General information
Title CZMíjející půlnoc [auth.]
Subtitle CZcyklus symfonických básní pro velký orchestr
Title ENVanishing Midnight
Subtitle ENcycle of symphonic poems for large orchestra
Title DESchwindende Mitternacht
Subtitle DEDreisätziger Orchcesterzyklus für grosses Orchester
CategoryOrchestral Music
SubcategoryWorks for Large Orchestra
Halbreich number131
Parts of the composition (movements)1. Satyrs in the Cypress Grove (Lento-Moderato-Allegro-Tempo di valse-Andante); 2. The Blue Hour (Andante-Moderato-Allegro); 3. Shadows (Moderato-Allegro-Allegro moderato-Allegro vivo-Allegro-Moderato)
Place of compositionPrague
Year of origin1922
Initiation of composition1922
Completion of composition1922
First performance
Performer Talich, Václav
Date of the first performance18.02.1923
Location of the first performancePraha
Note on the first performanceTalich Václav (cond.)
Ensemble Česká filharmonie
Česká filharmonie
Autograph deposition
InstitutionCzech Museum of Music
OwnerČeské muzeum hudby
Note on the autograph depostitionTitle page located at the Bohuslav Martinů Centre in Polička. *** Sketches held by the Moravian Museum in Brno.
CopyrightSchott Music Panton, Prague
Purchase linkbuy
References Related writings
Documents in the Library
Note Only the second part, “The Blue Hour”, was performed at the premiere.
About the composition

The chronological gap between Vanishing Midnight, H 131, and one-act ballet Who is the Most Powerful in the World, H 133, two astonishing compositions by Bohuslav Martinů from 1922, is small – in Halbreich’s cata logue of Martinů’s works, only a tiny piano piece separates them – but the stylistic gulf between them seems almost unbridgeable. Like the two heads of the god Janus, these works face in opposite directions; one reviewing and summarising Martinů’s career to date, the other anticipating the radically different music he would produce after moving to Paris in October 1923. Martinů was a regular member of the second violin section of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra at the time he wrote these works; he had also enrolled in Josef Suk’s composition class at the Prague Conservatory. It was proving difficult for him to establish himself as a composer, despite the acclaimed performances of his patriotic cantata Czech Rhapsody early in 1919. Little but disappointment had followed; towards the end of that same year, Otakar Ostrčil, head of Prague’s National Theatre, rejected Martinů’s earlier ballets Night and The Shadow for performance. Worse was to come when the captivating Little Dance Suite, due to be premiered by the Czech Philharmonic later in the season, was withdrawn at the rehearsal stage by the orchestra’s chief conductor Václav Talich.

Martinů referred to this episode on several occasions in his later correspondence with Talich, from which it appears that the conductor’s chief objection to the suite had been its light, undemanding character. Although the two men went on to form a strong artistic partnership (culminating in the sensational Prague premiere of Martinů’s opera Juliette in 1938), they hardly got off to the best of starts. Talich did not conduct a work by Martinů in public until February 1923, three years after the débacle of the Little Dance Suite, but even this occasion turned out to be something of a wasted opportunity and hardly the success that either man might have wished. Vanishing Midnight became the victim of an unusual set of circumstances. Around this time, Talich and the orchestra were promoting the orchestral works of their countrymen in a rather selective manner. The 1921–22 season had been devoted to Czech symphonies; the following season would feature Czech symphonic poems, with the added requirement that they should comprise one movement only. Vanishing Midnight is a triptych and therefore did not meet this requirement. A compromise was reached by performing only the central movement, entitled The Blue Hour. It is a wonderful piece, but by itself could give no idea of how multi-faceted a work Vanishing Midnight is. The concert programme made clear that The Blue Hour is part of a triptych, giving considerable detail about the rest of the cycle; but this information was of no help to reviewers, who had to judge The Blue Hour as a stand-alone work. They had no opportunity to assess its effectiveness in the originally-planned context, and dismissed it as a rather passé dalliance with Impressionism. A performance of the whole cycle would perhaps have evoked a more positive response. Regrettably, there was no recovering from this unpromising start and Vanishing Midnight, as a whole, remained unperformed until 2018, when Ian Hobson conducted Sinfonia Varsovia on a CD issued by Toccata Classics – a recording which at last proved what a powerful and dramatic statement it is.

