Bohuslav Martinu's 1943 Violin Concerto is an outstanding work that is perhaps less widely recognized than it deserves because of the remarkable outpouring of top-rate violin concertos by the world's great composers that occurred in the 1930s and 1940s. The work was once referred to simply as Martinu's Violin Concerto, but in the 1970s an earlier concerto, which Martinu wrote for Samuel Dushkin about 1933, came to light and was performed.
Martinu had undergone great changes in his life and art in the intervening ten years. When he wrote the first concerto, he had shifted away from his early interest in French Impressionism and adopted a polyphonic style inspired by the concertos of Bach and Corelli. German occupation of his Czech homeland followed capitulation of the Western powers in the illusory search for "peace in our time" that ended in general war in 1939. Martinu and his wife fled France at the last moment, ahead of the German conquerors.
Musically, toward the end of this period, Martinu returned to Impressionistic harmonies. But now he added an element of Romanticism, resulting in a potent and dynamic mix of melody, polyphony, and Martinu's outstanding rhythmic sense. Martinu became in the form of the symphony once he settled in America; he wrote his first symphony in 1942, at the age of 52. The great violinist Mischa Elman heard a Boston Symphony Orchestra performance of Martinu's powerful First Symphony and was so impressed that, on meeting the composer after the concert, he asked Martinu for a new concerto. Martinu asked Elman to play a recital program for him in order to learn the violinist's distinctive lyrical and assertive style. A generally quick worker, Martinu completed the concerto in just over two months' time, from February to April 1943, and Elman premiered it on December 31, 1943, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Serge Koussevitzky conducting.
The concerto is a work nearly half an hour long, in the traditional three movements. The work begins in a decidedly non-traditional way, with an Andante introduction that is a kind of cross between a recitative accompanied by separated staccato orchestral chords and a cadenza. The main body of the first movement is marked Allegro. It was devised to display Elman's strong musical communication and lyricism. The tone of the movement is serious. (Martinu refers to its "grave character," which is perhaps too strong a description.) The theme of the Andante opening returns to conclude the movement. The middle movement is a smooth and lyrical Andante moderato with a calm, lyrical tone. It leads without pause to the finale, Poco Allegro. This movement is quick, lively, and dramatic, and ends with the tempo being kicked up to Allegro vivace for a conclusion in the nature of a fugal finale.