Ivan Moravec on meeting Bohuslav Martinů

Professor Ivan Moravec (1930 - 2015), a world-renowned Czech pianist, met with Bohuslav Martinů in Italy in June 1957. He had gone there thanks to Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, who had invited the young pianist to his master classes in Arezzo. To remember the brilliant artist of unparalled importance, we are now bringing you the full version of his accounts on meeting with the Czech composer, in an interview Moravec gave to Martinů Revue in 2003.

Ivan Moravec

"Michelangeli came to Prague to play a concert in the Rudolfinum of which I remember almost every note. He played on a Czech Petrof piano which he then took to Rome where he played for the Pope.

I was invited to his performance course in Arezzo. It lasted a month, but actually I met with Michelangeli only three times; I played for him one Mozart sonata, a group of Debussy preludes, and the third sonata of Sergey Prokofiev. He limited himself to just a few comments and then said: “This young man doesn't need lessons - he only needs to play.”

 That was very nice of him and it's true that later - because in three meetings you can hardly grasp the greatness of such a phenomenal player as Michelangeli - I continued my studies by learning from his recordings.

That was actually my first trip to the West - my first trip beyond the Iron Curtain, which in itself was an unrealizable dream at that time for the vast majority of citizens of the whole Eastern Block.

Before I left on that trip I was asked by Oldřich Korte to visit Martinů in Rome, where he was staying at the time, and inform him about Oldřich's personal situation and political obstructions that, despite his prize from the Busoni composers' competition and an invitation from the conservatory in Bolzano, would evidently prevent him from getting permission for a trip to Italy, so that he probably would not be able to have his longed-for meeting with the master in the foreseeable future.

Martinů's friends Karel Novák of the Czech Philharmonic and Herberta Masaryková notified him of my planned visit from Prague so that he would receive me - a young musician coming from his barricaded homeland - without fear and with full trust. I also wrote him two lines. He set the place, and so I traveled from Arezzo to Rome where we met in a café.

I must admit that his Prague friends very much envied me that meeting, because of the trauma of the closed borders.

It was a hot summer. I remember that Martinů was unusually lightly dressed. On his feet he had only some sort of sandals. He was immensely tall. His enormously high brow remains engraved in my memory. I said to myself, “My goodness, I'm not surprised that a man with such a forehead creates such brilliant music!”

At that time I was very young. I must say that the cadence of his speech was a great surprise to me. He said a few sentences, a few thoughts, and then fell silent - I could see that he was pondering intensively. It was clear that he wasn't a chatterer. The pauses he made in the conversation were truly monumental.

I brought him not only the entrusted message from Oldřich Korte but also Oldřich's piano sonata. He took the score into his hands and began leafing through it with great interest. He fell silent and I said to myself: “That's not possible! This man reads two pages in an unbelievably short time!” But it's a thirty-six page sonata, so it did take a while for him to read and leaf through it. Then he said in his extremely terse manner of expression, “Very fine, very beautiful!”

With this we paused on the topic of Mr. Korte, who a half year beforehand had sent Martinů a long letter for his birthday, a sort of interpretation, or let us say his personal perception of Martinů's music. And the living Martinů said before me with great conviction that it was the deepest comprehension of the spirit of his compositions so far.

Then we also spoke about the speed of compositional work. I mentioned that to make a living Oldřich had a whole series of jobs, for instance delivering potatoes and coal, and so he didn't compose very day. And Martinů responded: “But even when no inspiration comes, you know, a composer must sit down every day, and even if it doesn't work - if they're not the most blessed moments - he must exercise that mental apparatus every day.” This evidently explains the amazing quantity of compositions that Martinů wrote with his every-day diligence.

As far as political conditions at home were concerned, Martinů wanted to know what the atmosphere among people was like. I said truthfully that fear reigned here, that we all were constantly doing something that was prosecuted by the regime with more-or-less far-reaching consequences. As a random example I mentioned a typescript book on a religious topic I had been reading and which I recently had lost outside somewhere including the address of the translator. Then I went about for weeks anxious over what might happen to everyone associated with the production of such an “illegal publication” if it should come into the wrong hands. And practically any publication or dissemination of any philosophical, religious, or spiritually-oriented literature was considered illegal and punishable here if it didn't fall into the narrow range of religions and conformist lines of thought permitted (though of course censured) by the state.

Martinů asked what the book I had lost was. I said it was The Life Divine, in Czech translation Život božský, by the legendary Indian thinker and spiritual leader Aurobindo Ghose. He responded unusually quickly and said: “Mr. Moravec, I have his complete works bound in leather!” This confirmed what Oldřich Korte had expressed very eloquently in his analysis and what we all sensed - that the inspiration and what was fundamental with Martinů was strong personal spiritual striving.

During the whole conversation Martinů clearly understood that if I belonged to that group of people who have - let's say - very similar interests and opinions, then my attitude toward the regime was the same.

Very briefly he complained that performance of his works at home had been halted, in a way he didn't describe, but it was clear that one telephone call to the Philharmonic, more-or-less anonymous, had resulted in his works no longer being performed. This caused him unusual suffering. He definitely didn't strike me as a cheerful person. He was a man burdened by the talent bestowed on him, but also by the bitter fate that he couldn't return home.

From the whole meeting it was clear to me that he was a man who weighed every word he said and who clearly experienced things in the solitude of his concentration."