Biography: Frank Martin (1890 – 1974) (2)

(b Geneva, 15 Sept 1890; d Naarden, 21 Nov 1974). Swiss composer. He was the tenth and youngest child of a Calvinist minister. His ancestors were of French descent, and as Huguenots fled to Geneva in the 18th century. Martin began to compose when he was eight years old. He had only one music teacher, Joseph Lauber, who had studied in Zürich and Munich, and who taught Martin the piano, harmony and composition, but not counterpoint. Martin never went to a conservatory: although he knew at the age of 16 that he wanted to be a musician, and already had something to offer as a composer, he began to study mathematics and physics at his parents’ wish, but did not complete the course. After World War I he lived in Zürich, Rome and Paris. In 1926, having returned to Geneva, he participated in the congress on rhythmic musical education convened by Emile Jaques-Dalcroze. First as a pupil and, after a period of two years, as a teacher of rhythmic theory at the Institut Jaques-Dalcroze, he worked closely with its founder and director. At the same time he was active as a pianist and harpsichordist; he lectured on chamber music at the conservatory and was director of the private music school Technicum Moderne de Musique. From 1943 to 1946 he was president of the Swiss Musicians’ Union.

In 1946 he moved to the Netherlands, in the first instance to Amsterdam and then to his own house in Naarden. From there he held a composition class at the Cologne Hochschule für Musik (1950–57). To an increasing extent he travelled all over the world performing his works. The growing regard for him at home and abroad was reflected in many prizes and honours, and his works came to enjoy a firm place in the repertories of orchestras and choirs. He was survived by his third wife, Maria (née Boeke), whom he had married in 1940.

The extremely prolonged development of his characteristic style makes it impossible to place Martin in any particular school or to compare him with any other composer. A great deal of German music was played in his family, and this was true of Geneva’s musical life in general before the effect of Ansermet’s work was felt (from 1917). A performance of the St Matthew Passion made a very deep impression on the 12-year-old boy. For a long time he was unable to detach himself from Bach’s harmony; its influence is apparent until the Piano Quintet (1919) and reminiscences of it remain even in Golgotha (1945–8). From an early age his favourite instrument was the piano, and all his life he considered harmony to be the most important musical element. Besides Bach, he was influenced by Schumann and Chopin; in the First Violin Sonata (1913) the influence of Franck also becomes evident. This resulted in a complicated point of departure: a composer who was French in outlook was entrenched in a style essentially determined by German antecedents, and in a harmonic style to be conquered only by a radical upheaval.

The earliest works bear witness to this conflict: the Trois poèmes païens, performed in Vevey in 1911 at the Swiss Composers’ Festival, and the oratorio-like Les dithyrambes, performed by Ansermet in 1918. As a result of meeting this conductor, who was to give the first performances of most of his works, Martin came to terms with Ravel and Debussy. In the Quatre sonnets à Cassandre, composed to poems by Ronsard in 1921, and the earliest work which Martin acknowledged in later life, he moved to a linear, consciously archaic style, restricted to modal melody and perfect triads and evading the tonal gravitation of Classical and Romantic harmony. Experiments with ancient, Indian and Bulgarian rhythms and with folk music filled the next decade (e.g. the Trio sur des mélodies populaires irlandaises, 1925, and Rythmes for orchestra, 1926). But this new harmonic freedom was paid for by the renunciation of chromaticism and dissonant chords. After 1933 Martin found what he required in the 12-note technique of Schoenberg, which he adopted in the Quatre pièces brèves for guitar (1933), the First Piano Concerto (1933–4), the Rhapsodie for five strings (1935), his most uncompromising work, the equally stringent but less dissonant String Trio (1936) and the Symphony (1937), which uses jazz instruments. His application of 12-note technique is unorthodox, and Martin rejected Schoenberg’s aesthetics. For in the future too, harmony remained the determining factor for Martin: harmony within an extended tonality, with a strong personal stamp.

The first work in his mature style is the secular oratorio Le vin herbé for 12 solo voices with the accompaniment of seven strings and piano. The text is taken from Joseph Bédier’s novel Tristan et Iseut and includes the prologue, three chapters and the epilogue without any alteration. The choir relates, and comments on, the action, and individual members detach themselves for passages of dialogue. Melodic inflection and a subtle rhythmic treatment match normal dramatic speech. 12-note themes generally appear in only one voice, frequently with equal note values, sometimes as an ostinato, but seldom using octave transpositions. In the accompaniment, perfect triads are deployed in unusual progressions. Dissonant chords are developed in smooth part-writing, often over a static bass which indicates the momentary tonal centre. As a result of Martin’s ‘gliding tonality’, a movement rarely ends in its initial key (see Billeter, 1969, 1970).

