Martinů and the Symphony
Toccata Press 2010 (Hardback: 512 pages)
I am sure that writing about music must be one of the most difficult undertakings, especially when writing about a composer whose work is not particularly well known. The only really successful book I know in this category is Robert Simpson’s Carl Nielsen: Symphonist where he manages to conjure up, for those of us who hadn’t heard the music, the very essence of the works – when I first read it, in the 1960s, Nielsen was still pretty much an unknown quantity in this country – and he made such a case for the music that I desperately wanted to hear it. Subsequently recordings were issued of all the Symphonies and we now know them very well.
The case for Bohuslav Martinů is similar. In 1990, the year of the centenary of his birth, there were some recordings available, but those of us interested in his work had been collecting the Supraphon LPs from the 1950s and 1960s when we could get hold of them, so although we knew some of his works, few performances were given in England that year. Last year was the 50th anniversary of his death and he was better treated, but not spectacularly, as would Henze or Carter be treated for a major anniversary of birth or, when it happens, death. However, a major study of his music, based round his set of six Symphonies, is to be welcomed in the wake of the anniversary of his death.
Michael Crump really knows his Martinů, and he obviously wants to share his enthusiasm with us – if he didn’t he wouldn’t be able to fill over 500 pages with his thoughts and findings. I am very happy that he wants to do this but there is a problem, and this is, for me, the stumbling block with this massive tome. I wonder for whom he has actually written his book.
First of all, there are 200 musical examples, but if you cannot read music they are of no value whatsoever. Then there is the problem of how he lets you know how you can identify which section of the music he is discussing. “in writing the book, I have tried to keep in mind two groups of readers – those unacquainted with Martinů’s eventful biography, and those who do not have easy access to his scores” writes Crump in his introduction. He marries the biographical information with his discussion of the music, this is well and good, even if we do get some repetition of material. However, if you have little, or no, access to the scores the often used line, “At figure 3 (this is a rehearsal number used when the conductor wants to tell his players where to start) there follows a clearly transitional passage” is meaningless, and as Crump uses the rehearsal numbers from the scores all the time there is no way of knowing where you are in the music. Better, surely, in these days when the recordings abound, to say “at 38’ 25” (or wherever) there follows…” thus if we have a CD of the music we can easily locate the passage under discussion should we wish to.
In the opening section he describes the composer’s early music, including some pieces which have been left unheard since their composition or very early performance. This section is most interesting but, as the book progresses, seminal works, such as the Concerto for double string orchestra, piano and timpani and the magnificent 5th String Quartet only receive passing mention whereas their place in the scheme of Martinů’s output would demand a discussion. Crump cannot believe that they are not of sufficient relevance to be so ignored. In writing about the first movement of the 4th Symphony Crump tells us, “It therefore comes as a huge disappointment that this thread of violin sound leads, with jarring inappropriateness, directly back to…” One of the most exciting things composers do is the unexpected – you only have to think of the transition from scherzo to finale in Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, John Foulds’s use of quarter–tones in his music in the 1890s, or Schönberg’s use of a soprano voice in his 2nd String Quartet – so what Martinů does isn’t inappropriate because what he is doing is simply writing music. That’s what composers do, and they do what they want how they want, and the best amongst them continually surprise us. I was taught that nothing, in what is called free composition, can be inappropriate because if you wrote it you meant it. Crump’s thought seems to be that Martinů has made a mistake, which quite obviously is untrue. I think that this comment has appeared because he, too often, tells us what he thinks of the work he is writing about, instead if standing back and describing the music. A book such as this is not the place for personal criticism, that’s fine in an introduction or afterward, but not in the main body of the text – indeed, I do find Crump’s personal comments of this type to be intrusive and most unwelcome.
A smaller matter, perhaps, but as this book is written in English I found the use of what we assume to be Americanisms to be annoying – using the word since instead of for, or outside of where outside alone would be so much better.
I asked several friends, musicians and non musicians who enjoy music, what they thought of the structure of the book, musical examples etc, and the uniform opinion was that the dense text would put them off, even though one of them loves Martinů’s music, and would like to know more about him, and the musicians thought it unduly packed with too much information and personal thought.
I failed to finish reading the book because I was ultimately frustrated by the rather dull style and being hit over the head with detail after detail which I could not check for myself by reading the score. If I ever do buy all the scores of Martinů’s Symphonies, and several other pieces often quoted within the pages, I might return to this book.
This book is handsomely produced, but at £50 I wonder who is going to buy it for it doesn’t seem to have defined its audience. A straight forward biography with a discussion of the music, without going into great detail, would have helped this fascinating composer to reach a wider audience. As it is, I do feel that a chance to help the rehabilitation of a major figure has been missed.