The Epic of Gilgamesh

Title image for "The Epic of Gilgamesh"

My choice for a deep dive into a single work this month is The Epic of Gilgamesh by the great 20th century Czech composer, Bohuslav Martinu. My initial encounters with Martinu’s music – the Rhapsody Concerto for viola and chamber orchestra and the Fourth Symphony (which was written to mark the end of the Second World War in 1945 and premiered by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra) – left me feeling that the gift for beautiful melodies and orchestral colors in Czech music (transmitted most obviously by Dvorak in the 19th Century) had lingered long into the 20th century. Martinu’s music immediately spoke to me and I have long adored listening to and performing his music. He was highly prolific and wrote in virtually every kind of musical form and instrumental genre. His orchestral music, in particular, is striking and well worth seeking out!

It’s also worth mentioning that when Martinu was in the US during WWII, he lived in New York and taught at Mannes (among other schools) – indeed, he had such an impact on the Mannes composition department that the school annually awards a prize in Martinu’s name to the most promising composition of a graduating composer. As conductor of the Mannes Orchestra, it’s been my privilege not only to lead Martinu’s Prize-winning compositions by our graduates but also the Fourth Symphony – and was planning to repeat that great symphony on a program this Fall, which, alas, will have to wait!

Gilgamesh was a work I had only recently encountered in my far-ranging searches for works for NYChoral seasons to come. As I said, I love Martinu’s music, so discovering Gilgamesh – and the endless possibilities it offers for multi-media and/or interdisciplinary presentation – seemed a great fit for us! By way of introducing the piece, I’m adding (below) the short introductory essay from the notes to the new critical edition, Martinu’s own description of the work and the ‘bio’ he wrote for the world premiere in 1955. I follow that with a review of a recording from Gramophone Magazine by Robert Layton, which describes his joy in encountering the piece. 

Finally, as the work is rental only, I provide a link to Universal Editions website which allows you to peruse the full score while you listen to the piece. This score is in English. HINT: You have to click on the four little arrows to expand the score into “presentation” mode.

I’m linking on the playlist two recordings, an earlier recording (in Czech) and a more recent one (2014) in English. The only problem is that the English version seems to have some music chopped off in the second part – the earlier recording is complete. SO – you can listen in either Czech or English and you have a link to a score with the English text.

I hope you enjoy hearing this stunning work and getting to know a bit more about it – I’ll definitely have it on my programming radar for future seasons!

Title image for "The Epic of Gilgamesh" conducted by Jiri Belohlavek, Prague Symphony Orchestra

Martinu: The Epic of Gilgamesh – III. Invocation
Jiri Belohlavek, Prague Symphony Orchestra

A brief history of The Epic of Gilgamesh

During his first post-war trip to Europe in the summer of 1948, Martinů spent two weeks at the Schönenberg Estate near Basel as the guest of Paul and Maja Sacher. During this visit he revived his plans for the composition of a cantata, and together with his host he decided on its topic. He decided to base his libretto on one of the oldest literary documents of history, the extensive Ancient Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh from the Third Dynasty of Ur (2112–2004 BC), which draws on oral traditions. It was not until 30 August 1954, after another short visit to Schönenberg, that Martinů returned to the topic of Gilgamesh, and on 18 February 1955, Martinů reported that he had finished the piece that very day.

During the compositional process Gilgamesh evolved from a “Secular Cantata” into something that “is not an oratorio […] nor a cantata […], it is simply an epic”. Without resorting to historicist allusions, Martinů drew creatively from his intense interest in early music. The solo sections of the Epic reveal a knowledge of the “stile recitativo” of Cavalieri’s allegory La Rappresentazione di Anima, et di Corpo; the choral parts reflect his studies of the early ars antiqua period of the development of polyphony, especially the works of Pérotin and the Parisian School of Notre-Dame.

The archaic Elizabethan English into which Campbell Thompson had transcribed the Epic of Gilgamesh caused the composer many problems. Well aware of the difficulties that the language would pose to both the performers and the audience at the Basel premiere, Martinů suggested rehearsing a German translation variant to Sacher before the piece itself was completed. At Sacher’s request, the German poetic translation was undertaken by Arnold Heinz Eichmann the following year, and it is this translation that was finally used for the premiere of the piece.

The premiere of The Epic of Gilgamesh took place in Basel on 23 January 1958, with Paul Sacher conducting the Basel Chamber Orchestra and the Basel Chamber Choir. The Czechoslovak premiere of the work took place on 28 May 1958 in the Smetana Hall in Prague during the Prague Spring festival. After the Turin, Frankfurt and London productions, on 21 June 1959 the very prestigious Viennese premiere of Gilgamesh took place. Paul Sacher conducted the Philharmonia Hungarica and the Wiener Singakademie. 

