Tuesday 7 June 2016

Martinů in Polička

Few childhood homes can have had so chimerical an effect on a composer's music as the small room above the bells in a church tower where Bohuslav Martinů spent the first 12 years of his life alongside four other human beings (briefly six, for two younger siblings died in infancy). I've been wanting to visit his home town of Polička for at least a decade; when our friend Ladislav was at the Czech Cultural Centre, there was a plan, thwarted by the scaffolding around the tower of sv Jakub and the long-term closure of the museum. Even now, on the English version of Polička's Bohuslav Martinů Centre website, it says that the room can be seen, but devoid of furniture.

Happily that turned out not to be the case. We arrived on a Monday afternoon, halfway through a blissful experience of the Prague Spring Festival including the previous night's excellent production of Juliette, which I've written all about on The Arts Desk. I'd planned an elaborate train journey, but thanks to the immense generosity of our hostess's father, we were driven from Prague and had the wonderful pleasure of stopping off for a couple of hours in lovely Litomyšl on the way.

Only 20km from Polička, this town with one of the most beautiful squares in Czechia, sausage shaped with shops under the arcades, is where Smetana was born to a similarly impoverished family - what were the chances of two geniuses springing up within such a short distance of each other in a rural area? Rather similar to the cases of  Janáček and Freud, born five kilometres apart in central Moravia - revelations there were briefly remembered in a very early blog entry. Must cover it in another blog entry, but in the meantime here's the statue of Smetana overlooking the square.

We stayed the night in Polička and rose early enough the next morning to catch the Centre's opening. The blingy Polička pension-hotel in which we were the only guests - thoroughly recommended if you don't mind the gaudiness, and I found it rather amusing - was within earshot of St Jakub's bells, and eyeshot too if you leaned out of the window and looked to the right.

The neo-Gothic church isn't that old - a fire devastated Polička in 1845, leaving only two per cent of the stone buildings standing, and what remained of old sv Jakub had to be torn down. There's a crude 19th century painting in the Centre/Civic Museum which gives an idea of what the town looked like before the fire.

The new church was completed in 1865; Martinů was born in the tower 25 years later. There's a plaque at the bottom

before you ascend 192 diverse steps - stone, wooden - past the big bell

and the four smaller ones above it

to the room where the Martinůs lived, now nicely framed by an iron gateway with a quotation from the cantata about a homecoming, The Opening of the Wells, with its words 'I am home' ('jsem doma'). My thanks to Jan Kucera for clarification on this.

Bohuslav's father, a humble cobbler, had taken on the post of tower keeper, clockwinder, bellringer and watchman only a year before the future composer's birth. Amazingly, many of his accoutrements have survived. I don't know whether the cobbler's tools are original

but the lantern which shone red and was hung outside, and the megaphone through which Ferdinand would warn residents of fire, certainly are.

These and other items of furniture were donated by the Martinů family in 1947 when the room became a museum. It was recently restored with financial support from the Bohuslav Martinů Foundation. There's young Bohuslav's rocking horse

and even the pattern on the new wallpaper was made from the original paper stencils.

The room served as dining room, sitting room and bedroom for five. The tiny kitchen is just outside; drinking water had to be gathered from a fountain at the corner of the 'Rose' house just below the tower; other water supplies could be caught from rainfall. The toilet use to be in the room behind the clock while other supplies, wardrobes and chests were stored lower down the stairs. Bohuslav was a sickly child and frequently had to be carried up the stairs on his father's shoulders.

How much influence could all this have had on Martinů's extraordinary music? Up there, I could understand how the light and flight aspects might have been affected. The tick-tocking of the church clock surely worked its way into passages like those in the scherzo of the Third Symphony. No other composer had a more extraordinary upbringing - and how remarkable that he and his two surviving siblings did so well. Much of this, it seems can be ascribed to the work ethic of his Roman Catholic mother Karolina.

The entire landscape can be seen from the walkway around the entire tower. The town stretches out to the east, with the park and country on the south side,

while to the north-west you now see the Koh-i-noor pencil factory and more recent housing.

Directly to the east, also just beyond the walls, is the 16th century church of sv Michal with its extensive cemetery.

Martinů was originally buried in Schöneberg, Switzerland following his death in the hospital of nearby Liestal on 28 August 1959. 20 years later, the wishes of his widow, already buried in Polička, were realised: his remains were disinterred and he was buried together with her and his parents in sv Michal. The gravestone, erected in 1984, is by Milan Knobloch.

What else is there to see and do in Polička? If your goal is the tower room, then your first stop will be the Bohuslav Martinů Centre, which also houses the excellently arranged Town Museum - all this, especially the glassware room, looking especially handsome thanks to the EU funding to which the Czechs seem so supremely indifferent,

and which served as the boys' school where Martinů was educated. There was a theatre on the ground floor, schoolrooms above, one of which has been expertly recreated above all so that local children can experience something of what the composer did as a child.

