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Book Review

Bohuslav Martinů

Martinů - Compulsion to Compose by Rybka

The Compulsion to Compose

F. James Rybka
The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
ISBN-10: 0810877619
ISBN-13: 9780810877610
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Ah, did you once see Shelley plain, / And did he stop and speak to you?

There's not a lot in English for the general reader on the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů. Milos Safranek, the first biographer, rewrote his 1940s book Bohuslav Martinů: The Man and His Music in the Sixties, and a lot has happened in scholarship since then, especially since the death of the composer's wife, Charlotte. Brian Large's study, Martinů, has the disadvantage of condescending to the composer's music, an attitude unfortunately all too prevalent among present-day academic music historians. If you go through most general histories of 20th-century music, you will count yourself extremely lucky if you come across a mention, let alone a paragraph or, God forbid, a page on the composer. I understand why this happens, even though I don't like it. There's only so much you can include, and so writers place great weight on the criterion of influence. Thus, we get Debussy, but not Poulenc; Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, but not Dallapiccola; Stravinsky, but not Prokofieff, and so on. Composers like Bartók and Hindemith appear in the more liberal volumes, but it's the rare musicologist who discusses great figures with few or no disciples, and you can forget about Americans, other than perhaps Ives and Carter. I wouldn't foolishly say that the professional fraternity disregards aesthetic worth, because Webern has nothing to apologize for. However, these omissions tend to reinforce the notion that those missing in action deserve their obscurity.

With Martinů, this comes out in the bromide that because he wrote so much (at least 400 works) and left so few sketches, his output was seriously uneven. Some accuse him of having no composing conscience at all. Yet very few feel it worth their time to even list Martinů's supposed misses, and when they do, the lists seldom agree. I suspect that these writers haven't listened with sufficient attention to a lot of Martinů. I haven't heard even half of the composer's output, and I know more of it than most. I've no idea what criteria his detractors use that aren't disguised a priori fallacies. Bach wrote a fair amount, too. He left very few sketches, although we know he revised. Does anyone seriously believe, despite the presence of lighter work, that Bach was generally slapdash? It takes a real idiot to believe that something like the Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother invalidates the Magnificat – exactly what such an attitude implies. In other words, you don't judge artists by their weakest, because there's no point. You judge them by their best.

Rybka focuses not on the music – he takes for granted its high quality and Martinů as a major composer – but on the life. He specifically wants to view Martinů as one who suffered from Asperger's Syndrome, an autistic disorder rooted in brain abnormality. Normally, I don't sympathize with remote diagnoses of subjects, especially since Martinů died more than half a century ago. Rybka, a retired physician, agrees and provides plenty of warnings. One can point to a Notorious history of doctors diagnosing long-dead artists and writers according to their specialty – as if the pathology explained the art – like the eye doctor who claimed various visual problems in the glorious dead and gone (sometimes a few hundred years) and actually specified corrective lenses to cure El Greco's "astigmatism." As the saying goes, "to a hammer, every problem looks like a nail." However, Rybka is not a brain specialist, has consulted with neurologists who reinforced the caveats, and makes no claims that Asperger's made a great composer of Martinů, although the single-minded attention it can provide might have helped him to produce such a large output. Rybka also points out that, as far as he knows, Martinů is the sole example of a great composer who possibly suffered from the syndrome.

Before we begin, I should say that Rybka cites some things I've written on Martinů – not all that earth-shaking, if I say so myself and certainly not central to the book's thesis. I mention this only to disclose my connection. I don't believe it has affected my judgment of the book.

Rybka does have an advantage over El Greco's optometrist in that he actually knew Martinů – a child when he first met the composer. Rybka's father, Frank, a Czech musician and student of Janáček who emigrated to America, became one of Martinů's closest friends and "protectors" during the composer's residence in the United States. Even to those of us who know only what we read, Martinů behaved a bit oddly. Since Asperger's was first described in the Forties and not adopted by the medical community until decades later, people tended to fit the composer into the standard category of "absent-minded professor." Terse, almost affectless in conversation, he seldom took part in social interactions, unless with people he knew extremely well. This psychological inability often cost him. Almost everything outside music was beyond him. On his solitary evening walks, he frequently got lost and had to call someone to fetch him. In the face of any difficulty, he catastrophized and then folded, waiting for fate to roll over him. Had it not been for friends, he and his wife would not have been able to leave France during World War II simply because he couldn't think of getting a railway ticket out of Paris. Had he stayed in Occupied France, he probably wouldn't have survived. Hours after the Martinůs left, the police showed up at their flat. Definitely agoraphobic, he was subject to panic attacks, especially during thunderstorms and when minor things blocked him. Having to take a bow in front of an audience caused him weeks of anticipatory agony, and he went to ridiculous and ineffectual lengths to avoid it. His failure to reach the stage (ironically, through no fault of his own) made an enemy of conductor Eugene Ormandy, who kept gesturing to the wings.

Rybka and his siblings noticed the composer's odd duckiness when he first came to stay with them as he recuperated from a fall from a second-story balcony (a story in itself). They originally put it down to his general physical weakness, then to eccentricity. Despite the composer's social awkwardness (short of complete shutdown), he had the ability to make strong friends, if not a lot of them, willing to do the high maintenance he required. Women wanted to mother him. While Martinů didn't show a lot of interest in the Rybka children, he began to open up to them in their adolescence, a kindly "uncle" to them. Rybka went on to med school, and as the years after Martinů's death passed, he began to wonder about the composer's mystifying personality.

The strength of Rybka's book lies not in his thesis, but in his memories of the composer, the fact that he knew Martinů over many years, although the contact was sporadic. Nevertheless, few things can take the place of direct observation. This colors and deepens the standard facts of the composer's biography: born in a church tower, flunked out of the Prague Conservatory twice, and so forth. The book does betray its origins in outlines and note cards. Section follows section, not in any obvious order other than loose chronology. You do run across occasional repetitions, the result of insufficiently close editing. I can't say that Rybka has definitely proven his diagnosis of Asperger's (as opposed to run-of-the-mill shyness, cluelessness, social discomfort, and self-absorption), but he has established a certain degree of probability. I doubt whether anybody, given our present state of knowledge, will conclude one way or the other with 95% certainty. Nevertheless, all these little carps don't matter. Over all, I believe this an extremely valuable contribution to a rounded picture of this wonderful composer.

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Schwartz.