General information
Title CZHry o Marii
Subtitle CZ
Title ENThe Plays of Mary
Subtitle EN
Title DEDie Marienspiele
Subtitle DE
Title FRLes Jeux De Marie
Subtitle FR
CategoryStage Works and Film Music
Halbreich number and suffix236
Parts of composition (movements)1) The Wise and Foolish Virgins. Prologue. Drama in 1 act. 2) Mariken of Nimègue. Pageant in 1 act. 3) The Nativity. Pastorale in 1 act. 4) Sister Pascaline. Legend in 1 act
Durata131' (20'+43'+21'+47')
Solo voice
List of characters1) Archangel Gabriel (A), wise virgins (5 dancers), foolish virgins (4 dancers, mS), merchandisers with oils (Bar, B), Bridegroom (T, mS, A, B), mixed chorus. *** 2) Mariken (S, dancing role), Devil (Bar, dancing role), ringmaster (Sp), God (B), Mother of God (A), Maškaron (T), drunkard (B), girl (S), male and female chorus, dancers. *** 3) Maria (S), smith (bBar), smith's daughter (mS), publican (Bar), female, male and children's chorus. *** 4) Sister Pascaline (S/mS), Sister Marta (S/mS), God's Mother (mute role), solo vocal quartet, mixed chorus, dancers. Instruments behind the scene: Arm, Timp, string quintet
Diplomatic transcription of dedication
Note on dedication
Place of composition
Year of origin1934
Initiation of composition05/1933
Finishing of composition26.06.1934
Last modification of composition
First performance
Performer Antonín Balatka (dir./cond.), Rudolf Walter (režie/direction), František Muzika (scéna/stage design), Marie Hloušková (Gabriel), Božena Žlábková (Mariken), Věra Střelcová (Sestra Paskalina)
Balatka, Antonín
Hloušková, Marie
Muzika, František
Střelcová, Věra
Walter, Rudolf
Žlábková, Božena
Date of first performance23.02.1935
Location of first performanceBrno, National Theatre (Národní divadlo)
Autograph deposition
InstitutionNational Theatre, Prague
Deposition location
OwnerNational Theatre in Prague
Note on manuscriptSee also H 236/2 I.
Manuscript deposition 2
InstitutionBohuslav Martinů Centre in Polička
OwnerBohuslav Martinů Centre in Polička
Note on manuscriptAutograph score of 3) The Nativity. Autograph piano reduction of the whole cycle also held by the Bohuslav Martinů Centre in Polička. ***Second autograph piano reduction of 2) Mariken of Nimègue (fragment) and fragmentary draft of 1) The Wise and Foolish Virgins are held by the Czech Museum of Music in Prague.
Place of issue
PublisherTheatrical and Literary Agency
Year of publication1965
CopyrightDilia, Prague
Note1) Completed on 22.04.1934. Czech lyrics by Vítězslav Nezval after the French original from the 12th century. *** 2) Two versions: 1st version (H. 236/2 I) was composed between May 1933 - 28.07.1933. 2nd version ( (H. 236/2 II), which is included in the cycle The Miracles of Mary, was completed on 21.03.1934. French lyrics by Henri Ghéon (see French libretto of H. 236/2 I) after a Flemish legend from the 15th century, Czech translation: Vilém Závada (H. 236/2 II). *** 3) Completed on 01.04.1934 (according to Charlotte Martinů's diary on 05.05.1934; last page of the autograph held by National Theatre in Prague: "Velikonoce [Easter] 1934"). Lyrics: Moravian folk poetry. *** 4) Completed on 26.06.1934. Lyrics by Bohuslav Martinů after Julius Zeyer and folk poetry. *** German transaltion of the libretto: Kurt Honolka. *** Date of the world premiere in Brno according to Charlotte Martinů's diary: 28.02.1935.

The Miracles of Our Lady (Miracles of Mary/Plays of Mary)

In October 1935, Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959) was awarded a State Prize for his opera The Miracle of Our Lady (Hry o Marii). At the time it was the most significant distinction won by the 45 year old composer who 12 years earlier - in October 1923 - had left for Paris to study with Albert Roussel on a small stipend and with big ideals in order to improve his composition technique and to find his own artistic means of expression. He succeeded in doing both, thanks to his exceptional talent and exceptional capacity for hard work, making a mockery of the remark in the catalogue of the State Conservatory in Prague, on June 4, 1910, that he was “dismissed for incorrigible negligence”, the kind of joke that history sometimes plays on us for its entertainment.

