In January, Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck took over the Czech
Philharmonic’s subscription concerts because of the poor health of the
orchestra’s chief conductor, Jiří Bělohlávek. Honeck is currently
director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Among the concerts where he stood
in for Bělohlávek was a performance of Bohuslav Martinů’s The Epic of
Gilgamesh (SU 4225–2), which was also recorded. Honeck said it was regrettable
that Bělohlávek was forced to withdraw from these concerts as he was a great
admirer of Martinů’s oratorio. Notwithstanding the circumstances, in a
recent interview with Harmonie magazine he added that he felt greatly honoured
to have had the opportunity to explore The Epic of Gilgamesh and perform it with
the Czech Philharmonic. Later on, Jiří Bělohlávek would conduct a few more
concerts. Among the final ones was a concert in April in Munich with the
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Magdalena Kožená in works by Dvořák,
Martinů and Janáček, a concert at the beginning of May in Prague with the
Czech Philharmonic featuring music by Mahler, and another early May performance,
this time in Polička with the Prague Philhar monia playing pieces by Martinů.
At the time, no one anticipated how soon Bělohlávek’s life would come to an
end… In the autumn of 2017, Honeck’s recording of The Epic of Gilgamesh
will be released by Supraphon.
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 Dvořák appeared … My
first contact with Czech music was through Antonín Dvořák, followed by
Bedřich Smetana and Leoš Janáček. And then Bohuslav Martinů.
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 Dvořák 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 and in the next
season I am scheduled to perform in Munich. Then I discovered Janáček, who
also made a big impression on me, with his focus on words, his singular
declamation… And, finally, I arrived at Martinů’s music. From my
perspective, it seems his treating, his means of expression are sometime a
mixture, something of a blend of Dvořák and Janáček. I like
Martinů’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 Martinů’s music, getting
in love more and more.
What you have mentioned so far surely refers to the Dvořák aspects
of Martinů’s oeuvre. But what about the Janáček influence
I can perceive this aspect of Martinů’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. Martinů 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 Martinů.
And does Martinů sound to you similar to any other European
composer, or do you consider his music, his sound, unique?
He is totally unique. Martinů is Martinů. When you switch on the radio and
they are playing music you don’t know, you can guess what it is. And you
recognise Martinů immediately. He has a singular idiom. Just as Antonín
Dvořák and Leoš Janáček 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 Martinů 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.
Martinů remained himself. As far as I’m concerned, this is the true mark of a
When we listen to The Epic of Gilgamesh, it comes across as an
utterly modern piece. How do you perceive Martinů 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 Martinů 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
Martinů 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 Martinů 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 Martinů. 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. Martinů 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.
Martinů’s music is not based on construction, then?
That isn’t exactly how I would put it. Martinů’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 Martinů 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 breath to the score. That’s a really
important aspect. And you find here great sounds. Martinů’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
the 1950s, Martinů was at the peak of his creative powers. It is one of his
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
Martinů expresses it is highly intriguing. These passages are markedly
influenced by French music. Martinů 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. Martinů duly succeeded in
evoking ancient times. The Epic of Gilgamesh dates from 1200 BC. Martinů
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 Martinů 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
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 Martinů Complete Edition prepared for
publication by the Bohuslav Martinů Institute.
Yes. But I naturally also had available – and listened to – other
Does the notation differ starkly between the various
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.
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 Jiří
Bělohlávek & 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
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 Martinů’s Gilgamesh to be sacred,
Absolutely. After all, Gilgamesh himself is described as two-thirds god,
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
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
Janáček’s music, Dvořák’s Rusalka, Strauss’s Elektra,
Puccini’s Turandot… Tomáš 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 Miloš 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
Dvořák, Brahms, Beethoven and others, true towering figures in the history
Have you ever conducted any of the Bohuslav Martinů
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
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 published in Martinů Revue No.