The main square has a fine 18th century town hall - we didn't have time to see the chapel - and the highest plague column in Bohemia (22 metres), under scaffolding when we visited.

Here's a photo of a photo of Martinů in the early 1930s standing in the square by what looks like a rather different version in a different place.

The town was deserted on the Monday evening of our arrival; the only eatery we found open was the restaurant-come-beer-hall on the square, proudly labelled Hotel Pivovar. Inside was a fug of smoke and lots of characterful old blokes watching ice hockey on the telly. They didn't stare or make us feel uncomfortable as their counterparts have done in Cornwall and the north of England, and the sole waitress was very friendly, though presumably her man was rather rough since she had a very bruised right arm. Anyway, the meat and potatoes were the hottest and tastiest I had in Czechia, not exactly feted for its cuisine.

Perhaps I didn't nose out all the interest of Polička, but I did manage a spin around three-quarters of the fortifications, very picturesque alongside the park

and had I not crossed the bridge I wouldn't have known about the statue of Martinů in the middle of the arboretum.

That was the final sightseeing before our driver arrived at 11am to whisk us off to the Gothic marvel of Kutna Hora's sv Barbora on our way back to Prague and Janáček's From the House of the Dead that evening.


Susan Scheid said...

Ah, magnificent post, David, and one of those that particularly sets one dreaming. You are the one who introduced me to Martinu's music, and now here is a glimpse of his fascinating life story and his world. The walls and towers in your photographs remind me of Tallinn. Well, all in all, this is exactly the kind of traveling I most love to do and hope to do more of once J retires. Thank you SO much for the window into his world.

David said...

It's a special one for me, so glad someone who matters really liked it (I mustn't be self-pitying: my Czech friend Jan Kucera made a couple of helpful amendments and has translated it into his native language for various Polickans, and I can't ask for more than that). Yes, the towers are Tallinnesque but the town is tiny - it still amazes me how much there is within Tallinn's city walls.

I agree about this kind of travelling - it's especially rewarding to end up on a personal quest in a place where very few tourists go.

David Damant said...

When I was staying in the Australian Embassy in Moscow in 1972 I found that they looked after young people from Australia and New Zealand who were studying in Russia ( since this was of course in communist times and care was needed ). One day a young man studying Russian literature come to the Embassy for a drink and was prostrate with emotion - he was almost demented with excitement and awe. He had that day stood by the grave of Pushkin.

David said...

I know something of how he felt, David. Cemeteries in Moscow, St Petersburg and Prague are full of the great. Somehow, though, a visit to a grave is a ritual, however filled with emotion. Signs of the once-living person, like here. at Tchaikovsky's house-museum in Klin, Sibelius's Ainola, Janacek's home in Hukvaldy, Grieg's Troldhaugen, to name the others that come quickly to mind, can be something else altogether.

David Damant said...

In St Petersburg ( then Leningrad), it was the graves of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great that I found so powerful.......

David said...

You dreadful old tsarist, you. Artists will always deserve more homage than monarchs...

David Damant said...

Not sure if you accord respect for politicians ( possibly not homage). Without that, space is created for Boris and Trump. Catherine and Peter were heads of government as well as monarchs

David said...

Respect, of course, not love - Obama being the exception. But Pete and Kate did kill quite a lot people too.

d said...

I suggest that Elizabeth I does deserve homage in a very high degree - what an amazing woman......and had she not had the talents of a genius the country could well have followed the pattern of other countries and seen religious wars, so that it might have been impossible for the theatre and Shakespeare to flourish. She was the sine qua non and he was the raison d'etre (discuss)

David said...

Agreed. I'll add 'Mutti' Merkel to the list too.

David Damant said...

Yes I agree...apart from her handling of the refugee business ( and I refer to her handling of it, not her aim) she has shown the most amazing degree of political skill with one of the most complicated hands of cards. It is of interest to note that she would never have been elected ( those hats ! ) had the Chancellarship been thrown open to the general population - a device, as in the States, and like referendums, that caters for dictators and demagogues ( Boris and Trump), as Attlee said

David said...

Never underestimate the persistence of the unforeseen in politics - her instincts in the refugee crisis were right. And she is uncompromising in her stance on Putin.

But enough digressions - onwards to Wagner!

David Damant said...

Her instincts were right but should have been achieved more carefully - by being so direct she exacerbated to anti faction in Germany and encouraged the refugee numbers to rise sharply. She lost political support even in her own party as a result of her way of handling the business ( I think they may have forgiven this "one fault" but she has used up political capital ), so that to a degree her influence is qualified ( a bad development), something she has to watch after so many years in power. I fear, dear David, that one has to be an adroit politician to succeed, even if you class that as deviousness - which it necessarily is. Macmillan knew how to point in one direction and move in the other.

You do not have to publish this, and you can imagine that I would say "downwards to Wagner".......