General information
Title CZSlzy nože
Subtitle CZopera o 1 dějství
Title ENTears of the Knife
Subtitle ENopera in one act
Title DEMessertränen
Subtitle DEOper in einem Aufzug
Title FRLarmes de couteau [auth.]
Subtitle FRopera en 1 act [auth.]
CategoryStage Works and Film Music
Halbreich number and suffix169
Parts of composition (movements)
Instruments0111-Sass alto-0220-Banjo tenore-Tam-tam-Pf-2 Vl-1 Vc (soli). Fisarm (za scénou/behind the stage)
Solo voice
List of charactersmother (A), Eleonore (S), Satan (T)
Diplomatic transcription of dedication
Note on dedication
Place of composition
Year of origin1928
Initiation of composition15.03.1928
Finishing of composition24.03.1928
Last modification of composition
First performance
Performer Václav Nosek (dir./cond.), Luboš Ogoun (režie/direction.), V. Štolfa (scéna/scenography), Libuše Lesmanová (matka/mother), Jaroslava Jánská (Eleonora), René Tuček (Satan)
Jánská, Jaroslava
Lesmanová-Nosková, Libuše
Nosek, Václav
Ogoun, Luboš
Štolfa, Vojtěch
Tuček, René
Date of first performance22.10.1969
Location of first performanceBrno, National Theatre (Národní divadlo)
Autograph deposition
InstitutionBohuslav Martinů Centre in Polička
Deposition location
OwnerBohuslav Martinů Centre in Polička
Note on autographAutograph score and autograph piano reduction.
Place of issue
PublisherTheatrical and Literary Agency
Year of publication1982
CopyrightSchott Music Panton (CZ, SK: Dilia, Prague)
Purchase linkbuy
NoteFrench libretto: Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes; German translation: Iris Wenderholm; Czech translation: Eva Bezděková. *** Subtitle "Opera en 1 act" written only in the autograph piano reduction (not in the autograph score). *** Piano reduction completed on 27.03.1928.

In his texts from the 1920s, Martinů insisted that one of the most important aspects of a composer's creative development was his readiness to experiment. To him, experimentation repre­sented a seminal evolutionary phase and an essential prerequisite of subsequent stages, whose sequence was eventually to climax in a final synthesis of the sum of knowledge accumulated through the experimentation. The characteristics of his own compositions from that time include sonic density, "riddled" instrumentation, frequent use of steep dissonances, a penchant for com­plex rhythmic patterns, a free approach to tonality contrasted with abundant employment of simple diatonic melodies, and a strong influence by the period's jazz music scene. A typical product of that period is the one-act opera The Knife's Tears.

Here is a work that mirrors the atmosphere of Paris, one of the world's major centers of entertainment during the "roaring twenties". Martinů, who then lived at rue Delambre, right in the middle of Montparnasse, channeled an outpour of unbridled energy into his score in terms of both instrumentation and harmony. After all, a similar degree of experimental liberty guided the pen of Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, the author of the stage play Larmes de couteau (1926), which served as the basis for Martinů's libretto. The fact that after only four years in Paris, Martinů succeeded in obtaining the collaboration of one of the foremost protago­nists of the Dadaist movement and the publisher of the legendary Surrealist review, Bifur, is alone quite remarkable. Ribemont-Dessaignes, himself originally a musician, formulated his high opinion of Martinů while commenting on their common work on another opera, The Three Wishes, H 175; according to him, "Martinů was full of ideas concerning the libretto, and I must admit that, unlike most musicians, who tend to be rather rigid as regards dramatic action and freedom of the spirit, Martinů supplied me with the most inspiring ideas for our play The Three Wishes, or Life's Fickleness[...]. If there was anyone who could have made me sign a contract on alliance with musicians, it was indeed he. The power of music is such that one has to pause and think before deciding to risk one's little finger for its sake. Personally, I believe Martinů to be one of the greatest musicians of our time. He is an artist who works wonders with new worlds, compelling them to enter into your mind through your eyes."

The Knife's Tears ridicules romantic "sentimental aesthetics" and "psychologizing": its young heroine, Eleonora, falls in love with a hanged man ("I have always dreamed of a hanged man"), and is frustrated by his indifference to her feelings. Only the fact of her suicide convinces her beloved of the true depth of her love, an awareness that brings him back to life. The archetypal French Dadaist opera though this may be (there is nothing "Czech" in it whatsoever), it does present more than just evidence of Martinů's temporary enchantment by the Dada movement. The Knife's Tears contains a number of elements which may be seen, with the benefit of hindsight, as constant traits of Bohuslav Martinů's operatic output as a whole. These include, above all, the employment of the device of split personality, the Brechtian dichotomy between the "said" and the "performed," the purposeful avoidance of psychologism, the alteration of sung and spoken text, the use of the accordion, and the variety of musical genres put into play, which was invariably dependent on the developments on stage.

The opera's planned premiere at the 1928 contemporary music festival at Baden-Baden did not materialize due to reservations about the text, which shocked even avant-garde oriented members of the jury (Burkhard, Haas, and Hindemith). The latter, nonetheless, had nothing against the music, and commissioned an orchestral score from Martinu instead, unrela­ted to the music of The Knife's Tears. Martinů complied promptly, providing for the festival a suite entitled Le Jazz, H 168, whose two middle parts were performed at Baden-Baden in 1928.

The opera was then turned down by the Vienna publishers, Universal-Edition, likewise owing to unfavourable opinion concerning the text. The Knife's Tears was premiered only in 1969 at Brno, setting off a series of productions of Martinů's "French" operas, none of which were staged in the composer's lifetime.

Aleš Březina, Martinů: Les Larmes du couteau, The Voice of the Forest, © 1999 Supraphon Music a.s


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