These features remained in Martin’s music after Le vin herbé. He had produced the Ballade for alto saxophone just before the first part of the oratorio, and three further ballades, for flute, for piano and for trombone, came immediately after. He wrote two more later in his career, for cello (1949) and for viola (1972). The ballades are one-movement works in several sections for a solo instrument accompanied by a piano or chamber orchestra. They are full of dramatic tension and dynamism: even ostinato elements are repeated seldom more than twice without alteration or development. Phrases are never merely juxtaposed: he rarely used a static or simple element, even when he chose a static form, as in the Passacaille (1944).

Composition did not come easily to Martin. He repeatedly spoke of the anxiety he felt when starting work on a composition, because his ideas were still unformed. In vocal works the text provides a scaffolding; in instrumental works he allowed himself to be directed by a specific task, such as an unusual combination of instruments. The Petite symphonie concertante, by far the most widely known of Martin’s works, was commissioned by Sacher. It was to utilize all the common string instruments: bowed strings in the double string orchestra, plucked and struck instruments with the solo group of harp, harpsichord and piano. The combination of greatly differing intensities and the reconciliation of different timbres yield fascinating musical effects. Effective ideas are never employed in a manner that is merely evocative. The two-movement work is of an ingenious, original form, and yet readily comprehensible in broad outline.

Martin’s understanding of the tone-colours of instruments and their potential for virtuoso performance offered him an inexhaustible source of ideas, and has helped ensure his continued popularity with performers. As well as in the Ballades, and in his only major solo piano work, the Preludes (1948), Martin’s feeling for instruments is particularly evident in the concertos. There the orchestral as much as the solo writing proves ideally suited to the medium: the Concerto pour 7 instruments à vent (1949) illustrates both to striking effect.

Martin had not set any religious texts, apart from two attempts at liturgical music in the 1920s, which long remained unpublished. Then in 1944 Radio Geneva commissioned him to write a choral work to be broadcast on armistice day. Martin regarded this as a most exacting task: only biblical words seemed adequate to the purpose, and thus originated the short oratorio In terra pax, the first part of which expresses the gloom of wartime, the second the joys of earthly peace, the third forgiveness among human beings, while the last refers to divine peace. Shortly after the completion of In terra pax, in the spring of 1945, Martin was profoundly impressed by Rembrandt’s etching The Three Crosses, and it was then that his idea of the great Passion work Golgotha began to take shape. He resisted the idea of a liturgical work on the Bach model, preferring to present the events of the Passion and let the hearer draw his own conclusions. There are contemplative settings of meditations of St Augustine between the seven ‘pictures’, giving a formal unity to the whole. The Gospel recitatives are distributed between various soloists and, at particularly dramatic junctures, entrusted to the chorus, which, much as in Le vin herbé, chants homophonically.

In the two operas Der Sturm and Monsieur de Pourceaugnac, Martin’s sense of the poetic, the atmospheric and the humorous are displayed. The Gospel Nativity narrative is used in what is not really an opera, but a ‘scenic oratorio’, Le mystère de la Nativité, based on part of the vast 15th-century mystery play by Arnoul Greban, Le mystère de la Passion. The short oratorio Pilate (1964) originates from the same source. The three levels of action on the stage (at the very bottom hell with the devils, in the middle the earthly scenes, at the top the heavenly world) have three corresponding musical sounds: the grotesque apparition of hell is illustrated by almost atonal music, the angels sing in a completely simple style, while the music for the action on earth mediates between the two.

While Martin proved adept at moving between such stylistic extremes, his music always retained a recognizable sound, a personal style. But this does not mean that the style did not develop. Indeed his creative powers remained undiminished, his expressive range seemingly inexhaustible. The first new stylistic step is recognizable in his Cello Concerto (1965–6), which successfully integrates pentatonicism within an otherwise chromatic harmonic language, through an extension of his notion of ‘gliding tonality’. Two other new elements were brought to him by his two youngest children: the sounds of electric guitars and flamenco rhythms. Martin used the first in the Ballade des pendus (1969), and again two years later in the two other songs of Poèmes de la mort for three male voices and three electric guitars, in which the stylistic allusions to pop music help to express in grotesque manner the black humour of Villon’s text. In the complex rhythmic superpositions of flamenco dances, Martin found a counterpart to the rhythmic experiments that had preoccupied him for much of his career, and also the inspiration for the Trois dances (1970), written for Sacher, Heinz and Ursula Holliger, and the Fantaisie sur des rythmes flamenco (1973), written for Paul Badura-Skoda, works which also show him experimenting with incomplete chromatic clusters.

Sacred works dominate the last years of Martin’s life. Even the instrumental works – such as Polyptyque for violin and two string orchestras (1973), a set of six pictures of the Passion of Christ – are religious in inspiration. Most important among these late works is the Requiem (1971–2). Martin had intended to write a Requiem for decades, but the final stimulus came only in January 1971 during a journey which took in the sacred architecture of Venice, Paestum and Monreale. As with the French and German verses he had used in earlier works, he mastered here the natural prosody of the Latin language. His last work, the cantata Et la vie l’emporta, written during his last illness, reflects the struggle between life and death and the ultimate victory of life. The orchestration of the last part was completed, following the composer’s indications, by his friend Bernard Reichel.

