Monday, October 05, 2009

Driven to Distraction

I never thought I would enjoy commuting, but the quality of the BBC's podcasts has transformed what used to be a very tedious drive through the jerry-built suburbs of Worthing.

Last week I listened In Our Time, with Melvyn Bragg and guests discussing the discovery of calculus and the bitter feud that followed between Newton and Leibnitz. Some of the finer points of calculus went over my head, but I understood far more than I expected and it will augment my fraudulent patina of erudition.

The beauty of In Our Time is that it whilst refuses to dumb down its content, it doesn't presuppose a detailed knowledge of the subjects under discussion, so Melvyn Bragg will blithely ask his guests 'What exactly is calculus?'. If the guests fail to answer in plain English, Bragg makes them answer the question again. Brilliant.

Today I listened to Radio Three's Composer of the Week podcast about the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů, who died 50 years ago. I've always liked Martinů's music, but knew next to nothing of his life.

I was fascinated to learn that like Rapunzel, he grew up in a tower and rarely ventured down to ground level.

I have no idea why Martinů's parents lived in the bell tower of the local church (did they have to cover their ears at regular intervals?), but their son was a sickly child and spent the first six years of his childhood looking at his local village from a great height. As an adult, Martinů often expressed a deep nostalgia for his native village, but like many creative artists of the time, prefered to live in Paris.

When the Wehrmacht invaded France, Martinů knew that his days in Paris were numbered (he was on the Gestapo's wanted list) and he fled to the United States. In America, Martinů wrote his first symphony and its success encouraged him to compose five others.

Everything was going well, until one day Martinů fell from a balcony and cracked his skull on concrete (growing up in a tower should surely have made him more aware of heights). From then on, he suffered from poor health and bouts of depression. He eventually went to live in Switzerland where he died, possibly of boredom.

Here is a clip of the Scherzo from the Symphony No.4. It's not a great performance and the conductor's pedestrian tempi detract from the music's jazzy exhuberance, but as this seems to be the only Martinů orchestral clip on YouTube, I'll have to make do.

If you don't want to hear the whole clip, jump to 2:12:

I hope some of the magic still came through this stolid performance from the Berlin Philharmonic. I'd love to hear the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra put some life into the music.

1 comment:

Mrs Jones said...

It has taken me 46 years to throw off the shackles of listening to Radio One and, nowadays, I listen to, mostly, Radio 3 (while I'm working or in the bath) with a smattering of Radio 4 (in the car, mainly). As my husband put it, Radio 4 is practically the only station that has intelligent and interesting programmes. If they could just do away with The Archers, though....

I'd not heard of Martinu but I can most definitely hear that the music has an exuberance which is, somehow, dampened in this performance. It lacks 'zing'.