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Bohuslav Martinů: Czech Composer, Citizen of the World, and Cleveland Favorite

October 13, 2016

Being able to premiere a piece with a world-famous ensemble such as The Cleveland Orchestra is a big deal for any composer. Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959) had this opportunity not once or twice, but three times. The work that the Orchestra performs this season on October 20-22, Parables, is not one of these pieces. However, Martinů’s numerous premieres with the ensemble reveal a relationship of deep, mutual respect between the composer and The Cleveland Orchestra.

Bohuslav Martinů. Photo: Josef Macháček

Martinů, considered at the time to be greatest living Czech composer, was as admired in Cleveland as he was throughout midcentury America. Reviewers and audiences alike praised him for his synthesis of lush, Romantic orchestrations with rhythmic, Bartókian Modernism. He lived in New York from 1941-1953, and maintained major ties with the US until his death, including in Cleveland. His popularity in this city was partially due to the robust community of Czech immigrants living here. Inviting Martinů to premiere a piece at The Cleveland Orchestra helped elicit goodwill from the city’s population, while still maintaining the high level of artistic achievement that the Orchestra is famous for.

The large numbers of Czech immigrants that have made Cleveland their home has undeniably shaped the city’s cultural landscape. Immigrants from many countries in Eastern Europe settled in Midwestern cities more readily than other areas of the country, even New York.  By 1910, Cleveland had the fourth largest population of Czechs in the world, only to be bested by Prague, Vienna, and Chicago.

Music was very important in these communities, and by the mid-20th century there were many Czech musical organizations scattered throughout Cleveland. Among the most prominent was the Lumir-Hlahol-Tyl Singing Society, which presented major choral works, plays and operas by Czech artists from 1867 until its dissolution in 1980. The Czech community also built numerous performing venues and cultural centers. The largest and most important of these was the Bohemian National Hall, which was built in 1889, funded by individual donations from community members. The hall, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is still in active use, particularly its 1,000-seat theater on the second floor.

Symphony No. 2

Martinů’s second symphony was commissioned for The Cleveland Orchestra in 1943 by a group of these Czech Clevelanders. The group, which called themselves the “American Friends of Czechoslovakia,” wanted to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia, and so assembled the necessary funds to pay for the commission. In honor of this group, Martinů dedicated the symphony to “My Fellow Countrymen in Cleveland.” The work was premiered on October 28, 1943. Also on the program was Smetana’s symphonic poem Vltava. Martinů attended the premiere, despite the fact that he had another premiere on the same night at the New York Philharmonic, of his work Memorial to Lidice.

There were significant current political motivations in the programming of Martinů’s symphony as well. World War II had as its flashpoint the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Germany in 1939. Martinů’s symphony, in celebrating Czechoslovak nationhood, provided a convenient way to celebrate the freedom of every land from occupation by Germany — a sentiment that wartime Americans could certainly get behind. Jan Masaryk, the foreign minister of Czechoslovakia’s government-in-exile, was supportive of the project, and wrote a telegram to music director Erich Leinsdorf, expressing his regret that he could not attend the performance:

Leinsdorf was himself an Austrian-Jewish émigré who had come to America right before the outbreak of the war. He was undoubtedly aware of Masaryk’s significance as a symbolic leader of Czech freedom, and wrote a touching note back:


Martinů’s second Cleveland Orchestra premiere came ten years later, on February 19, 1953. The work was the Rhapsody-Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. The work was written for international soloist Jascha Veissi, and inspired by his instrument, a fine Gasparo deSalò from the 16th century. Martinů was struck by how much the instrument sounded like a human voice.

Veissi himself had a Cleveland connection. Before switching to viola, he had had a successful career as a violinist. In fact, he was assistant concertmaster of The Cleveland Orchestra from 1924-1929. He left the Orchestra to accept a position as solo violist of the San Francisco Symphony, from which he launched a career as a touring soloist.

Clipping from the Cleveland Press, February 18, 1953

The Cleveland Orchestra has performed the Rhapsody-Concerto on one other series of concerts, in 2004. Robert Vernon, principal viola of the Orchestra from 1976 until his retirement last season, was the soloist on that occasion. Take a listen:

The Rock

Martinů’s third piece to have its premiere at The Cleveland Orchestra was part of a larger commissioning project that the Orchestra undertook in honor of its 40th anniversary in 1958.

Excerpt from commemorative booklet for The Cleveland Orchestra’s 40th anniversary season

Martinů titled this work The Rock, after Plymouth Rock, a symbol of the freedoms and opportunities that America had provided for the composer. Martinů noted that this title was also a play on other “rocks” in American culture, including Rock ’n’ Roll and Little Rock, Arkansas—probably an acknowledgement of the tense, forced integration of Little Rock Central High School, which took place in the fall of 1957, just as Martinů was completing his piece. The work was first performed on April 17th, 1958, unfortunately to mixed reviews. The Cleveland Plain Dealer writes,

Not so much enthusiasm was evinced for the world premiere of Bohuslav Martinů’s symphonic prelude, “The Rock,” which is supposed to be concerned with the story of Plymouth Rock as a symbol of American life. It begins promisingly with severity of mood suggesting Puritanical restraint, and it has hymnal and religious allusions characteristic of the subject and a little reminiscent of Hanson’s opera, ‘Merry Mount.’

Before it is finished, however, it spreads thin in a sort of Hollywood atmosphere, which is no esthetic sin, except that one would like to see the picture for which it might well provide background.

Other reviewers were more positive. The Cleveland News said of the work that it “abounds in spiritual and melodic graces and has no angularities, nothing blatant or disturbing, yet is fresh, original and evocative. It brings to mind the optimism and courage of the founding fathers in the traditional musical language so proper for it.”

Not all of the pieces premiered by The Cleveland Orchestra have remained in the regular repertoire. However, they demonstrate a commitment by the Orchestra to making new music available to the Cleveland community. In the case of Martinů’s premieres, these works also forged a link between the Orchestra and Czech-Americans in Cleveland. Furthermore, these pieces demonstrate an intricate network of connections between The Cleveland Orchestra and the events that have shaped our world.

—Sophie Benn
Sophie Benn is an intern this season with The Cleveland Orchestra Archives. She is a PhD student in musicology at Case Western Reserve University.

Except as noted, all photographs and recordings courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra Archives.

Want to know more? Check out these resources!

Bohuslav Martinů: The Compulsion to Compose, by F. James Rybka
Martinů, by Brian Large
Martinů biography and other resources:
Early pamphlet on Czechs in Cleveland (from 1920):

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