The Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů composed in virtually all genres, from symphony to ballet, chamber music to opera, madrigal to film score. He even explored the road less travelled with a jazz suite, a sinfonia concertante and a nonet for strings and winds.
Martinů’s viola sonata, composed in 1955 towards the end of his life, is like the work of a master chalk artist, the beauty of which lies not only in the depth of the work but in the simplicity of the art. It is in two movements, and titled “Sonata No. 1 for Viola and Piano”, though a second sonata was never composed. It was dedicated to and edited by Lillian Fuchs, the American violist known in particular for her etudes.
The opening chords of the piano remind one that it is classified as a percussion instrument – the mallets on strings reminiscent of the bells Martinů grew up with as the son of the bell-ringer of the Church of St. James in Policka. The viola’s entry seems in context the sound of a cantor, with the multiple changes of metre (21 on the first page alone) bringing a sense of a free-form prelude leading to the Moderato. Rhythm remains as the keystone, particularly the varied use of syncopation juxtaposed with elegantly simple melodic motifs.
The second movement opens with bright semiquavers which quickly make way for a themes both melodic and rhythmic which seems expanded from ideas in the first movement. Overall, the work provides a feeling of elasticity without ever losing stability, best described in Martinů’s own description of life in a bell tower: that it was “not the small interests of people, the cares, the hurts, or the joys” that he observed from above, but “space, which I always have in front of me.”