ET's Clarinet Studio
Sonatina for Clarinet and Piano by Bohuslav Martinu
by Eric Tishkoff



Historical Background

"A composer from Policka," is the way one music historian characterized Martinu (1890 - 1959) on the 100th anniversary of his birth. The phrase captures an important and constant quality of both the composer and his music: that they were bound to his native Czechoslovakia.

Born in 1890, Martinu spent his first 11 years living with his family at the top of the small town's hundred-foot bell tower. This separation from the town and its activities, the view from above, seemed to set the tone for the rest of his life. Martinu valued solitude, and during his time alone read voraciously in addition to composing. In fact, one often inspired the other. Musical ideas for both purely instrumental as well as dramatic works seemed to flow from his reading of eastern and western philosophy, the physics of Albert Einstein, and any one of numerous other erudite subjects.

Martinu moved to Prague at age 16 to study at the Conservatory. He was far from a model student, and later explained that the course of study was too rigid. The Conservatory did, however, provide him with his first exposure to Debussey, whose music had an immediate impact on Martinu and his budding compositional style. After spending the war years composing and teaching back in Policka, he moved to Paris at age 23.

While Policka and Checkoslavakia were always his true home, Paris was a relatively happy place for Martinu. He continued to study and compose. In Paris, he became familiar with the music of Stravinsky and various modernistic musical trends. These, too, were incorporated into his style. The onslaught of the German army chased him from France and Europe altogether in 1941.

Martinu landed in the United States where he remained for the next 12 years. It was then, at age 51, that he first approached the genre of the symphony. His time in the US was spent composing, reading, and teaching. Martinu did not enjoy living in the US finding it a rather inhuman place compared to the warm-hearted cities he loved in Europe. A serious accident in 1946 temporarily dampened his composing as well as his plans to return to Europe. Despite the accident and his desire to leave, his time in the US was highly productive, and saw the genesis of many of his largest and best-received works.

When conditions in Europe finally permitted it in 1953, Martinu moved again to France, his home away from home. He returned to the United States in 1955 to take a position in Philadelphia, but quickly remembered how much he disliked living in the US. In 1956 he moved to Rome, and spent the last three years of his life there and in Switzerland.


Martinu wrote the Sonatina for Clarinet and Piano in 1956, only three years before his death. The piece is seldom referenced outside of the clarinet world, and apparently holds no special place among the composer's prolific output. The six symphonies and other large-scale orchestral, operatic, and choral works such as Gilgamesh are the works for which Martinu received the most accolades and lasting recognition.

The Sonatina demonstrates a solid understanding of the clarinet's abilities and strengths. Extensive use of trill figures and fast arpeggios add excitement and bravura without presenting insurmountable technical challenges. In the lyrical passages, the Sonatina maintains its forward momentum through the use of dance-like rhythms and pointed articulations.

Syncopation plays an important role throughout. From the very beginning, with the opening piano introduction, the beat is obscured through a combination of hemiola, off beat rhythms, and decidedly un-square articulations. Even some of the most important cadences are syncopated, which, in several places, gives the illusion that the clarinet has arrived at the top of a scale slightly early.

The piece is written as one continuous movement made up of contrasting sections. In the Sonatina, as indeed in much of the composer's output, Martinu eschewed standard musical forms. This was a feature of his music early on, which is largely what got him into trouble with his professors while a student at the Prague Conservatory. As a result, his works, at times, are somewhat stream-of-consciousness, with the relationships between one section and another difficult for listeners to grasp, or, perhaps, genuinely tenuous.

In the case of the Sonatina, two features help greatly towards unifying the piece: a literal repeat of the opening material and common characteristics among melodic materials. The opening 66 measures are replayed, unaltered, beginning at measure 108. In and of itself, the repetition does not signify any particular form, especially since none of the material from this section gets used again anywhere else. However, the repeated section does delineate between two different antecedents. Thus, it serves in the same capacity as a rondo-theme. While it would be a stretch to say that the Sonatina is in rondo form, the repeat suggests an approach involving related episodes as opposed to a purely linear stream-of-consciousness.

The other unifying factor in the Sonatina is the relatedness of melodies. Most of the melodic material share several common characteristics including use of syncopation, pointed articulations, and arpeggiated patterns. For example, a number of melodies have an eighth note anacrusis slurred to an eighth note, which is marked staccato (some of these same figures also point out Martinu's common use of syncopation).

Because the piece lacks typical formal guideposts and re-use of themes, such common characteristics are the primary force binding together phrases and sections. Interpretively, it is important to emphasize these characteristics. Eighth notes marked staccato should generally be played very clipped. Syncopated rhythms should be appropriately accented.

Despite the lack of strict form, the Sonatina is a highly satisfying piece for performers and audiences alike. Melodies are all strongly tonal, although, a clarinetist who is unfamiliar with the piece and learning it for the first time might be surprised by the inventive harmonies created within the piano part. Along with the common melodic characteristics and repeated 66 measures, the Sonatina utilizes rhythmic vitality and well placed changes of tempo and mood to construct a cohesive work.

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Copyright © 2001, Eric Tishkoff. All rights reserved. This article may not be used commercially without the express written consent of the author.