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Extract from Dvořák Society Newsletter 96 (April 2011)

     John Babbs, a British member, contributed the following book review to Dvořák Society Newsletter 96 (July 2011) —

Bohuslav Martinů: The Compulsion to Compose
By F James Rybka, Scarecrow Press 2011, 444pp. ISBN 13 978-0-8108-7761-0

This new book is a marvellous addition to the writings about Martinů and his music. When I started listening to Martinů in my student days 40 years ago I was lucky that the local library had a copy of Martinů – The Man And His Music written by Šafránek in 1962. For me the Šafránek book has remained the most useful book in English, containing many direct quotations from Martinů himself as well as information about the works. Brian Large’s book (1975) provided some new material but also what I judge to be some unbalanced comments about the music.

Rybka Martinu The Compulsion to Compose

Rybka provides an account of Martinů’s life and descriptions of some of the important compositions but it is the commentary on Martinů’s life that makes the book valuable. (For an understanding of how Martinů’s music works one needs to consult Mike Crump’s excellent book on the symphonies.) Rybka’s book really comes into its own with its account of Martinů’s American years. As one of the few people left who actually knew the composer, Rybka provides an account of the composer that is more detailed than any that have appeared before. Alongside his personal reminiscences he is able to use letters written by Martinů to Frank Rybka, which tell us much that is unfamiliar. Rybka also uses extracts from Šafránek, Brian Large and Charlotte Martinů to supplement his own material. He provides comments from a wide range of composers and musicians, who were contemporaries of Martinů.

The picture of the composer that emerges is frank, sometimes critical but more complete than any published before. However, Martinů still emerges as an attractive personality with an approach to composition that has great integrity even if it is complex and still somewhat mysterious.

We learn about Martinů’s attitude to earning money from his compositions, such as his complaints when offered only $200 for Thunderbolt P-47 by Hans Kindler. Still he shows nothing like the avarice shown by Stravinsky when responding to requests for commissions. Whilst we learn little new about Martinů’s relationship with Vítĕzslava Kaprálová, we learn much more about Roe Barstow and the desperate state of Martinů’s marriage during the American years.

Mike Crump Martinu and the Symphony

Rybka has already written about the hypothesis that Martinů had Asperger’s Syndrome (see Czech Music Vol 23) but here this proposal is dealt with in much more depth and throughout the book events in Martinů’s life are considered from the perspective of how they may be explained by the effects of Aspergers. Rybka suggests that Martinů’s shyness, his social awkwardness and his vast musical output can all be seen to be the result of this condition.

He proposes that Martinů’s ability to process his compositions in his head demonstrate the savant ability shown by some with Aspergers. My own experience of Asperger’s syndrome only extends to supporting students with Aspergers in their academic studies but I find Rybka’s proposal about Martinů quite convincing particularly in that it offers an explanation for so many aspects of the composer’s life.

In the end though it is the music that counts. Whilst it is fascinating to learn more about the composer this would mean nothing were not so much of the music so rewarding to listen to.

Some of Rybka’s comments on the music are interesting and new. For example, he challenges the widespread view that the writing of the Double Concerto (1938) reflects the war-threatened situation of the time. He suggests that it was the turbulent love affair with Kaprálová that underlies the turbulent powerful music in this score rather than the fate of his country. This challenges Martinů’s own account of the circumstances of this composition given in an interview, some years later in 1942.

We learn of the real reasons for the termination of Martinů’s teaching at Princeton in 1951, as well as extensive comments about his teaching from some of his pupils. Extracts from letters reveal how Martinů considered returning home in the 1950’s before he eventually decided that such a return was impossible.

Rybka has researched material for this book over a long period of time and interviewed many who had contact with the composer.

The book provides a unique and valuable resource and is essential reading for all those who are interested in Martinů’s music. I strongly recommend that people get hold of a copy for themselves.


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