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Bohulsav Martinu

Continuing the line of Czech composers from Dvořák through Smetana and Janáček, Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959) is the best-known Czech composer of the mid-20th Century. Both prolific and versatile, Martinů wrote over 400 works in virtually all genres, including more than a dozen operas, 6 symphonies, and 28 works for solo instruments and orchestra.

His father was a poor shoemaker and churchbell-ringer, and, owing to a rather frail constitution, young Bohuslav spent most of his childhood confined to the belltower where his family lived. But his musical gifts were nonetheless recognized early on, and he began taking violin lessons when he was six or seven years old, and also began to compose. With the backing of his entire hometown of Polička, on the Bohemian-Moravian border, he moved to Prague in 1906, and entered the Conservatory there. Perhaps because of the introversion his childhood isolation had encouraged, he discovered he was not cut out to be the violin virtuoso his townfolk were counting on--he was expelled from the Conservatory in 1910, due to what his teachers deemed "incorrigible negligence." Somewhat ironically, by the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Martinů himself had become a teacher, which, together with his health issues, exempted him from military service. But as other young musicians were conscripted, Martinů began playing violin with the Czech Philharmonic, and the orchestra performed some of his compositions. More importantly, he was exposed to a wide varity of musical styles, including especially the music of Debussy, which he said profoundly influenced his development as a composer.

Martinů moved to Paris in 1923 to study with French composer Albert Roussel (1869-1937), and to absorb the influences of Stravinsky, American jazz, and everything else that was churning in the Arts Capital of the World. Throughout his life, Martinů carried a picture postcard of the church he grew up in, and, perhaps inspired by his nostalgic homesickness, rhythmic and melodic elements of Czech folk music became integrated into his increasingly neoclassical style. But in 1941, not long after the 1940 German invasion of France, he and his French wife found themselves living in the United States, unable to speak English and with no job prospects. Fortunately, as with Bartók and a few other ex-patriot composers fleeing from the Nazis, Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Serge Koussevitsky (1874-1951) was able to assist Martinů getting commissions and performances, and the virtually unknown Czech exile soon achieved a growing reputation among the Yanks. All six of Martinů's symphonies were written and fairly widely performed in America, and they prompted the internationally-famous Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet (1883-1969) to declare Martinů the greatest living composer of symphonies.

Variations on a Theme of Rossini 

Written in 1942, Martinů's Variations on a Theme of Rossini was among the first compositions he completed in the U.S., and it was composed for the virtuoso cellist Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976), for whom Martinů also wrote several other works. The titular "Theme of Rossini" refers to Dal tuo stellato soglio (From Your Starry Throne), from the opera, Mosè in Egitto (Moses in Egypt, 1819 version). But before Martinů got hold of it, Rossini's tune was first used by Italian violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840), in his Sonata "a Preghiera" ("In Prayer" Sonata), aka, Moses Fantasy, a set of variations written originally for the violin's G-string. Perhaps because Moses was still in Egypt and Commandment VII had yet to be handed down, cellists have shown no remorse in absconding with Paganini's violin piece and moving it to their own A-string. Regardless of whether Martinů heard a cello transcription, or perhaps even studied the violin original during his conservatory days, Paganini's Fantasy, with its transformation of Rossini's reverential prayer into a light-hearted romp, is where Martinů's fanciful flight actually originates. Only, "Variations on a Variation from Paganini's Variations on a Theme of Rossini" does seem a little too long for a title.