Though he had composed a wealth of chamber, ballet, and operatic works, the purely symphonic form did not interest the Czech-born Martinu before 1942, because he had not felt "sufficiently prepared" for its challenges. This, his first attempt in the genre -- written at the age of 52 -- shows that his awareness of his own abilities was indeed keen, and that his many years of experience were well digested when he set about sketching the Symphony No. 1. The work led a charmed existence from the start: having been in the United States for less than a year, Martinu received funding from the Koussevitzky Foundation (they would eventually commission Martinu's next five symphonic works), and the work was premiered by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra on November 12, 1942. Koussevitzky remarked to a group of critics that "you cannot change a single note...it is a classical symphony"; the premiere was an outstanding success, moving Virgil Thompson, music critic for the New York Herald Tribune, to remark that Martinu was the successor to his compatriot Smetana.
Martinu utilized several unifying devices to make a cohesive whole of the four movements, while at the same time finding a surprising amount of variety within his material. The opening bars of the first movement, for example -- a dissonant shimmer suspended over an ostinato bass -- appear also in the third movement, returning the listener to his first impression. The main melodic material of the first movement is carried by the violins, supported by a highly rhythmic cello part. The quiet, consonant ending to the movement complements the mysterious introduction, creating a sense of dynamic balance.
The second movement is in three parts; the middle section is devoted to lyrical expression, while the outer sections are devoted to displays of power and speed. In these outer sections, one perceives a march just over the horizon as the brass section takes center stage. The lyrical mid-section relies on the solo voice of the oboe. The third movement begins with a brooding melody in the cellos and basses; with the introduction of winds and the incessant thumping of repeated bass notes in the piano, the tension rises. As with the second movement, a plaintive solo -- this time for the English Horn -- forms the basis for a contrasting middle section.
The finale is hard-driving and rhythmic throughout -- the sheer kinetic energy rarely lets up. The ending is among the most boisterous and exciting to found in a twentieth century symphonic work.