The American League of Composers in 1943 asked several prominent composers to write music based on some incident in World War II, which was then raging.
Martinu, accepting the commission, went back to re-think an idea he had tried the year before at the request of the Czech Government-in-Exile in London, to write a piece commemorating the vicious Nazi reprisals of June 9 and 10, 1942, wiping out the towns of Lidice and Lezáky to retaliate for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.
Hitler's appointment of Heydrich in September 1941 as Deputy Reich Protector of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (the Czech part of Czechoslovakia) was for the express purpose of ridding the area of its Jewish population and instituting harsh crackdowns on any anti-German activity.
The Czech Government-in-Exile's president, Edvard Benes, authorized Heydrich's assassination. Britain's Special Operations Executive (SOE) trained and flew in an assassination team of Czech patriots who ambushed the security-lax Heydrich's Mercedes on May 27, 1942, with grenade and machine gun fire. The two assassins, Jan Kubis and Josef Gabcik, committed suicide after a gun-battle with the SS; they had been sold out by another SOE agent. Heydrich died of his wounds on June 4. Meanwhile, the SS had caught another SOE agent and found on him a document mentioning Lidice and Lezáky.
In reprisal, Hitler ordered the towns wiped off the map. All males were shot, the women were taken to Ravensbrück Concentration Camp, and the children were removed. Over 2,000 were killed in all in reprisal for Heydrich's murder.
The Government-in-Exile requested a Lidice commemorative work from Martinu in 1942, and the composer attempted to write one, but discarded it. Instead, he expressed his personal outrage and grief in the tragic slow movement of his First Symphony (1942).
The 1943 is a single individual movement in slow tempos, full of a sense of tragedy but above all noble and elevated in its mourning. In effect it is indeed like a stately and peaceful monument.
It begins with a dark C minor chord but quickly slips into C sharp minor. Cadences of the St. Wenceslas Chorale, the traditional resistance hymn of the Czechs, appear in the second movement (Martinu had also used it in Symphony No. 1.) The middle part of the composition shifts to the heroic key of E flat to signal continued resistance. The dark opening Adagio returns with its oppressive feeling, but now the opening motive of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, which by now was known to all anti-Nazi Resistance as the symbol of "V for Victory," cuts through the dark orchestration powerfully. With an assurance of ultimate victory, the music ends quietly in a peaceful C major.
The work was premiered by Artur Rodzinski and the New York Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall on October 28, 1943, the 25th anniversary of the proclamation of the Czechoslovak Republic. It was first played in Czechoslovakia under Raphael Kubelik on March 14, 1946, the anniversary of the last day before Germany completed its occupation of the country in 1939.