The three imposing movements of Vanishing Midnight together last well over 40 minutes and give musical expression to a text written by Martinů himself. The first, entitled Satyrs in the Grove of Cypresses, illustrates the following: “I am alone at home: the scent of blossoms rises from the garden through the open windows. The day is ending […] Once, as another day was vanishing, fauns, nymphs and other fairy-tale beings were conjured up in my imagination. Through the window […] I caught the distant sound of their celebrations…”

Satyrs begins in an atmosphere full of mystery. The trilling strings, harp glissandi and distant horn calls are standard Impressionist fare, but the static seventh chord on D flat is soured by polytonal violin figurations which drift upward and dissolve into trills like “the scent of blossoms rising from the garden”. The bulk of Satyrs is devoted to the elaboration of a slow waltz theme introduced on the flute, whose progress is constantly hampered by a relapse into the stasis of the opening bars. The movement’s shape and its powerful sense of growth both stem from the rivalry between these two elements; the waltz episodes become lengthier, more buoyant and, from the mid-point onwards, more hedonistic as they portray the ‘distant sound of celebrations’ mentioned in the text. Yet somehow the impressive accumulation of energy is never enough to carry the day – the opening material, at first so inert and apparently indolent, has menace lurking in its depths. Each re-appearance finds it monstrously transformed, on one occasion by massive swells from the percussion. Towards the end of the movement, it emerges without warning, like a wave of enormous amplitude which breaks over the top of the waltz theme and washes it away, restoring the calm of the opening by degrees and returning to the dark warmth of D flat major.

The programme note contains the following hints to the meaning of The Blue Hour: “The mild blue evening looks at me through the window and brings me the sounds of life. There below, far off, is the town, which is alive and the pulse of its life reaches me […].”

The slower first section of The Blue Hour features the most voluptuous textures in the cycle, with the strings often divided into as many as 12 parts. As in Satyrs, the placid opening gives way to more animated music – this time as the “pulse of life” from the town becomes more and more apparent. Ostinato rhythms reminiscent of Fêtes, the central movement of Debussy’s Nocturnes, drive the music onwards. The orchestration becomes ever more dazzling as several themes from the first section re-appear in inflated, swaggeringly confident versions of their formerly diffident selves; but just as the melodic momentum reaches its zenith an idea which had been presented innocuously by the violas at the start of the movement emerges fortississimo with powerful repeated strokes on the bass drum. The music loses its brazen self-assurance in an instant, retreating, as the first movement had done, to the key and melodic gestures of its opening.

The stage is set for the amazing finale, Shadows: “A chilly autumn wind has disturbed the dead calm of my room. […] Midnight passes. It fades away as inaudibly as a breath: […] I feel too alone against the vast sky, which peeps into my room by the light of the stars, too weak against the ‘Unknown’ which lurks in motionless expectation. Yet I defend myself. I cannot surrender. […] Midnight has passed and a new day is dawning.” There is no other movement anywhere in Martinů’s output quite like Shadows. Bass clarinet, contrabassoon and an extra set of timpani are added to the orchestra and all are to feature prominently in the following fifteen minutes of mayhem. The “chilly autumn wind” is suggested by music which aptly, though faintly, recalls Debussy’s Dialogue du vent et de la mer – but this wind stirs up all manner of disturbing thoughts and fears – products of the imagination which never assume a definitive form. A grand paragraph in triple time temporarily calms the nerves, but is swept aside by an extraordinary passage which is little short of terrifying. Sinuous chromatic ascents pass between the strings and brass, while the horns and woodwind wail like banshees – the counterpoint is thorny, deliberately ugly and beneath it all, the contrabasson and both sets of timpani insist on an unrelated quintuplet ostinato which threatens to derail the whole thing. The passage concludes with a return of the idea that had halted the progress of The Blue Hour – four-part timpani rolls adding extra weight to its presence this time.

The interior of the movement is characterized by a ticking ostinato in pizzicato violins and harp, evoking those anxious moments where no danger is perceptible but one expects a threat to emerge from the shadows at any moment. The bass clarinet takes centre stage here in a series of solos. Although the material at first seems somewhat amorphous, it is soon developed by the rest of the orchestra into a wild ride through the darkest recesses of the mind. Towards the end the calmer, more confident music returns and for a moment it seems that the promise of the concluding words of the programme will be fulfilled: Midnight has passed and a new day is dawning. But this brighter mood is again swept aside and the work ends with the final, most malevolent manifestation of the theme first heard in The Blue Hour: the conclusion is brutally pessimistic. Those final words of the programme, however, proved to be prophetic in terms of Martinů’s development. Vanishing Midnight saw the passing of the old Martinů, rounding out the earliest phase of his development; but a new day – a completely new style – was to dawn in his very next major work, ballet Who is the Most Powerful in the World.

Mike Crump, Martinů Revue XXII, No. 2+3 (May–December 2022), pp. 16–18.

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