating composer, though - my roommate here is Czech, and he showed me two websites where you can read all about Martinu and see the church where he lived as a child. Martinu was the youngest of four kids, growing up in this little church tower in a small town called Policka, and his father was a shoemaker who also rang the church bells and watched for fires. Here's what the New Grove dictionary has to say about the traumatic effects of this upbringing:
On his own admission, Martinu's boyhood in the tower affected him in later life. Compositionally, he stated that he strove to embody in his work the space constantly before his eyes as a child; as a man, the isolation may well have contributed to the elusive quality of his personality and a tendency to disorientation when first encountering new places.
We'll be performing Martinu's Sextet next weekend, in Ludwig Recital Hall at Kent State University, Sunday, July 17th at 7:30 pm. If you know anyone wandering around northeast Ohio that day, tell them to come hear our concert - it's free, and it's a rare chance to hear a heptet by a disoriented Czech.

To learn more about the Kent/Blossom music festival, follow this link to the official website.


Joe said...

Interesting - I've never heard of this piece. As a bassist and chamber music enthusiast, I'm very curious. Does the bass part look fun to play? Does it contribute uniquely to the piece, or is it just doubling one of the cello parts? I'm rehearsing the Saint-Säens Septet right now (trumpet, 2vl, vla, vc, db, piano) which is quite a nice piece as well...

Matt Heller said...

Thanks for commenting, Joe!

I had not meant to imply that Beethoven, Saint-Saens, Spohr, Hummel, and the many other composers who have written septets were somehow uncool. (Alright, maybe I meant to imply that Spohr and Hummel were uncool.) I haven't played the Saint-Saens, so you'll have to visit again and tell me how it goes!

I think the Martinu's bass part does contribute significantly, though I may be biased. I am not aware of any recordings of the piece with bass, but if you e-mail your address I can send you a recording of our performance next weekend.

Best wishes!

larry.lemer said...

I'd like to invite you Martinu admirers to my free yahoo group devoted to Martinu!