Martinu in California

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Tuesday, August 13, 2019

On today's date in 1950, the orchestra of the Musical Arts Society of La Jolla, California gave the premiere performance of this music by the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu. The "Sinfonietta La Jolla" was Martinu's response to the Society's call for a tuneful and approachable piece of new music for their chamber orchestra.

Martinu modeled his 20th century work on the 18th century symphonies of Haydn, a composer he very much admired. In fact, in 1890, when Martinu was born, his native Bohemia was still a part of the Austria-Hungarian empire in which Haydn had lived and worked a hundred years earlier.

Martinu's music blends the modernism of 20th century composers like Stravinsky with the rich 19th century tradition of Czech national composers like Dvořák — but Martinu's relations with his native land were anything but smooth. He was twice kicked out of the Prague Conservatory for his supposed lack of academic discipline, and instead established himself as a freelance composer in France and Switzerland. Then, just as his music began to receive some recognition and performances back in Prague, the Nazi invasion of World War II led to his works being banned.

In 1941, Martinu settled in the United States, where his music was very well received. In 1948, Martinu returned briefly to Prague, but found the new Communist government there as distasteful to him as the Nazis. Martinu's "Sinfonietta La Jolla" was written shortly after he returned to the United States.