The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca, Bohuslav Martinů

queen of sheba

Among Czech composers, none was more cosmopolitan than Bohuslav Martinů. Though born in a tiny town in Bohemia, he spent most of his adult life in France and the United States, eventually dying in another small town, this time in Switzerland. As a result of his multiple residences and an amazing compositional facility, one can find in his oeuvre the most varied styles and influences: from Czech folklore to hot jazz, from neo-classicism to neo-baroque, from the romanticism of Dvořák to the impressionism of Debussy. Throughout all these changes, however, his personal style remained remarkably distinctive: a mixture of rhythmic vitality, bittersweet folk-influenced melodies, and colorful, percussive scoring.

The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca was completed in 1955, during an extraordinary last decade in which he embraced a style of seemingly free-form, yet structured, composition. This orchestral triptych was inspired by Martinů’s viewing of the title paintings in a church in Arezzo, Italy: a cycle of frescoes entitled Legend of the True Cross. Martinů did not intend for his music to be descriptive or programmatic, but rather to evoke a certain mood inspired by the paintings: “I tried to express in musical terms that kind of solemnly immobile calm and semi-darkness, that palette of colors creating an atmosphere filled with delicate, peaceful and moving poetry.” The sonic world of Frescoes is luminous and fluid, yet punctuated by intense outbursts; Martinů’s vast range of orchestral colors forms a fitting counterpart to the style of the Renaissance painter.

From the point of view of musical structure, what is most interesting is the kaleidoscopic approach that Martinů follows in this work (which became standard for him in his last decade). Usually, a piece begins with a certain theme or motif, and then continues via a series of freely developed, flowing episodes (which may or may not be related to the opening theme), until it reaches a terminus somewhere remote from the opening. At that point, the opening returns to complete the cycle, and is developed further in a different direction, leading to the coda. The return of the opening is reminiscent of the recapitulation in standard sonata-form structure, but due to the distance it has travelled and the fluidity of the musical processes, its return is less expected; the experience is like running into an old friend in an unfamiliar environment. This process plays out clearly in The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca.

Below is a recording of The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca followed by a brief listening guide

I: Andante poco moderato. The opening movement was largely inspired by the painting Procession of the Queen of Sheba. The music begins with two Martinů hallmarks: a swirling, diaphanous orchestral sound, and a long-short-long rhythm that haunted him throughout his career. This leads to a brassy, percussive climax (1:19), which flows into the first of the piece’s characteristic broad, soaring melodies (1:33). The music grows softer and more contemplative (3:00), and delicate solos on English horn (3:33) and other instruments announce the terminus of the initial material. The opening returns (4:24); material is repeated until an abrupt break (5:27) announces that the coda is upon us. A long melody brings this movement to a placid finish.

II: Adagio. The inspiration for this slow movement was Constantine’s Dream, in which an angel assures the future Roman emperor he will triumph in battle by following the sign of the cross. It opens with a march-like theme on woodwinds. The music begins to “swirl,” taking on an air of mystery. A viola solo (1:18) marks the piece’s sole explicit programmatic element: according to Martinů, it is intended to depict a trumpet announcing the call to battle. Around 1:40, the music reaches a rapturous climax on the march theme, crowned by brilliant trumpets. From here, after the march dies down, we pass through a series of highly contrasting episodes: an interlude of calm (3:22); a radiant polyphonic fantasy (3:47); and another long, romantic melody (4:20). A quiet coda, featuring harp and English horn (5:28), expires with soft taps on the timpani.

III: Poco allegro. A choppy melody in woodwinds launches the final movement, which expresses Martinů’s response to two paintings showing scenes of battle. The music slows, and another radiant “endless melody” takes over (0:56). A sense of crisis develops (2:22), with a quick increase in dramatic tension; a trumpet call caps this episode. As in the first movement, the opening returns (3:17), and the material that followed it is repeated until the coda begins. A powerful climax, marked by roaring brass and luminous strings (4:08), gives way to a feeling of rapture as the music fades out.

This recording of Frescoes is by the Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra under Charles Mackerras. The classic recording of this piece was made a few years after its premiere, by Karel Ančerl and the Czech Philharmonic; it is available on the Supraphon label.

Other masterpieces of Martinů’s last decade that display this rhapsodic, kaleidoscopic style include his 6th Symphony (Fantaisies symphoniques), the orchestral work Parables, and one of his very last works, the Nonet. For another attempt to capture the essence of painting in sound, listen to Hindemith’s symphony Mathis der Maler, an essential 20th-century orchestral work inspired by the art of another Renaissance painter, Matthias Grünewald

Artwork: The Queen of Sheba (Scene 2), Piero della Francesca

by Scott Spires