Bohuslav Martinů in New York City – 1945
Our Video of the Week features a bravura piece for cello and piano by the prolific 20th century Czech composer Bohuslav Jan Martinů. Martinů was born in 1890 in Bohemia near the Moravian border, where early on he excelled as a violinist. To the degree that the whole town pooled their resources to send the budding young prodigy to to the capital to attend Prague Conservatory. But when the country boy came to the Big City, it seems he was too distracted by the cosmopolitan lifestyle of Prague to pay much attention to his studies. In other words, Gradus ad Parnassum couldn’t hold a candle to the city’s glittering galleries and concert halls, thus Martinů was dismissed for “incorrigible negligence” in 1910.
Martinů’s departure from the conservatory didn’t slow his musical development though, as he quickly began gaining acclaim as a composer throughout Europe. In 1923, he decamped for Paris, where again his boundaries were expanded, hearing everything from Stravinsky to American swing and jazz to the groundbreaking symphony concerts led by the increasingly celebrated Russian émigrés Serge Koussevitzsky, later of Boston Symphony fame. Martinů lapped up all the culture of Paris between the wars, and it proved to be one of his most prolific composing periods.
It all came crashing to a halt in 1941, when Martinů was forced to flee Paris in the face of the Nazi invasion, following in the footsteps, though under vastly changed circumstances of another Czech composer who found worldwide acclaim while in America – Antonín Dvořák.
One of the first pieces Martinů wrote during this new American phase of his life was the Variations on a Theme of Rossini, written for the great Russian-turned-American cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, and premiered in May of 1943. Martinů wasn’t the first to find inspiration from the Italian composer’s aria Dal tuo stellato soglio (From Your Starry Throne) from the opera Mosè in Egitto (Moses in Egypt). Just one year after the opera’s premiere in 1819, the legendary violin virtuoso and composer Niccolò Paganini crafted his Sonata a Preghiera (“In Prayer”) as set of variations, written as a showcase piece to be performed for the violin’s G-string.
It is likely that Martinů’s virtuosic work was at the very least inspired by (if not fully indebted to!) Paganini’s lighthearted reworking of the mournful aria when he prepared his own arrangement for cello and piano, moving the single string acrobatics to the A-string. As Heifetz 2020 Student Boubacar Diallo, a student at the Eastman School of Music, says in his introduction, “the piece is filled with dry humor, sarcasm, and a fireworks display at the end.” Boubacar is joined by Heifetz faculty pianist Yoon Lee in this fantastic virtual collaboration as part of Rubato: The Virtual Concert Hall.
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New York City Opera 2013 production of Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto