Martinů was born in Polička, Bohemia. He became a violinist in the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, and taught music in his home town. In 1923 Martinů left Czechoslovakia for Paris, and deliberately withdrew from the Romantic style in which he had been trained. In the 1930s he experimented with expressionism and constructivism, and became an admirer of current European technical developments, exemplified by his orchestral works Half-time and La Bagarre. He also adopted jazz idioms, for instance in his Kuchyňské revue ("Kitchen Revue"). Of the post-war avant-garde styles, neo-classicism influenced him the most. He continued to use Czech and Moravian folk melodies throughout his oeuvre, usually nursery rhymes—for instance in Otvírání studánek ("The Opening of the Wells").
He emigrated to the United States in 1941, fleeing the German invasion of France. Although as a composer he was successful in America, receiving many commissions, he became homesick for Czechoslovakia. He never returned to his native country, and he died in Switzerland.
The church tower where Martinů was born and lived his youngest years
Martinů was born in a church tower in Polička, Bohemia, where his father (a shoemaker) was a watchman. As a child he developed a local reputation, giving his first public concert in his hometown in 1905. In 1906 he became a violin student at the Prague Conservatory, where he studied briefly before being dismissed for "incorrigible negligence". He continued his studies on his own.
He spent the First World War in his home town as a teacher, where he pursued his interests in composition. He also joined the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra as a violinist. His balletIstar was completed in 1922. He left Czechoslovakia for Paris in 1923, where he became a pupil of Albert Roussel, though he retained many links with his birthplace. When the German army approached Paris early in the Second World War, he fled, first to the south of France, and then to the United States in 1941, where he settled in New York with his French wife. Life in America was difficult for him, as it was for many of the other outstanding artists who arrived in similar circumstances. Lack of knowledge of English, lack of funds, and lack of opportunities to use their talents were problems common to all such émigré artists at first. However, Martinů did acclimatise himself. He composed a great deal and taught at the Mannes College of Music for most of the period from 1948–1956. His six symphonies were written in the eleven-year period 1942–1953, the first five being produced between 1942 and 1946.
In 1953 Martinů left the United States for France and settled in Nice returning in 1955. In 1956 he took up an appointment as composer-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome. He died at a clinic in Liestal, Switzerland, on August 28, 1959.
A characteristic feature of his orchestral writing is the near-omnipresent piano; most of his orchestral works include a prominent part for piano, including his small concerto for harpsichord and chamber orchestra. The bulk of his writing from the 1930s into the 1950s was in a neoclassical vein, but with his last works he opened up his style to include more rhapsodic gestures and a looser, more spontaneous sense of form. This is easiest to hear by comparing his sixth symphony, titled Fantaisies symphoniques, with its five predecessors, all from the 1940s.
One of Martinů's lesser known works is a piece featuring the theremin commissioned by Lucie Bigelow Rosen. Martinů started working on this commission in the summer of 1944 and finished his Fantasia for theremin, oboe, string quartet and piano on October 1, dedicating it to Rosen, who premiered the piece as theremin soloist in New York on November 3, 1945, along with the Koutzen Quartet and Robert Bloom.
His orchestral work Memorial to Lidice remembers a village of the same name that was destroyed by the Nazis in reprisal for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in the late spring of 1942. It was written in 1943 whilst he was in New York.
In his own words
The artist is always searching for the meaning of life, his own and that of mankind, searching for truth. A system of uncertainty has entered our daily life. The pressures of mechanisation and uniformity to which it is subject call for protest and the artist has only one means of expressing this, by music.