By F. James Rybka
Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959) has been called “the Mozart of the 20th Century.” His extraordinary catalog of 417 diverse and well-crafted scores includes 16 operas, 15 ballets, six symphonies, seven string quartets and a host of chamber, instrumental, and choral scores. At the height of his career in the United States, he composed one symphony a year between 1943 through 1947, each premiered by the leading ensembles. Yet today, Martinů, who once flamed so brightly, is performed infrequently at best. His name is not even listed in the six-volume Oxford History of Western Music. He is notably absent from other dictionaries of 20th century music. Why?
Surprisingly, Martinů’s reputation suffered from his abundant output and prolific creativity, stupefying an early biographer who, unable to explain it, judged his music as “flawed” and slipshod. This, in brief, was his answer to the question he simply refused to answer: “How else could he have done it?”
As a physician and author who personally knew Martinů, I saw from my research of the composer’s unpublished correspondence the workings of an unusual and elusive personality, one that deserved a better answer than Martinů earlier chronicler. In short, there is compelling evidence that Martinů had Asperger syndrome (AS), making him the first composer to offer strong documentation of an autistic spectrum disorder. This caused right-brain associated activities, like music, to become heightened, an unquestioned benefit to him. Blessed with absolute pitch, he developed a phenomenal, phonographic memory so he could recall, sketch, and refine compositions in his head, and then write them out directly onto manuscript paper without any preliminary paper draft, sometimes even without having to test the chords on a piano. Yet these AS- related talents went unrecognized by elite critics who held his great output against him. Fortunately, his reputation has started to rebound and I am hopeful that my research will spark further interest not only in his music but also in the neuroscience behind it.
As a medical condition, autism exists along a spectrum, with Asperger syndrome sitting at the “high-functioning” end of it. Tracing the trajectory those with Asperger generally follow, one can see Martinů in a deeper context and properly assess the downsides of the disorder. In 1946, for example, his condition nearly killed him one night when, in a trance contemplating music, he grew entirely oblivious to his environment and ambled off a roof, fracturing his skull and falling into a brief coma. For music lovers, Martinů was perhaps the finest ethnomusicologist of the 20th century. He was brilliant at incorporating Czech folk motifs and rhythms into classical traditions, even into major symphonic scores. Although a confirmed tonalist, he incorporated dissonance and the inventions of the 20th-century music into his work. He knew his instruments well and became one of that period’s most gifted orchestrators, skillfully bringing the piano on to the symphonic stage. The renowned music critic, Olin Downes who knew Martinů, asserted in 1950: “He is incapable of an unthorough or conscienceless job. He produces so much music because, in the first place, his nature necessitates this. He has to write music. In the second place, he knows his business and loves it.” And, in that sense, Martinů was much like Mozart, a “compulsive” composer who dearly loved his work. Creating music was play and pleasure.
F. James Rybka,author of Bohuslav Martinu: The Compulsion to Compose , graduated from Cornell Medical School and became a plastic surgeon. Bohuslav Martinu was a close family friend.