Bohuslav Martinů

Bohuslav Martinů was a Czechoslovakian violinist and composer. Inspired by traditional Bohemian and Moravian folk melodies as well as contemporary music, Martinů wrote six symphonies, operas, ballets, orchestral and vocal works. Having moved to Paris in the 1920s, Martinů was forced to flee in 1940 because he had been blacklisted by the Nazis. He wrote The Field Mass in response to the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939, and Memorial to Lidice after the Nazis’ destruction of the Czech village of Lidice in 1942. Martinů enjoyed a successful career in the US but never returned to his native Czechoslovakia.

Born in Polička, Bohemia, Martinů studied the violin from a young age and studied at the Prague Conservatory from the age of fifteen. Though he did not excel at the Conservatory and left in 1910, Martinu became interested in new music and composition. He worked in Polička during the First World War and played in the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra from 1920, conducted by Václav Talich. In 1923 Martinů moved to Paris where he studied with Albert Roussel and reported on the French musical scene to Czech newspapers. He continued to compose in Paris throughout the 1920s and 30s, frequently inspired by contemporary events. His early music was influenced by Bohemian and Moravian folk music and Czech composers such as Dvořák and Smetana. In Paris he began to experiment with neoclassicism, modernism and jazz. His music – almost without exception – includes a piano part.

After the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939 and the signing of the Munich Agreement, Martinů tried to join the Czech Resistance in France but was not accepted because of his age. Instead he wrote a cantata for baritone, chorus and orchestra, Field Mass (Polní mše, 1939) in tribute to the Czech Government-in-Exile led by Edvard Beneš and the Czechoslovakians fighting in the French army. Czech poet Jiří Mucha provided the libretto. Though the work was not intended as a church mass, it does include elements specific to the genre including the Lord’s Prayer and parts of a Kyrie and Agnus Dei.

Field Mass was first broadcast in England and heard over the radio in Czechoslovakia. When the Nazis became aware of Martinů’s tribute to the Czech resistance, the composer was blacklisted by the regime. After the Nazi invasion of France in 1940, Martinů and his family were forced to flee because, as an enemy of the Nazis, Martinů risked arrest and imprisonment. The Martinůs fled first to Aix-en-Provence in the south of France before crossing the border through Spain to Portugal in January 1941 and eventually fleeing by boat to the US. Composer Paul Sacher assisted with the Martinůs’ financial costs.

Though Martinů initially struggled to settle in New York he soon adjusted and joined the teaching staff at Mannes College of Music and Princeton University. He composed prolifically in the US; he had not composed a symphony before arriving in America but wrote one per year from 1942-46. He also enjoyed premieres of compositions by leading American orchestras in New York, Boston and Chicago.

In 1943 the New York Philharmonic premiered his eight-minute symphonic poem, Memorial to Lidice (Památník Lidicím). The piece commemorates the 340 Czechs murdered by the Nazis in June 1942 in the village of Lidice. Hitler had ordered the razing and levelling of the village in reaction to the assassination of Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich by the Czech resistance earlier that month. Memorial to Lidice is an instrumental composition in three movements featuring quotations from a twelfth century chorale and from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The piece premiered in an all-Czech concert on 28 October 1943, the anniversary of the formation of the Czech Republic in 1918.

Martinů had planned to return to Czechoslovakia after the Second World War but was never able to do so. He had clashed ideologically regarding modern music with musicologist Zdeněk Nejedlý; after the war Nejedlý became Minister for Culture and Education and Martinů feared that he would be denied opportunities if he returned to Czechoslovakia. After the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia took control in 1948 Martinů was regarded as an enemy traitor.

Martinů became a US citizen in 1952 and thereafter could not visit Czechoslovakia because it was allied with the Soviet Union. Instead he returned to France in 1953 before accepting a teaching position at the American Academy in Rome in 1956. He died in Switzerland in 1959. Though he had been unable to return to Czechoslovakia during his lifetime, he was posthumously transferred to his hometown of Polička in 1979. Partly due to Martinů being unofficially banned in Czechoslovakia during his lifetime, he is now a relatively little-known composer though he has been posthumously celebrated within the Czech Republic, the US and elsewhere.

By Abaigh McKee


Anthony Bateman, ‘Fanfare for the uncommon man.’ The Guardian 27/3/2009 [accessed 3/1/2018]

Thomas D. Svatos, ‘Bohuslav Martinu.’ The Orel Foundation [accessed 3/1/2018]

James Rybka (2011) Bohuslav Martinu: The Compulsion to Compose (Lanham: Scarecrow Press)

Michael Beckerman, Michael Henderson (2007) Martinů's Mysterious Accident: Essays in Honor of Michael Henderson (New York: Pendragon Press)