A century later, the Czech Nonet was established as an ensemble with permanent members at the Prague Conservatoire at the suggestion of the violinist Emil Leichner, Snr. (1902–1973). Their first official concert took place on 17 January 1924 in Prague, then for four years the ensemble members worked in Lithuania as teachers at the newly founded conservatoire in Klaipėda. After returning to their homeland, overcoming a crisis, and undergoing turnover of personnel, the ensemble acquired a wealth of experience on the concert stage, inspiring numerous Czech and foreign composers to write new works specifically for their instrumentation. The ensemble quickly built an international reputation, greatly helping to enrich the repertoire for this unusual combination of instruments.
The Nonet No. 2 by Bohuslav Martinů was commissioned by the Czech Nonet and was written during the last year of the composer’s life. Martinů had already composed a work for nine instruments in 1924 (Nonet No. 1), but for a combination of strings, winds, and piano, and only a torso has been preserved. The ensemble’s founder, the violinist Emil Leichner, Snr., asked the composer to write a work specifically for the Czech Nonet in 1948, but nothing came of the request. Leichner did not give up, and he approached Martinů again ten years later, when the ensemble was preparing a programme to celebrate the 35th anniversary of its founding. Martinů was recuperating from an operation he had undergone in November 1958, and although he was finishing the opera The Greek Passion, he accepted the commission. The Nonet No. 2 is dated “January 1959”, and the composer sent it to the ensemble in the first week of February. The Czech Nonet scheduled the work’s premiere for its appearance at the Salzburg Festival, at which the ensemble was to be a participant in July 1959. Martinů took a sceptical view of the announcement of the venue for the premiere; in a letter to Miloš Šafránek dated May of that year, he expressed concern that in Salzburg, only dodecaphony can succeed, and whatever does not conform with avant-garde trends is ignored. Before departing for Austria, the Czech Nonet performed the work in June in Polička and also in Prague for a few invited guests. The official premiere in Salzburg took place on 27 July 1959, and it was well received despite the composer’s apprehensions. The Czech premiere of the Nonet had been scheduled for 15 October of that year, but the composer’s death on 28 August hastened the performance, so the Nonet was heard a month earlier in honour of Martinů’s memory. According to Harry Halbreich, author of a Martinů biography and of a catalogue of the composer’s works, in the composition, “like in late Mozart, expression of deep feeling and the wisdom of a lifetime are concealed under the façade of a light divertimento and smiling purity of expression. It is the composer’s ‘most Czech’ work not only because it was intended for Czech musicians, but also because with deep nostalgia, it expresses the unfulfilled desire of the terminally ill musician in exile for his homeland.” In the words of the composer’s biographer Jiří Mihule, “there is no chamber work by Martinů that contains throughout such wealth in the communication of emotion.”