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Henri Martelli

The French composer Henri Martelli was born on 25 February 1895 in Santa Fe de la Vera Cruz (Argentina). His father Jean Pierre Martelli was a railway engineer and from 1887 to 1907 he was working at the Argentine railway network in the province Santa Fe. Henri was the oldest of five children. His sister Marie (*1896) was born on Corsica, the next two children Charles (*1897) and Aline (*1900) again in Argentina and the youngest son Albert again on Corsica. So the family lived here and there for a couple of years but it seems that the stay in Argentina did not have much impression on Henri Martelli. He later showed no specific interest in the country and usually gave Bastia as his birthplace.


In 1905 Henri Martelli entered the Lycee de Bastia and finished the first part of his baccalaureat in 1912. He then moved to Marseille and completed his baccalaureat at the Academie d‘Aix in Aix-en-Provence.
It is not known how and why Henri Martelli came to music in a household of an engineer. But in 1907 he was already good enough to receive private piano and harmony lessons by the local Ernesto Zwicker. The Austrian Zwicker was born in Trieste and later moved to Corsica. There are no biographical information available about him today but according to Henri Martelli he was a well educated and very good musician.

In 1913 Henri Martelli moved from Marseille to Paris and first studied law. He finished his studies in 1919 with a „licencie en droit“. Parallel to his law studies he also continued his musical education. Henri Martelli received private lessons by Mr. Gazier, the brother of renowned historian Augustin Gazier and also entered the harmony class of Jules Mouquet at the conservatory.


After finishing his law studies Henri Martelli focused on music and fully enrolled at the conservatory where he studied under Georges Caussade (counterpoint) and Charles-Marie Widor (composition, fugue). He finished his studies in the early 1920s and completely dedicated himself to a career as a composer so it seems. During the 1920s Henri Martelli started to compose seriously and until 1930 his work list had grown up to opus 30. Some of his compositions received premieres at the conservatory but essentially he was still a composer who waited for his success and who could not make a living from composing.

The late 1920s were full of private incidents for Henri Martelli. In 1924 Jean Pierre Martelli, the father of Henri, died at the age of 61. In 1926 the youngest brother of Henri, Albert Martelli, passed away unexpectedly at the age of 21. This had a huge impact on Henri Martelli and he composed the large orchestral work „Le tombeau d‘Albert“ (The tomb of Albert) as a result. The work was later retitled to „Mors et Juventa“ but never received a performance as far as I know. Good news came in 1927 when Henri Martelli married his wife Marie Ricaud.


The breakthrough as a composer for Henri Martelli came in 1930. In that year the Boston Symphony Orchestra under renowned conductor Serge Koussevitzky premiered his work „Bas-reliefs assyriens pour orchestre“. The reputation of the eminent conductor and orchestra as well as the enthusiastic critics gave the vital impulse for the career of Henri Martelli. Especially Serge Koussevitzky was a great admirer of his works and premiered several compositions with the Boston SO: „Concerto pour orchestre“ (in 1932), „Ouverture sur deux themes russe“ (in 1934) and „Passacaille sur un theme russe“ (in 1935). Now also notable French musicians performed his works: The „Divertissement sarrasin“ was premiered by the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris under Pierre Monteux in 1930, his „La Bouteille de Panurge“ by the Orchestre Nationale de France under Desire-Emile Inghelbrecht in 1937 and chamber works by the Kolisch Quartet, Janine Andrade, Robert Soetens or Marcelle Gerar.


In the 1930s Henri Martelli was also an active part of the association work of the composers. As a member of the board of directors of the Societe National de Musique he experienced the existing problems of this union. As a result Henri Martelli was one of the founding members (beside Emmanuel Bondeville, Florent Schmitt and Alexandre Tansman) of a new composer organisation in 1940: the Association de Musique Contemporaine (A.M.C). Since the same year he was also board member of the French section of the International Society for Centemporary Music and worked as their secretary. And in 1953 Henri Martelli became president of the S.I.M.C.


Another activity started in 1940 when Henri Martelli became head of the symphonic and chamber music service of the French radio. He held this position until 1944. In addition Henri Martelli was often jury member at choral competitions or instrumental exams at the Paris conservatory. For many of those exams he also composed the compulsory pieces.


Through the years Henri Martelli received different awards for his musical compositions. In 1948 he was awarded the Prix Theophraste Renaudot, in 1949 the „Medaille d‘hommage de la SACEM“, in 1961 the Prix Saint-Paul and in 1971 the Prix Florent Schmitt.


Henri Martelli did not work as a teacher or conductor like many of his colleagues. Beside his work for music associations like the Societe National de Musique, the S.I.M.C and the A.M.C he fully dedicated his life to composing. His most successful years were from the 1930s to the 1960s when he was regularly and widely performed. His most performed works are surely the Piano concerto op.56 which had several advocates like Ginette Doyen, Francoise Gobet and Lelia Gousseau and his Sept duos pour harpe et violon op.66 which was also taken over by many renowed harpists like Lily Laskine, Odette Le Dentu or Martine Geliot.


Henri Martelli died on 15 July 1980 in Paris.


Henri Martelli Archive


In my possession is the main estate of Henri Martelli. That includes autograph manuscripts for most of his compositions (published and unpublished) but also private documents. To give musicians and researchers a possibility to look through the content of my archive I created a finding aid. This finding aid can be downloaded below in pdf-format.

PDF-Dokument [11.6 MB]
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© Tobias Broeker