A short time before beginning work on the Epic Martinů was approached by Sacher and was asked to limit the role of the speaker to a minimum. Sacher’s later request that the speaker be removed completely and his text divided among the soloists resulted in the composer’s suggestion to split the speaker’s role between the solo bass and tenor. This critical edition assigns all spoken passages to the speaker (as was Martinů’s most probable original intention) and includes the composer’s authorized alternative solo tenor and bass designations in brackets.

Until recently it was not known that Martinů planned a semi-theatrical production of The Epic of Gilgamesh “halfway between a concert and an opera.” In April 1957 he wrote two proposals with suggestions on how “to represent the Epic and not an Oratorio” where “the singers should turn more towards each other than to the audience, and the choir must also participate in the action” in order to “liberate the concert stage. […] it is not an Oratorio immobile. It is an old ceremonial and as such, it allows, even demands a certain liberty which otherwise would be out of place in Oratorio.” Sacher’s response to this unusual suggestion was wholly dismissive, nor did the publisher print the composer’s notes on the staging of Gilgamesh, so the notes were completely forgotten. Aleš Březina

Martinu’s own introduction to the work

The Epic of Gilgamesh is a great Assyrian-Babylonian poem, written in cuneiform on clay tablets; it is very ancient, probably from the 4th millennium BC, or perhaps older still. It contains all kinds of adventures relating to Gilgamesh, the Hero-King-God. This epic was discovered and deciphered only recently. For my text I used the translation by R. Campbell Thompson, that is an English translation of the matter from the tablets in the British Museum, and I only chose a few episodes from this extensive poem. I have found that, despite all our immense progress in technology and industry, the emotions and questions that are being asked in the context of this progress and its innumerable inventions have remained unchanged, and the questions I have found in the literatures of those nations we call primitive are the same as those in our own. They are the questions of friendship, love and death. The poem of Gilgamesh contains an intense desire, expressed with almost agonizing urgency, to find the answers to these questions – answers which we are still looking for in vain today. 

The events that I have set to music are the following: Gilgamesh is a great king of Uruk, feared and admired as a god. He becomes friends with the curious Enkidu, a primitive untouched by civilization who has long lived in ignorant bliss. His friends were the animals, and they afforded him protection. To entice this formidable opponent, Gilgamesh sent him a woman, a dancer from the Temple of Ishtar, who seduced Enkidu. Enkidu lost his innocence, the animals started to fear him and fled from him. Enkidu follows the woman to the city, where the people eat bread and drink wine, where they dance and celebrate. His way of life changes rapidly, but at the same time he realizes that from then on he would have to work for his living. He pales and recoils, as if he suddenly regretted his youth. He attacks Gilgamesh, but in the end becomes his comrade in arms. The two valiant men form a firm friendship. One day Enkidu falls ill. Gilgamesh watches him a day, two, eleven days; but Enkidu does not move, he is dead. 

Gilgamesh is confronted with the mysterious question of death. He cries sincerely for his friend, he does not understand that Enkidu is gone forever, that “it was the earth that seized him”. He begins to have doubts about himself, his life. He asks the gods to give him his friend back, but the gods remain silent, they do not reply. Gilgamesh sets off on a journey to find immortality, but already he knows that “only the gods are eternal, the days of man are numbered. Rejoice therefore, day and night, be happy and contented, night and day.” 

He sends the gods passionate pleas; he begs them to allow him to see his friend Enkidu at least for a moment. The force of his invocation causes the earth to open up and as in a haze Enkidu’s spirit appears. Gilgamesh asks him anxiously about what he has seen in that other,  unknown world. This dialog full of pathos and deep melancholy concludes the epic. 

The score is written for two flutes, two clarinets, three trumpets, two trombones, harp, piano, percussion and strings, four soloists and choir. It has three parts: 1. Gilgamesh. 2. The Death of Enkidu. 3. The Invocation. The work was written in 1955 in Nice, France, and is dedicated to Maja Sacher. It was translated into German by A. H. Eichmann.