The Miracle of Our Lady was part of the Czech orientation of our composer, as can be followed programmatically from the 1930s (Czech Sayings 1930, The Legend About St. Dorothy 1931, Czech Sayings II 1931, Bouquet of Flowers 1932, Špalíček 1931-32, the beginning of work on The Miracle of Our Lady 1933-34, etc.). Thus his sojourn abroad, in a foreign milieu, produced unexpected results: a turn back to his homeland, to folk material and to simplified musical expression. This turn was conscious, and Martinů clearly formulated it for himself. Writing in the third person in a short autobiographical sketch in 1941, he said, "During his stay in Paris, Martinů realized far more vividly his Czech origin in differences in composition techniques from other music that surrounded him. After the epoch of Half-Time, the dynamism and partially also the influence of jazz had passed, Martinů returned to national Czech expression, directly to folklore, and thus prepared for stage work from far away. He abandoned the apparently universal view that he should draw closer to Czech folk feeling, and wrote with an awareness that he was working exclusively for the Czech theatre." It is useful to point out here that Martinů’s earlier operatic works of the 1920s have a decidedly cosmopolitan character - notably the series of operas set to Frech librettos in co-operation with the librettist Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes. All the more weighty was this embarkation on a new orientation. “Suddenly music appeared strikingly deviated from his chamber and symphonic works, which did not use techniques acquired until then, but created a new, simple and unaffected, so-to-say national song, without any beautifying by the orchestra, without any complications of modern music, using ordinary means, music that drew di­rectly upon Czech classical production.” Even this conclusion is instructive: Martinů expressed it in several articles in which he proclaimed his attachment to the founders of Czech romantic mu­sic - Smetana and Dvořák. He announced his adherence to them in his works of the 1930s and 1940s, marking a return to the traditions in characteristic historical co-ordinates, typical for the Europe of the day and the era between the two world wars.

"Martinů has a precisely delineated intention of creating through his theatre plays his own au­dience and preparing it for a gradual ascent to modern Czech opera. He laid out his plan to cover a number of years and to gradually create a group of young co-workers (director, painter, conductor, ballet master), who without him being present would produce the work as he intended it to be. Despite the distance between Prague and Paris, he succeeded in doing this through tire­less correspondence, explanations and precise remarks in the score down to every detail." And what Martinů says here is not exaggerated in the slightest - his sphere of activities is eloquently illu­strated in the material brought together by Miloš Šafránek in the book The Theatre of Bohuslav Martinů (Prague, Supraphon 1979); there are sev­eral dozen pages on The Miracle of Our Lady alone about the composer's exegesis.

“Martinů's plan is to fill in the gaps that occurred in Czech opera because of particular circumstan­ces - whether political or cultural. Czech opera was confined to scenes from life in the village or more or less fairy tale subjects. Martinů wants to supplement this, so that the Czech theatre under­goes the experience of theatre in general, in the course of history, and uses folk texts, customs, dances and legends and also village-fair stories and children's games in the popular ballet Špalíček, with chorus and orchestra. The ballet is de­signed in the form of a revue, the scenes change quickly, and national tales, serving as the basis for the story, are a mixture of various folk plays and cus­toms set to the text of folk poetry. In between, Martinů had prepared his principles of opera which differ exceedingly from the routine and from Wagnerian principles and presents his opera-ballet The Miracle of Our Lady, consisting of three different plays using medieval mysteries and miracles as their basis.” In the composer's view, his development logically channels, so to say, in one new level after another. This is confir­med also in his lecture on the opera Juliette, the synopsis of which was rewritten and issued in a meritorious bibliophile edition by František Popelka, in Polička in 1963. There we read: "Špalíček, The Miracle of Our Lady, The Suburban Theatre--are something like three stages. Špalíček--a ballet, national texts, customs, in other words a kind of folk, private theatre, the vestiges either of the theatre or of church singing, etc. The Miracle of Our Lady--a mystery, a mediaeval play, already a folk theatre. The Suburban Theatre, commedia dell'arte, that is a real theatre a kind of gap in our country. Juliette--a modern comedy--the dream of the theatre. What links them? Let us note the components; worthwhile texts = the literary part, often forgotten, the function of the pure word, i. e. the beauty of speech (national song, plays) - new formation of scenic construc­tion, the formal aspect. Myth - fairy tale - play mystery - dream = a fictive atmosphere. My view on the theatre at this point becomes more precise and clear. The play is 'not for real', but on a diffe­rent plane. Not the arousal of illusion, but of depic­tion, imagination, the fantasy of the viewer. Not lulling (by making the viewer nervous), but by cooperation. In Špalíček, where games are mixed altogether. In Mariken, the story is often jumped over abbreviated, expressed only by description. It is up to the viewer to supplement everything. In The Nativity, where the story in fact begins anew three times, I ask of listeners that they put everything in order. In Paskalina by combining various scenes and texts, often strange and which do not completely fit into the play, I want the viewer to orient himself and to straighten out the components - through imagination. In the course of the story and during the first hearing there is of course a certain disorientation, but during the play the viewer is com­pelled somehow to return and to supplement, to arrange the components - to cooperate. It is not my intention, therefore in any way to 'con­vince' or to prove a different thesis, but to re­vive, to give the listeners' imagination a live picture and by means that I choose, i. e. musical and theatrical.”

