Suggested Listening: “Fantasie” by Bohuslav Martinů

This week’s SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC (a few days late — sorry about that) introduces us to a pretty obscure piece.  This is the Fantasie for theremin, string quartet, oboe, and piano, composed by Bohuslav Martinů and performed below by Carolina Eyck, theremin (Germany); the Keller Quartet (Hungary); Heinz Holliger, oboe (Switzerland); and Robert Kolinsky, piano (Switzerland).

About the Composer:

Born in Polička, Bohemia, Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959) is one of the most celebrated Czech composers, right alongside Dvořak and Janáček.  He also happens to be my favorite composer (perhaps tied with Shostakovich).  As a result, this post will be a bit long — I love this guy and have a lot to say about him.

The life story of Bohuslav Martinů is super interesting.  His father was the town watchman, in charge of ringing the church bells to spread news, so the whole Martinů family lived in the bell tower — a fact which likely influenced Martinů’s music.  At a young age, little Bohus was noted to be awkward and aloof; though the diagnosis didn’t exist during his lifetime, scholars and friends of the composer have posthumously speculated that he had Asperger’s syndrome.  He was accepted as a violin student into the Prague Conservatory at age 16 but couldn’t adhere to the rigid schedule of the curriculum (possibly because of his alleged Asperger’s) and soon flunked out.  After that, he played and freelanced in several orchestras — including the illustrious Czech Philharmonic — all the while teaching himself composition.  After WWI, Martinů went to study composition in Paris, where his music absorbed French jazz influence.  He maintained his connections to his homeland, however — this got him blacklisted when the German armies rolled into France as WWII broke out.

Here is where the classical music geek will get really excited.  In 1941, Martinů fled to America and became inextricably woven into American orchestral history.  He taught at Tanglewood in 1942 alongside Copland (who spent that summer putting the finishing touches on his Rodeo ballet) and Koussevitzky (whose conducting students that summer included Bernstein and Fennell).  At Tanglewood, Martinů’s composition students included Alan Hovhaness and H. Owen Reed.  Many of Martinů’s works were premiered, commissioned, or championed by the great American orchestras, especially the Boston Symphony under Koussevitzky.  (See?  Summer festivals do help with networking!)  Martinů’s music combines folk, jazz, and neoclassical elements from his three “homes” — Czechoslovakia, France, the U.S. — and is breathtakingly strange and unquestionably beautiful. 

About the Piece:

The video above is actually just a brief excerpt from the three-movement work, the entirety of which can be heard here.  I chose instead to feature the excerpted video because you can really see the theremin in action, played by the amazing virtuoso Carolina Eyck.  Cool stuff.  (Also, since I’m an oboist: Heinz Holliger = winning.)

Most people do not know what a theremin is.  Before hearing this piece, I certainly didn’t.  But it should sound familiar to you.  It has that quintessentially spooky, synthetic vocal sound — sort of a sci-fi, 1960’s vibe, right?  Well…

The theremin was invented with the advent of radio in the late 1920’s, but its popularity was fairly short-lived.  The theremin player (thereminist?) manipulates magnetic fields to produce sound.  There are all sorts of YouTube tutorials — some cool, some awkward — and if you’re interested in learning more about this instrument I highly suggest doing some research because it’s such an interesting thing!

Martinů jumped on the theremin bandwagon before it fizzled out.  The Fantasie, composed in 1944 while Martinů was living in Connecticut, was written for his neighbor, Lucie Bigelow Rosen, who was largely responsible for the theremin’s rise to popularity, however brief.  The theremin part is insanely difficult, to the point that Martinů had to allow it to be played on the much easier keyed electronic instrument, the ondes Martenot.

In an interview, Rosen explained playing theremin as “singing with your fingers.”  Martinů truly harnessed the instrument’s vocal quality in his Fantasie, surrounding the theremin with other instruments capable of producing an umana voce sound — resonant strings, poetic piano, singing oboe.  The ensemble has the potential to sound like a choir, or an orchestra, or both at once — a fact which Martinů expertly manipulates.


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