Autobiography written by Martinu for the premiere of Gilgamesh

My home town is Polička in Czechoslovakia. My father was a cobbler and a tower keeper, he lived in the church tower, and it was in this tower, high above the ground, that I was born on 8 December 1890. My violin teacher was a tailor and it was decided I would become a great violin virtuoso like Jan Kubelík, who was in fashion at the time. Although I attended the Prague Conservatory, this idea was not fulfilled and I sold my violin upon arriving in Paris in 1923. I had played the second violin in the Czech Philharmonic for a few years. I came to Paris for three months, but stayed there eighteen years until 1941. I found myself surrounded by [Stravinsky’s] Rite of Spring, the Ballets Russes [of Sergei Diaghilev], and Les Six. I composed Half-time and La Bagarre (dedicated to Charles Lindbergh), which was performed by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in New York. When I came to America in 1941, they still remembered the piece and immediately welcomed me as if I had lived in New York for years. Before leaving for the United States, my wife and I found refuge in Pratteln with our friends the Sachers; I was in Schönenberg in 1938 when I wrote the Double Concerto dedicated to Paul Sacher. When the war broke out, we had great difficulties getting to America. Although I could speak hardly any English, Koussevitzky entrusted me with the composition class at the Tanglewood Festival in 1942. In 1947 I was appointed Professor of Composition at the University of Princeton, where I lectured for three years. My compositions have been played by the greatest American orchestras and by conductors the likes of Serge Koussevitzky, Charles Munch, Eugene Ormandy, Fritz Reiner, Artur Rodzińsky, Vladimir Golschmann, Dmitri Mitropoulos, Erich Leinsdorf. I was given the New York Critics’ Circle Award twice, for the opera Comedy on the Bridge and the Fantaisies Symphoniques for orchestra dedicated to Charles Munch. In 1956 I had the honour of being elected a member of the Institute for Arts and Literature. We returned to Europe in 1953 and lived in Nice, where I wrote Gilgamesh for Maja Sacher. In the years 1956–7 I was appointed “composer in residence” at the American Academy in Rome. In 1957 we found ourselves in Basel, where we were invited once again by our friends the Sachers. Here I worked on the opera The Greek Passion based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, and the Piano Concerto for Margrit Weber. I do not know what the next stage of our journey is. 

Gramophone Magazine review by Robert Layton

I first got to know The Epic of Gilgamesh from a BBC performance given at the Maida Vale Studios early in 1959 under Sir Malcolm Sargent, with Alvar Lidell as narrator. The work made a very strong impression and over the years my conviction that this is the greatest of Martinu’s works has grown stronger. Perhaps I should modify that to say ”the greatest of his works that I know” for Martinu is so prolific and so full of surprises. It is now just over a decade since the first commercial recording of it appeared (Supraphon, 6/80—nla) and that, alas, has gone the way of all vinyl. Gilgamesh itself is a long Assyrian-Babylonian poem recorded on cuneiform tablets in or before the seventh century BC and predates Homer by at least 1,500 years. In 1948 the wife of the Swiss conductor, Paul Sacher, presented Martinu with a booklet dealing with its discovery together with an English translation by R. Campbell Thompson from materials in the British Museum. Martinu was fascinated not only by the poem, the oldest literature known to mankind, but its universality—”the emotions and issues which move people have not changed… they are embodied just as much in the oldest literature known to us as in the literature of our own time… issues of friendship, love and death. It is dramatic, it pursues me in my dreams” he wrote. It certainly inspired in him music of extraordinary vision and intensity as well as enormous atmosphere.

Martinu finished his oratorio in Nice in 1955, a month or so before the three Frescoes of Piero della Francesca. It tells how Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, hears about the warrior Enkidu, a primitive, at home among the works of nature with only animals as friends. He sends him a courtesan to whom he loses his innocence; the King then befriends him but they quarrel and fight before their friendship is really cemented. The second and third parts of the oratorio centre on the themes of death and immortality; the second tells of Enkidu’s death and Gilgamesh’s grief, his plea to the gods to restore Enkidu and his search for immortality, and the third records his failure to learn its secrets. I must say I can never hear the chilling episode of the last words of Enkidu’s ghost (”Yes, I saw”) with its subtly changing vocal colours without a feeling of awe. I suppose with its evocation of a mysterious and remote past, its use of spoken narrative and its distinctive sound world, it is inevitable that it should be compared with Honegger’s Le roi David. But much though I admire the latter, Gilgamesh strikes me as far stronger and its invention far more sustained and powerful.

The performance is in Czech as, of course, is the narration, which I very much hope will not limit the dissemination of this disc, for the music deals with universal themes and is Martinu at his most profound and inspired. It is gripping and although my blood did not freeze quite as much as it has done in other performances on hearing its closing pages, the effect is still very powerful. There are no weaknesses in the cast (and the Gilgamesh of Ivan Kusnjer is very impressive indeed), and the chorus and orchestra respond very well to Zdenek Kosler’s direction. The recording maintains a generally natural balance between the soloists, narrator, chorus and orchestra, and the somewhat resonant acoustic is used to good advantage. Those who do not know this extraordinary work, whether they are Martinu enthusiasts or not, should investigate it without delay.’

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