Here, Martinů presented eloquent evidence of his qualification as a musical dramatist. His ap­proach to opera is clearly thought through and convincing in its originality; naturally, it was valid only, or at least mainly, for himself. The result, ho­wever, was a turn from dramatism, which in his case was often identified with Wagnerianism. In the article "Tristan's Creator", he wrote about this in detail: "...we were brought up on Wagner through whom we first began to see. But then it was necessary to go further despite this powerful influence and despite all the extreme passion of romanticism. And we went further, and it can be said that we are very far removed, almost at the opposite end. Few, almost no outbursts of pas­sion, no extremes of emotion, the creative pro­cess is much more restrained, ordinary, without fanfare and drums, personal life closed in and not at the mercy of all possible winds, objective work and resistance to almost all ideas so pre­cious to romanticism." When this is thought through to the end, this turn about marked Martinů's musical expression in general, and he also characterized it in this way: "From his first compositions, Martinů sought and placed special emphasis on clarity and purity of theme, melody, on precise expression based on absolutely musical elements. He does not seek effects, but a direct effect, he does not seek unleashing, but rather constraint, discipline, he chooses means that are quite simple, often even primitive. He does not regard the individual com­ponents as being most important (harmony, po­lyphony, rhythm, color), but always subordi­nates them to organic development of the whole and the overall effect; this explains his feeling for a clear structure of form and for the decided and organic character of the individual compositions and the individual movements. The melody is often hard, precisely structured and the composi­tions - as contrasted with the flooding of roman­tic music - might seem to be somber and unsentimental; they evidently distance themsel­ves from all exaggerated emotional outbursts, from ail that has exaggerated pathos..."

It is in the whole breadth of this artistic pro­gram that one finds The Miracle of Our Lady. This effort to consciously create an illusive musi­cal theatre moves it closer to the cantata genre; the accusation of its being static is not in place because the external dramatic storms are supplanted by an internal dynamism (having achie­ved such remarkable success in his earlier Legend about St. Dorothy, which became the de­cisive part of Špalíček). In the Miracle of Our Lady, the first to be born was Mariken of Nimegue, a mi­racle play (i. e. a mediaeval play based on a story taken from the lives of saints) as told by Henri Gheon. This French author was famous for these modern recreations of Christian themes, which at­tracted Martinů by their archaic theatricality. The score of Mariken of Nimegue, based on the French libretto, was completed in Honfleur near the sea on July 18, 1933, and graces Paul Sacher's library. It has not yet achieved its aim on stage because its Czech translation was the work of the then young poet Vilém Závada who said: "It was one of my first translations and I didn't have much experience." Recalling his meeting with Martinů and the latter's music he went on: "I pla­ced more stress on expressing absolutely every­thing I felt about the text of the libretto. Martinů evidently received something from me which he had not imagined, nonetheless he was satisfied with my work and on the basis of my adaptation he altered the music again." Martinů found time to work on this in February and through March 1934; Vilém Závada’s text inspired him to write a new version of the work, and so Ma­riken of Nimegue was born, one of four parts of the opera The Miracle of Our Lady. Nimegue is the French name of the Flemish town on the bor­der of the FRG and the Netherlands, south of Arnhem (Nijmegen). Etymologists say it comes from the Latin-Celtic Noviomagus; in Celtic, "magus" means field or lea. The re­sult is basically the same as the meaning of the local name Polička (a town founded on a green lea, where there was no settlement; "police" ori­ginally meant level or flat).

