Two factors strongly influenced the last decade of Bohuslava Martinů’s life: the rise of communism in his native Czechoslovakia, and his return to Europe, specifically to Switzerland, where he later died. His long separation from his homeland, worsened by awareness that he could never return because of the new regime, caused him intense pangs of nostalgia that were also quite clearly reflected in his music, mainly through the use of elements he had been employing throughout his career that stamped the music with a “Czech sound”. His attention began to turn back to melodic and harmonic procedures derived from Czech folk music. Also during this period, the composer’s musical language attained a certain organic synthesis as a summation of his creative development with unprecedented seriousness and complexity. Hints of folk music are now mingled with the procedures of Neoclassicism, and greater attention is devoted to formal design, often pointing in the direction of a freer, more through-composed approach. Among the most important works of this period are the Symphony No. 6, the Piano Concerto No. 4, and also operas, which Martinů began composing again in the 1950s after a rather long interruption.
Although Bohuslav Martinů’s operas are not staged often, his works in the genre are definitely deserving of attention. Among the most important are Hry o Marii (The Miracles of Mary), Julietta aneb Snář (Julietta, or The Key to Dreams), and Řecké pašije (The Greek Passion), which he completed in its final version just a few months before his death. While he was working on the grandiose Greek Passion, Martinů managed to write yet another opera (although rather more modest): the one-act opera Ariane (Ariadne). The composer said he devoted himself to the work as a break from The Greek Passion, and he went so far as to call it a “light little comedy”, although the description is not very fitting for the story derived from ancient Greek mythology. Martinů finished Ariadne in 1958 after just a month of work, but he did not live to witness the premiere. The work was first heard in Germany in 1961, and it was given its Czech premiere by the Chamber Opera of the Janáček Academy of Performing Arts in Brno in 1964.
Martinů based the libretto of Ariadne on the play Le Voyage de Thésée by the French dramatist Georges Neveux, an author whose works exhibit a notable tendency towards Surrealism. This was the second time Martinů chose a subject by Neveux for a composition—the first instance had been Julietta, or The Key to Dreams. There are surrealistic elements in Le Voyage de Thésée as well, but for the most part Neveux is toying with an interesting psychological connection. To the ancient legend, he adds the idea that Theseus and the Minotaur have much in common, almost in the sense of an alter ego or split personality. Therefore, when Theseus kills the Minotaur, he also destroys a part of himself: specifically, that part of him that is “responsible” for his love for Ariadne. Ariadne herself, it so happens, is also a bit uncertain—her love for Theseus could easily be love for the monstrous Minotaur. Martinů carried this aspect over into his libretto. Instead of making Theseus the hero, however, he chooses Ariadne as the strong character. The dominance of the female role is not just a matter of the symbolic change to the title: Ariadne’s lament is clearly the pivotal number in the whole opera, accounting for about a quarter of the work’s entire duration. The bravura aria full of intense emotion is said to have been inspired by the singing of none other than Maria Callas. One of the coloratura passages rises to a high D sharp above the treble clef staff. The opera is not continuously through-composed, and it can be divided into several separate numbers, but the composer transitions rather freely between the styles of narrative recitatives and of arioso singing, which are less clearly differentiated than in an opera strictly divided into numbers. The work is divided into three sections, each of which is preceded by an orchestral sinfonia. The first part deals with the meeting of Ariadne and Theseus, and most of it consists of their volatile duet. The subject matter of the second section is the clash with the Minotaur, and the third part features Ariadne’s lament, confessing her feelings after Theseus’s departure.
In the music of Ariadne, Martinů follows in the footsteps of Claudio Monteverdi, composer of what was apparently the first opera about Ariadne (L’Arianna, 1608). In general, Baroque elements are employed, such as a stylisation of accompanied monody (monophony with a simple instrumental background). The opera’s musical language is therefore described as Neo-Baroque, but it is reminiscent of the composer’s Neoclassical works in many ways. Martinů keeps the opera within the bounds of expanded tonality, but the seemingly transparent classical harmonies are often coloured with ninth chords or simple, condensed sonorities. The orchestration becomes an important element determining the form and expressive content. The tutti orchestra is used sparingly, mostly in the three sinfonias. Percussion instruments are often used to describe the mood (the snare drum sounds especially ominous), while xylophone and celesta highlight the unclear boundary between imagination and reality. There are even passages entirely without instrumental accompaniment, mostly assigned to the ensemble of the Six Youths of Athens. Instead of a complicated handling of motifs and themes, Martinů give preference to the ordering and repetition of small motifs and figures, and reminiscences also occur. We hear a fanfare motif (that sounds absurdly optimistic given the opera’s subject matter) several times in the first sinfonia, and it actually frames the whole opera. We also recognise something like an Ariadne motif, a harmonically evocative figure for the strings centred in E minor, which is heard both before Ariadne’s first entrance and before her difficult concluding aria.