Martinů and Julietta

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert The Key of Dreams, which was performed on March 22, 2019 at Carnegie Hall.

The career of Bohuslav Martinů mirrors the decisive and tragic character of the century in which he lived. Martinů was born in 1890 and came of age as a citizen of a multinational dynastic empire, only to find himself, in his twenties, a patriot of a newly minted national unit: Czechoslovakia. The triumphant nationalism of post-World War I Europe coexisted, however, with a profound sense of cultural discontinuity, a resistance to the claims of late nineteenth-century romanticism, and an internationalist sense of modernity. Martinů chose to become an expatriate artist in Paris, but the Prague-Paris axis vanished when he was forced into exile in America on account of fascism, the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, and a second world war. He died in exile, caught in the Cold War in which his homeland had become a Soviet satellite. Martinů’s music registers the tensions, ambiguities, and ambivalences that inevitably surrounded the writing of original music by a composer caught in the crosscurrents created by the invention of a new nation, the technological transformation of sound reproduction, the carnage of World War II, the display of a uniquely modern barbarism in Europe, the nuclear age, and the psychic toll of involuntary, as well as self-imposed, exile.

In the young, flourishing, nationalist environment in which he grew up, Martinů demonstrated remarkable gifts and quickly was poised to inherit the mantle of a distinctive Czech nationalist tradition—understood in the terms of the late nineteenth century—in the musical culture bequeathed by Bedřich Smetana and Antonín Dvořák. The 1919 re-drawing of the map of Europe according to notions of self-determination may have created independent and relatively homogeneous political nation states, particularly when compared with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but at the same time, a countercurrent of internationalist ideals in culture and politics emerged that redefined the cosmopolitan and re-imagined its aesthetic possibilities. For this reason, in the early 1920s, Martinů settled in Paris.

Paris between the two world wars became the center of transnational movements in dance, theater, painting, and music. Arthur Honegger, Francis Poulenc, Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, and Sergei Prokofiev dominated the scene. Whereas the much older Leoš Janáček drew strength and inspiration from the new Czechoslovak republic, Martinů gravitated toward an international style. Even so, although he settled in Paris and French became his second language, Martinů did not sever his ties to the nascent national entity, the Czechoslovakia of Tomáš Masaryk. Martinů in this way resembled his nearest Polish contemporary, Karol Szymanowski. They both balanced their experiences in cosmopolitan Paris with an increasingly romanticized but limited construct of the native homeland to which they felt allegiance. Consequently, even though Martinů experimented with a variety of widespread, fashionable, international approaches to composition, the Czech language and Bohemian materials were never entirely neglected. As the composition and performance history of Julietta suggest, a delicate balance was continually in play. This opera derived from a French novel that then was turned into a Czech libretto by the composer. It premiered in Prague, only to be retranslated back into French later on. But the subject transcends culture; it is not tied to any particular nativist traditions. What distinguished Martinů from Szymanowski, however, was his exceptional compositional facility and productivity. Of his near contemporaries, perhaps only Darius Milhaud was as prolific; but Martinů’s output was better crafted and more consistent than Milhaud’s, and more of it will remain in the repertory.

Martinů fled to America in 1941. Here he came to the attention of Aaron Copland, who brought him to Tanglewood. Though Martinů enjoyed the support of old friends, among them George Szell, Rudolf Firkusny, and Walter Susskind, America never seemed quite right. He never fit in; moody and reclusive, Martinů was not happy. To make matters worse, Communist Czecholsovakia was anathema. Martinů returned to Europe in the 1950s and spent the final years of his life in Switzerland.

Martinů is now increasingly known for his orchestral music, which includes six symphonies, but it is the field of opera that preoccupied him most. In this he resembled the ambitions of the older Czech role models and masters: Dvořák, Smetana, and Janáček. Julietta is widely regarded as the finest and most daring of Martinů’s sixteen operas. Its story line and libretto fit the period of its creation perhaps a bit too neatly, making quick comparisons to Franz Kafka and Sigmund Freud easy. But the score has also been the object of all too facile critical dismissal; it has been described as hard to like, episodic, too dependent on one character, attractive but not memorable. Indeed, Julietta has never been a true success, whether on the stage or in recording, despite several recent and highly praised revivals, including one in Berlin.

Given the evident and long-overdue Martinů revival now underway, particularly with regard to the instrumental and symphonic music, the operas demand a new look. And that suggests that Martinů’s most celebrated and most uniquely twentieth-century opera, in terms of subject and plot, merits a hearing in the United States. The faint praise and condescending rehearsal of the so-called shortcomings of Julietta demand rebuttal through performance. That places it squarely in the mission of the American Symphony Orchestra. There is ample reason to suspect that the time for Julietta has now come, and that it has languished too long. Julietta deserves a place in the repertory of our opera houses as one of the great twentieth-century operas. It is, in my view, an operatic masterpiece.