After Mariken came The Nativity (Paris, finished on April 1, 1934), The Wise and the Foolish Virgins(completed in Paris on April 22, 1934), and finally Sister Paskalina (finished in Paris on June 26, 1934).

The four-part opera is remarkably harmonized stylistically and even has a well thought out inner structure: The Wise and the Foolish Virgins and The Nativity are conceived more as a majestic, static opening picture to the "big" operas that fol­low - Mariken and Sister Paskalina. The most dra­matic part is naturally at the end and in it also the evening obviously reaches its climax with most powerful effect.

If work on Mariken succeeded thanks to the ini­tiatory cooperation of Vilém Závada, then at the top of The Wise and the Foolish Virgins we read as the literary collaborator a no less famous name: Vítězslav Nezval. Martinů persuaded him to collaborate on The Miracle in Paris, where Ne­zval had come in April 1933, together with Jindřich Honzl. In contrast to the text to Mariken, Nezval had to cope with even older material. Sponsus (The Spouse) dates from the mid-12th century, a medieval liturgical play that was shown in the region between Limoges and Angouleme, but also produced with variations elsewhere in Europe. In essence it is simply a va­riant of one of the scenes from the Gospels. It caught the attention of a composer of Martinů's type, a man of all-around education, thoroughly versed in cultural history, and always feeling him­self to be a firm part of the developmental chain of his nation). That is why the religiosity of his Miracle of Our Lady stands aside on the first level - on the contrary, the composer expressed fears as to whether his approach would not give offense and bring on the censor's wrath. He wrote to his friend and loyal collaborator, the scenic designer of his operas František Muzika: "As far as belief goes, I think it does not play a big role in this, I myself am not pursuing any religious aims, and I chose these subjects more because they are well suited to my music, i. e. to do them on a folk note, and then, also, they permit me, as fairy tales in fact, quite logically to throw away all the rub­bish of contemporary opera, which perhaps might not be possible with contemporary subjects... And anyway, it is a return to the old theatre, and that is the theatre I was looking for." He expressed this analogically in an interview he gave to Karel Šebánek (“It has been worked on not in a religious sense, but in a folk, a popular way”).

In fact the folk element played the decisive role in this opera - notably in The Nativity, in which one can follow the path from the Biblical subject through apocryphal elaboration up to its dramati­cally effective folklore form - an enchanting pasto­ral, whose roots lead to the folk feeling of Czechs of the last century. Each of the four parts has its own image: the Gothic atmosphere that marks the Virgins (in the orchestra, the violins with their luminous voice do not play); the country fair ele­ments can be felt in Mariken; folk poetry sounds in The Nativity; modern uneven dynamics and comprehension in the present spirit can be heard in Paskalina; and in each of them it is worthwhile studying closely the role of the folk element, or the folk songs of the text (especially in the interpola­tions in Paskalina - such as "The bells call all to sacred mass," and "A little cypress tree stands in front of Paradise"). The dislike that Martinů had for operatic routine is indicated in the ends: Mari­ken, Paskalina, and thus of the whole opera The Miracle of Our Lady; they shift to pianissimo (Ju­liette, Ariadne, The Greek Passion also have de­clining dynamics). It would be one-sided to emphasize only the secular elements of The Mi­racle of Our Lady: its charm rests in the very pres­ence of opposites, in reflexivity which under the guise of traditional motifs of Christian imagination released the forces of catharsis. "Dona nobis pacem", "Give Us Peace", at the end of the opera, com­pleted a year after the rise to power of the dark forces that were to unleash the Second World War, resound even today with a voice that is highly topical.

Jaroslav Mihule

Sleeve-note taken from Hry o Marii/The Miracles of Our Lady, © Supraphon 1993, 11 1802-2 632



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