In January 2017, Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck took over the Czech Philharmonic’s subscription concerts because of the poor health of the orchestra’s chief conductor, Jiri Belohlavek. Among his concerts was a performance of Bohuslav Martinu’s The Epic of Gilgamesh which was also recorded and released by Supraphon. Here is an interview which the label contributes to Pizzicato's editorial.

Manfred Honeck
(c) Felix Broede

It was your very first encounter with the score of The Epic of Gilgamesh. Was it just an assignment or was it a joy?
I have been familiarising myself with Czech music step by step. I received my education in Vienna, which involves learning the old classics – by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Mahler, Bruckner … Then Dvorak appeared … My first contact with Czech music was through Antonin Dvorak, followed by Bedrich Smetana and Leos Janacek. And then Bohuslav Martinu.

What do you precisely mean by ‘then’?
Some years later. My aim was to get into the understanding of Czech music, the Czech way of thinking. Yet as I don’t understand and don’t speak Czech, I needed, and wanted, to decipher how Czech is pronounced, how the Czechs speak their language … and what impact this has on the music – what is the influence of the speaking to the music. It is no question, I was greatly influenced by Dvorak in this respect. I love his Slavonic Dances. And his symphonies and very much his oratorios as well! One of my favourite pieces is the Stabat Mater, which I have conducted at various venues. Then I discovered Janacek, who also made a big impression on me, with his focus on words, his singular declamation… And, finally, I arrived at Martinu’s music. From my perspective, it seems his treating, his means of expression are sometime a mixture, something of a blend of Dvorak and Janacek. I like Martinu’s sense for melody, his melodic elements, his grandeur of the espressivo … In every one of his works… So – to answer your first question – I have become increasingly fond of Martinu’s music, getting in love more and more.

What you have mentioned so far surely refers to the Dvorak aspects of Martinu’s oeuvre. But what about the Janacek influence …?
I can perceive this aspect of Martinu’s music in the word-concentrated rhythm. As well as, for instance, in the way he treats the percussion instruments. He doesn’t allow them to be drowned out by the orchestra. If I had to compare it to food – you can have a large Wiener Schnitzel, with a lot of potatoes, or you can be served something delicate, with a finely balanced sauce. Martinu employs fewer instruments. No oboes, no bassoons, no horns… And he uses instruments in a very good way. When it comes to the percussion and his beloved piano, he utilises them in a highly specific and concentrated way. I would not venture to say that I have grasped everything in his music, yet I have been understanding it better and better. But that is nothing unusual in the case of conductors – even if I have performed something two hundred times or so, I could not claim that I have fully comprehended it, that I have reached my destination and finished with the piece. And so I am now on a journey with Bohuslav Martinu.

And does Martinu sound to you similar to any other European composer, or do you consider his music, his sound, unique?
He is totally unique. Martinu is Martinu. When you switch on the radio and they are playing music you don’t know, you can guess what it is. And you recognise Martinu immediately. He has a singular idiom. Just as Antonin Dvorak and Leos Janacek do. By the way, in my opinion, this is one of the greatest compliments you can give a composer – that you can recognise his or her musical language, his or her musical thinking, way of harmony or rhythm … That is precisely what makes a composer a composer. Furthermore, one can say from which country Martinu is coming, what training or tradition he linked up to. Yet his music also reveals the influence of French culture, the Impressionists in particular, but in the end he was always himself. He didn’t turn into a Debussy or a Ravel, even though he did use some of their techniques. Martinu remained himself. As far as I’m concerned, this is the true mark of a genius.

When we listen to The Epic of Gilgamesh, it comes across as an utterly modern piece. How do you perceive Martinu within the context of 20th-century music? Was he an avant-garde artist?
It depends on what we deem to be avant-garde. Are we talking about harmony, rhythm…? We can think of the conception, the instrumentation, that is, the sound … These are the different levels on which we can focus. I would say that Bohuslav Martinu was always a composer of melodic music. He never concentrated on the rhythm alone, for instance. His music has something in it that can be allowed to simply resonate. He lets it blowing. He didn’t hesitate to compose in parallel thirds or sixths, singing elements. All of a sudden, it may sound like folk music! Like traditional Czech folk music! When you compare Martinu with the Second Viennese School, which emerged sometime between 1910 and 1920, it is far more extreme, although its adherents – Schoenberg, Berg… – wrote their works some 40 years earlier than Martinu completed his Gilgamesh. What, then, can be deemed progressive? The Second Viennese School…? We know that not everyone in Europe took part in this line. Just look at such composers as Alexander von Zemlinsky, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Walter Braunfels, Franz Schmidt … All of them great creators – and they didn’t in any manner engage with the Second Viennese School! Not in the slightest. Nevertheless, on their paths they introduced new elements to music, changing harmony in their own way. For instance. Braunfels, who, unfortunately is totally unknown, paved the way, discovering a musical idiom that was no one else’s but his … And this is also the case of Martinu. He didn’t pursue the progressive avant-garde line.

