By Dennis D. Rooney
How many composers were born in a church tower? I only know of one, Bohuslav Martinů, who arrived on December 1890 in the tower apartment of the St. Jakub Church in Polička, a town in Bohemia, close to the Moravian border. His family was allowed to live there because his father Ferdinand, a shoemaker, also worked as the church sexton and town fire watchman.
Martinů was a frail and sickly little boy who showed little talent for anything but playing the violin, which he did so well that his fellow townspeople paid for him to enroll in the Prague Conservatory in 1906. He didn’t take to the academic rigor nor did he care much for hours of violin practice. He eventually was dismissed in 1910 for “incorrigible negligence.” He spent the next few years back home in Polička, composing and studying. In 1920, he joined the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra but went to Paris in 1923 and remained there until leaving for the U. S. in 1940.
His Quartet for clarinet, horn, cello and side drum dates from 1924 and was obviously influenced by Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat. It remained unpublished until 1975. The mixture of strings, woodwind, brass and percussion is smaller than Stravinsky’s septet in L’Histoire, but the work’s three short movements show Martinů’s attempt to emulate the elder composer’s neoclassicism, which became his dominant style after 1930. Martinů left 400 compositions at his death in 1959, including six of the 20th century’s best symphonies and a huge body of chamber music, all of which ought to be better known. Founding player Michael Forte, clarinet; Troy Messner, horn; Susan Bergeron, cello; and drummer Scott Crawford were the composer’s excellent advocates.
Preceding the Martinů on the final program last Sunday at the Crest Theatre in Delray Beach of the Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival’s 26th season was Malcolm Arnold’s Quintet, Op. 7, another work for woodwinds, brass and strings. Arnold (1921-2006) studied with Gordon Jacob, whose reed trio was heard on the second program of this series. He wrote symphonies, ballet scores, and much band music, but his Academy Award for the score to David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1958) enlarged his international reputation.
The Quintet dates from 1944. Its Allegro con brio opener is tuneful but slightly brittle, with a few abrasive tinges. An austerely atmospheric Andante con moto, quasi allegretto follows. The finale, Allegretto molto espressivo, has a quasi-Mexican theme that explores some variegated musical byways before its conclusion. Founding players Karen Fuller Dixon, flute and Michael Ellert, bassoon, were joined by Troy Messner, horn; Mei-Mei Luo, violin; and Rene Reder, viola. It was a spirited performance.
Dvořák’s String Quintet in G was premiered in 1876 as his Op. 18, and was awarded a prize in a competition. Nonetheless, it remained unpublished until 1888 when Simrock brought it out as the composer’s Op. 77. This angered Dvořák, who didn’t want his early and late works confused, but his Viennese publisher thought higher opus numbers would sell better. (It was ever thus.)
This is one of the composer’s works that caused Johannes Brahms to take an interest in his younger contemporary. By adding a double bass to a string quartet, Dvořák keeps the textures transparent while supplying a pleasing fundamental anchor and a suggestion of orchestral texture. It also allows the cello to use its high register to blend with violin and viola, and also blends with cello and viola.
The Scherzo has the character of a vehement Czech folk dance with a quasi-Schubertian Trio. A Poco Andante follows that provides abundant lyric warmth. The outer Allegro movements share thematic material to bind the work together. Violinists Mei-Mei Luo and Dina Kostic, violist Rene Reder and cellist Susan Bergeron comprised the string quartet, and bassist Janet Clippard completed the ensemble. The latter’s placement on stage made her face out most of the time, and one enjoyed both her mastery of a large bass and the parade of facial expressions that communicated her pleasure in what she played. She truly anchored the ensemble. It was a satisfying conclusion to another season of Chamber Music Festival concerts.