Martin frequently wrote about his own work and about music in general; in his last years, he was exercised particularly by the question of the responsibility of the composer. His beliefs are, perhaps, best summarized in this statement (1966):


W. Schuh: ‘Frank Martin’, Schweizer Musik der Gegenwart, Kritiken und Essays, iii (Zürich, 1948), 131–45

E. Ansermet, P. Meylan and W. Schuh: ‘Frank Martin’, Feuilles musicales, vi/Nov (1953)

A. Frank: ‘Works by Frank Martin’, MT, xciv (1953), 461–2

R. Klein: Frank Martin: sein Leben und Werk (Vienna, 1960)

Cérémonie de collation du grade de docteur honoris causa à M. Frank Martin (Lausanne, 1961) [incl. lecture by G. Guisan, C. Regamey and Martin]

A. Koelliker: Frank Martin: biographie, les oeuvres (Lausanne, 1963)

J.A. Tupper: Stylistic Analysis of Selected Works by Frank Martin (diss., Indiana U., 1964)

R. Klein: ‘Frank Martins jüngste Werke’, ÖMz, xx (1965), 483–6

J.-C. Piguet and F. Martin: Entretiens sur la musique (Neuchâtel, 1967)

E. Ansermet: ‘Frank Martins historische Stellung’, ÖMz, xxiv (1969), 137–41

B. Billeter: Frank Martin: ein Aussenseiter der neuen Musik (Frauenfeld, 1970)

B. Billeter: Die Harmonik bei Frank Martin: Untersuchungen zur Analyse neuerer Musik (Berne, 1971)

B. Martin: Frank Martin ou la réalité du rêve (Neuchâtel, 1973)

Zodiaque, no.103 (1975) [Frank Martin issue]

J.-C. Piguet and J. Burdet, eds.: Correspondance 1934–1968 (Neuchâtel, 1976) [correspondence with Ansermet]

SMz, cxvi/5 (1976) [Martin issue; incl. B. Billeter: ‘Die letzten Vokalwerke von Frank Martin’, 344–51; C. Regamey: ‘Les éléments flamenco dans les dernières oeuvres de Frank Martin’, 351–9; work-list, writings and bibliography, 378–86]

Société Frank Martin: Bulletin, nos.1–21 (Lausanne, 1980–99) [incl. correspondence with E. Ansermet, V. Desarzens, R. Looser, P. Mieg, B. Reichel, A. Schibler and writings by Martin]

B. Billeter: ‘Frank Martins Bühenwerke’, Musiktheater: zum Schaffen von schweizer Komponisten des 20. Jahrhunderts/Théâtre musical: l’oeuvre de compositeurs suisses du 20e siècle, ed. D. Baumann (Bonstetten, 1983), 92–108

Frank Martin: die Welt eines Komponisten (Zürich, 1984) [exhibition catalogue]

P. Sulzer, ed.: Lettres à Victor Desarzens (Lausanne, 1988)

B. Billeter: ‘Die geistlichen Werke von Frank Martin: zum hundertsten Geburtstag’, Musik und Kirche, lx/5 (1990), 233–44

M. Cooke: ‘Frank Martin’s Early Development’, MT, cxxxi (1990), 437–8

D. Kämper, ed.: Frank-Martin-Symposium: Cologne 1990

C.W. King: Frank Martin: a Bio-Bibliography (Westport, 1990)

Frank Martin: Leben und Werk, Philharmonie, Cologne, 15 Sept – 30 Oct 1990 (Cologne, 1990) [exhibition catalogue]

M. Martin: Souvenirs de ma vie avec Frank Martin (Lausanne, 1990) [Engl. trans. in preparation]

A. Baltensperger: ‘Fragen des Métiers bei Frank Martin’, Quellenstudien I: Gustav Mahler, Igor Strawinsky, Anton Webern, Frank Martin, ed. H. Oesch (Winterthur, 1991), 157–234

B. Billeter: ‘Die Harmonik in den Werken von Frank Martin’, Harmonik im 20. Jahrhundert: Vienna 1991, 9–17

M. Cooke: ‘Frank Martin’s Stylistic Maturity’, MT, cxxxiv (1993), 134–6, 197–9

T. Seedorf: ‘Porträt der literarischen Form: Rilkes “Cornet” in der Vertonung von Frank Martin’, Mf, xlvi (1993), 254–67

S. Hanheide: ‘Zum friedensutopischen Gehalt von Frank Martins Oratorium “In terra pax”’, Osnabrücker Jahrbuch Frieden und Wissenschaft, iii (1996), 105–16

B. Billeter: Frank Martin: Werdegang und Musiksprache seiner Werke (Mainz, 1999) [incl. list of works 224–42]

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