So, was he a traditionalist?
I again must say that it all depends on one’s perspective, on the position you occupy. Yes, Pierre Boulez and the entire generation who came up with their creations in the wake of World War II, that’s something totally different. The very opposite indeed. Martinu didn’t look in that direction at all. And why was that? Because he drew upon an entirely different tradition: the Czech musical tradition, which has always been naturally based on melody, on singing. And emotion.

Martinu’s music is not based on construction, then?
That isn’t exactly how I would put it. Martinu’s music, of course, does have a sort of skeleton, mainly a rhythmic base. And the overall concept must be clear, there is no doubt about that. Yet Martinu was not particular person of mathematics, he adhered to some rules, albeit his own. It is not that the brain tells you what emotions have to do, the very opposite is the case: emotions tell the brain how to breathe to the score. That’s a really important aspect. And you find here great sounds. Martinu’s music harbours extraordinary, unusual sonic strands, little pieces of progressive elements, either as regards harmony or, more generally, sounds. At the time he was writing Gilgamesh, in the 1950s, Martinu was at the peak of his creative powers. It is one of his best pieces.

Manfred Honeck
(c) Jason Cohn

Yet at the time he also wrote The Opening of the Wells, a simple chamber work – one that very Czech in nature. But Gilgamesh is not so Czech, it is more international. Do you also perceive it that way?
Well, it is not as much as it might be Czech, yet it is still pretty Czech. What I really enjoy are the number of very Czech traits, either in the rhythm or the melody, traits that emerge in both the solo and the chorus parts. Or the way the strings sing their phrases! That is truly exceptional.
Yet the piece also contains totally different passages: for instance, the one in the third section, with Gilgamesh beseeching the deceased Enkidu to return to the Earth. It sounds as though his friend’s voice is coming from the tomb. The manner in which Martinu expresses it is highly intriguing. These passages are markedly influenced by French music. Martinu applies glissandos, and creates very foggy, unclear sounds. The effect is like that of a Monet painting.
Then the percussion instruments join in, producing regular, extremely dramatic pianissimo strokes.
And a muted trumpet is heard. Martinu duly succeeded in evoking ancient times. The Epic of Gilgamesh dates from 1200 BC. Martinu rendered an astonishing atmosphere. The dead man comes back to life … What a magical moment! In the end, Gilgamesh asks Enkidu: What did you see? And Enkidu, that is, the entire chorus, replies: I saw … And a harp plays along … The substantial questions remain unanswered. These are musically amazing moments, great effects. People have always reflected on their lives, we naturally ask what ensues after death. And Martinu opened this very subject. He could have ended the oratorio in a totally different way, pompously, celebrating Gilgamesh, a great hero. Instead he chose to raise questions, questions every person is compelled to ask. Yet he does not give any answer. Applying the technique of French Impressionism.

Quite a complicated score!
Yes, but not when it comes to emotion. We understand what he is telling us.

Perhaps, better said – well crafted.  Clever done.
Absolutely. Take, for instance, the passage in the introduction, with a girl attempting to seduce Enkidu. The music possesses numerous “erotic” elements. The girl strives to impress him – that is expressed by means of arpeggios on the harp. And a tempting voice, luring him towards her. When the tenor sings of her beautiful face, the strings play sul ponticello. The sound shows how pretty her face is, while concurrently indicating that the girl harbours something unseemly, false. All these instrumental finesses express the story’s delicate hues, which the listener need not perceive identically with how I am describing them, yet he or she can sense them emotionally … I wouldn’t hesitate to term it – sometimes – something like Czech verismo. Not completely, of course, only in hints.

