In 1902, an 11-year old Swiss lad, the son of a Calvinist minister, attended a performance in his native Geneva of J.S. Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.” So overcome was the musically and religiously sensitive young Frank Martin (whose name is pronounced in the French manner) that he decided on the spot to make music his life’s work, and Bach his model. Over the next 72 years, right up to the year of his death, 1974, Martin produced a large and fine corpus of works in many genres that places him among Ernest Bloch and Arthur Honegger as Switzerland’s foremost 20th century composers.
As Switzerland is poised between France and Germany, so does Frank Martin’s mature music combine Gallic and Teutonic elements: the sensuous colors and clear textures of Maurice Ravel and Albert Roussel, the counterpoint of Bach and, starting around 1930, the twelve-tone technique of Arnold Schoenberg, albeit employed personally and without forsaking tonality. In the taxonomy of 20th-century musical “isms,” Martin might be most easily classified as an exponent of neo-classicism, exemplified by his two masterpieces for chamber orchestra, the “Petite Symphonie Concertante for Harp, Harpsichord, Piano and Two String Orchestras” and the “Concerto for Seven Winds, Timpani, Percussion and String Orchestra.” If you want to hear what neo-classicism sounds like, you can’t do much better than these two great works:
Elegance, unflagging invention, piquant but palatable harmonies, delight in unusual color combinations, both gravity and uplift — I love this music and hope you do too.
The chorus was a mainstay of Martin’s focus from first to last, and from shorter a cappella works to such large-scale oratorios as “Le vin herbé” (a 1940 telling of the “Tristan and Iseult” story for 12 voices and five-part chamber ensemble), “In terra pax” (a 1944 setting for large vocal and orchestral forces of Biblical passages on war and peace) and his valedictory 1972 “Requiem.”
Then there is the extraordinary choral work that Martin mostly composed in 1922, added the final section to in 1926 — then put in a drawer until finally allowing publication and performance in 1963. What on earth would possess a composer to suppress for forty years as fine a piece as Martin’s “Mass for Eight Voices?”
Actually, the reason was not to be found on earth at all. Rather, Martin considered the Mass to be a private matter between himself and his God, and did not want it to be judged on aesthetic rather than spiritual grounds. Perhaps the shadow of Bach and his Passion also loomed over the young composer, still searching for his individual voice in his early thirties.
Whatever the motives, we can rejoice that Martin eventually relented, and allowed us to sing and hear one of the most beautiful a cappella Mass settings since the Renaissance. Indeed, Renaissance touches abound, such as the modal melodies and ingenious writing for two choirs, sometimes combined, at other times separated and contrasted. From simple melody to complex counterpoint (the weaving together of several musical line), Martin’s technical range is all-encompassing, but always, always, placed in the service of expression of the text.
To hear such a work from a recording (or a Spotify playlist), in the privacy of your own home, can be a deeply rewarding experience. But to hear it sung by dozens of well-tuned voices, resounding in a beautiful sacred sanctuary, is something quite rare and special. Allow me, then, to bring to your attention, a performance of Frank Martin’s “Mass for Eight Voices” and other works by the splendid Illuminati Vocal Ensemble, collaborating with the UMass Chamber Choir, conducted by Tony Thornton, Saturday evening in the sanctuary of the Newman Center at UMass Amherst. It promises to be a lovely way to spend a fall evening engulfed in the warmth of the human voice and great music.