Bohuslav Martinu rarely had a breakdown in his rapid pace as a composer, but early in 1944 he did experience a "composer's block." His creative life had been tumultuous -- near-poverty in the 1920s in Paris, watching his native Czechoslovakia be absorbed by Hitler's Germany in 1938 and 1939, his difficult escape with his wife from France after Germany invaded that country, and his settling in America in 1941, and reports of Nazi atrocities in Czechoslovakia -- and at the beginning of 1944 he had unaccustomed difficulty in writing.
A rest in the peaceful countryside in Connecticut appears to have restored him, along with the idea of writing a symphony that would clearly express his grief over the tragedy that had befallen his people. The musical idea was to base the entire symphony on the four-note motive of the Requiem by the great Czech composer Antonín Dvorák, a motive that had also been used with great expressive effect in the tone poem Asrael (Angel of Death) of Martinu's teacher Josef Suk.
Plans for the symphony thus coalesced and the rested composer resumed his customary speed in composition and wrote it in six weeks beginning at the start of May 1944. It is in three movements and is a fully symphonic statement at a half hour in length. The tone of much of the work is agitated, even grief stricken in the first movement, and the symphony is sometimes subtitled the "Tragic" Symphony.
There is no introduction; the opening Allegro poco moderato begins in a flash with restless rhythmic figures and the Dvorák motive. The melodies and motives of the symphony are diatonic (for the most part) but the harmonies are often complex and dissonant. Martinu's characteristic powerful rhythmic drive is virtually unceasing. Towards the end of the movement ascending scale figures seem to want to lift the music up, but static harmonies refuse to let it take wing.
The Largo is an intense movement. Although its heart is a lyrical flute solo, shudders and rhythmic dislocations in the accompaniment keep the music full of uncertainty until the end, when a breath of sweetness allows a calm ending. This is immediately broken by a brutal Allegro finale, which Martinu started writing in the last week of May 1944. The music is aggressive and fighting. Then comes an unexpected twist: The symphony ends with an Andante as an epilogue. A bassoon solo sings uncertainly, then the music, always retaining a quiet, meditative tone, progressively turns towards a luminous E major conclusion. The explanation seems to be that Martinu was reacting to the news of the Allied invasion of France of June 6, 1944. He completed the symphony on June 14, with final chords dominated by piano that seem to imply that although there has been a glimpse of hope, much struggle and uncertainty remains.
Sergey Koussevitzky premiered the symphony in Boston on October 12, 1945, and it was first performed in Czechoslovakia by Karel Sejna on October 13, 1949.