You are performing from the new edition. The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the first volumes of the Bohuslav Martinu Complete Edition prepared for publication by the Bohuslav Martinu Institute.
Yes. But I naturally also had available – and listened to – other editions.

Does the notation differ starkly between the various versions?
The differences are palpable. In the older editions, some passages are written for string instruments, “con arco”, with a bow, whereas the new edition   prescribes   pizzicato,  which generates an utterly different sound.

Nonetheless, they seem to be mere details, don’t they?
Yes, details. In the instrumentation, for instance. And the new edition has been purged of the previous errors. But the real challenge for us was the language. Martinů set the music to a text in Old English.

Archaic English.
The libretto is written in a language that uses different forms for addressing persons of a higher station and deities – gods or aristocrats. Similar is the case of the texts for Handel’s London oratorios. We had to check everything, which was quite toilsome. The premiere performance of The Epic of Gilgamesh was sung in German translation. The majority of the existing recordings are in Czech, but now we have one in English. [And one was also recorded by Jiri Belohlavek & BBC Orchestra in 1996.]

Let us return to the ancient epic itself. Do you perceive this theme as standing in opposition to Christianity?
Definitely not. After all, Martinů deemed Christianity to be a basis, not a doctrine. I think that we should view spirituality from a different angle. Before the advent of Christianity, there were different faiths and religions.

And Gilgamesh …
The epic duly reflects it. In general, spirituality is always related to the idea of eternity, to death, to the questions about the sense of life. I firmly believe that all people are born with the inherent yearning for something transcendental. The Christians refer to Christ, the Jews to Jehovah, the Muslims to Allah, and the Buddhists talk about… Even though Buddhism is more a set of teachings than a religion as such … But everyone ponders such matters, we have the questions within our very souls, notwithstanding the different answers. And that cannot be ignored. Otherwise the world would be utterly atheistic… One of the answers is in Gilgamesh. In all likelihood, the ancient text had an impact on the Bible too. During the era of Christianity, the world certainly evolved significantly… But I think that the time at which the ancient Babylonian text was written and our, Christian, milieu are in symbiosis to some extent. The Epic of Gilgamesh affords us the opportunity of a fascinating rapprochement with antiquity.

Do you, then, consider Bohuslav Martinu’s Gilgamesh to be sacred, spiritual music?
Absolutely. After all, Gilgamesh himself is described as two-thirds god, one-third human.

You have been provided with the opportunity to acquaint yourself with the piece – does it represent a major moment in your career?
Definitely. Gilgamesh was a revelation for me. It goes without saying that we discussed it at school as a literary monument. We read the text. And now I am really grateful for the music that was created for it.

Do you envisage any other similar personal discoveries in the future?
I wonder what awaits me. Lately, I have been focusing on a few contemporary composers. As you may know, I am also a great fan of Walter Braunfels, and I intend to give further performances of his Te Deum and Great Mass. I have yet to conduct Mahler’s Eighth, but I am set to do so soon. Orchestras have always asked me to conduct Bruckner, Mozart, Beethoven… this is the tradition I grew up with, so they think that this music is precisely what I should perform the most.

Do you have to seek compromises then?
Yes, between that which is required and that which I myself would like to do in addition. That is why I keep seeking out new works, and new elements in compositions. And new operas. That includes arrangements of Janacek’s music, Dvorak’s Rusalka, Strauss’s Elektra, Puccini’s Turandot… Tomas Ille and I have been implementing such opera projects in the form of concert suites. And when it comes to new composers, last year I presented Milos Bok’s music. We should bring new ideas to people, not just cling to what is generally known. On the contrary, we should embrace the fact that there are superb and compelling composers living among us. I am grateful for and excited by such opportunities. But we must not start to miss Dvorak, Brahms, Beethoven and others, true towering figures in the history of music.

Have you ever conducted any of the Bohuslav Martinu symphonies?
As I have said, I am on a journey. The first of his works I came into contact with, in Cologne, was the Field Mass, for male chorus and orchestra, a splendid piece, written during World War II. And I  have conducted the Memorial to Lidice in Pittsburgh.

Would you like to take the oratorio The Epic of Gilgamesh to Pittsburgh and include it in one of your programmes?
I would certainly love to! It’s a truly exquisite, enthralling work.

The interview was made by Petr Veber and was initially published in Martinu Revue No. 2 2017

The review of the recording is here.

  • Pizzicato

  • Archives