Oratoria de la Passion pour 5 solistes (soprano, contralto, ténor, baryton, basse), choeur mixte, orgue et orchestre
A Passion oratorio for 5 soloists (soprano, contralto, tenor, baritone, bass), mixed choir, organ and orchestra

Golgotha, a stratified and many-sided oratorio

The triumph of light over darkness is central to the religious music of Frank Martin. This is even true of his Passion oratorio Golgotha, thus distinguishing it from illustrious counterparts of the past. 

‘Essential and sovereign light!’ With this exclamation Golgotha ends in ecstatic joy, directly after the choir and vocal soloists have sung the praises of the Resurrection of Jesus. On first acquaintance, the cheerfully exuberant mood of this passage would appear to clash with the deep emotions of the Passion story. For all Christians, however, the suffering, death and Resurrection of Jesus are inseparably intertwined. Unlike Bach’s Passions, Frank Martin decided from the outset that the Resurrection would form part of his own Passion oratorio. In so doing, he drew on references to the true Light of God that he found in a hymn of praise in the Easter Vigil (Exsultet) and in the meditations attributed to Augustine. These texts also enabled him to create a satisfactory balance, within the ten-movement work, between the facts of the biblical account and the subjective reflection of a believer.

It was clear from the very beginning that light was to play a key role in Golgotha. In June 1945, one month after the armistice in Europe, Frank Martin and his wife visited an exhibition of Rembrandt’s etches in the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva, where they were living at the time. The composer was deeply moved by the etching The Three Crosses, in which the crucified Jesus is depicted frontally, illuminated by a heavenly light. To the left and right are the crosses of the two criminals who were executed with him on Mount Golgotha. Having returned to the exhibition several times, Martin became convinced that he must attempt to express in music what Rembrandt had represented so vividly on a small piece of paper.

Thus the plan to compose a Passion took shape, though Martin, a great Bach devotee, considered his intention ‘exceptionally arrogant’. He had been captivated by the Thomas Cantor ever since he heard the St Matthew Passion performed when he was twelve years old. He knew every single note of Bach’s Passions, but now he had to tear himself away from his great example. This process was eased by the fact that he could compose purely from an inner urge, without an official commission.

On a walk during a brief retreat in Chexbres on the Lake of Geneva, Martin arrived at the conclusion that he was willing to face this challenge. Having compiled the text, he began to compose in July 1945 while on holiday with his family in Paul Sacher’s summer house in Saanen. (Six years previously Bartók had written his Divertimento in that same chalet ‘Aellen’, likewise on the invitation of the Swiss conductor and Maecenas.) As recorded in the score, Martin completed the first half on 5 January 1946, before having to work on other projects such as the Petite symphonie concertante and the music to Racine’s play Athalie.

In July 1946 the Martins moved from Switzerland to the Netherlands, which was Maria’s fatherland. In mid-November they took up residence in a house on the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam. In early 1947 the composer again turned his attention to Golgotha, completing the second half in October, with the exception of the tenth and final tableau. This extensive final chorus, which had matured for so long, was finished on 8 June 1948 after only a few days’ work. In the autumn of that year Martin completed the orchestration, despite an interruption for a concert tour of South America. Later on he was to look back in a letter to the choral conductor Willy Fotsch, saying that he and his wife viewed this long creative period ‘as a blessed time, a Holy Week which had lasted for nearly three years’.

Rembrandt The Three Crosses (1653)

The structure of the text of the ten tableaus of Golgotha falls into three categories. Movements 1, 6 and 10 are meditative sections which do not employ biblical texts. (As mentioned, the final movement tells of the Resurrection, but without quotations from the Gospels.) In movements 2, 3, 5, 7 and 9 each Gospel text is followed by a meditation. Characteristic of these ‘combination movements’ is the change of mood at the point where the tension or tragedy of the biblical narration makes way for spiritual reflection. The transition within the 7th movement is particularly effective because the repeated cry of ‘Christ!’ is prolongued: in the biblical text these are the hostile cries of the incited crowd, while in the ensuing meditation they are the devoted signs of compassion expressed by the humble sinner.

Movements 4 and 8, finally, employ only the biblical text, without commentary. Martin probably wished to couple movements 4 and 5, and likewise 8 and 9, so as not to interrupt the biblical narrative at such crucial points. In the first case the Last Supper and the prayer on the Mount of Olives at Gethsemane are seamlessly linked; the second instance concerns the Way of the Cross to Golgotha, shortly after Pilate has delivered his prisoners to the people.

In addition to the meditations of Pseudo-Augustine, Martin employs short fragments from the Confessions of Augustine and the Creed (1st movement), Psalm 121 (6th movement), the First Epistle to the Corinthians and, as mentioned, the Exsultet (10th movement).

In his libretto and composition, Frank Martin focuses as much as possible on the person of Jesus, as Rembrandt had done in his etch. For the baritone soloist who sings the words of Jesus, this is his exclusive role. Jesus is also highlighted in events preceding the Passion story itself: the Entry into Jerusalem (2nd movement) and the reproaches of the scribes and pharisees in the temple (3rd movement). On the other hand, Martin limits the role of other personages: Judas has only two words to say and Peter is conspicuously absent. Even the figure of the evangelist becomes faint, since his words are sung in turn by the soloists (sometimes in duet), and in the 9th movement by the entire choir (though surprisingly subdued). The only two biblical figures who come somewhat to the fore are the High Priest (bass) in the 7th movement and particularly Pilate (tenor) in the 8th.

Frank Martin, the son of a Calvinist minister and a man of great biblical knowledge, creates a clever balance between the two large sections of Golgotha. In the first half (movements 1-5) Jesus is manifest as an emotional and vulnerable person among the people, while in the second half (movements 6-10) his role is largely that of the detached and majestic God. Mortal as man, righteous as God: this characterisation of Christ in the Confessions of Augustine (X, 43) could serve as a motto here. In the 1st movement Martin quotes a passage from that chapter, where the Church Father writes of the twofold form of the Lord.

In her memoires, Maria Martin emphasises that her husband, despite his roots, was not a Calvinist but a Christian in the broader sense. Even in the details of his text setting the composer seems to adopt an ecumenical attitude. The musicologist Magda de Meester points out that he replaced certain Protestant expressions by Roman Catholic equivalents, apparently in the hope that his text would appeal to persons of both beliefs. One can imagine how pleased he must have been, after a performance of Golgotha, to overhear two Catholic priests wondering whether the composer was a Catholic or Protestant.

In musical terms, Golgotha offers a variety of settings in a wide spectrum ranging from austere homophony to sumptuous polyphony. The choir plays a prominent role. Martin generally opts for dark orchestral colours which underline the tragedy of the Passion story. Striking elements are the contribution of the organ to the orchestral texture, and the role of the bassoon as alter ego of the seeking alto in the 6th movement. The piano often plays in the low register and frequently demonstrates its most percussive properties. As one may expect from Frank Martin, the declamation of the French language, following Debussy’s example, is both flowing and natural, the soloists’ vocal lines usually marked by stepwise movement.

Golgotha was first performed on 29 April 1949 in Martin’s birthplace Geneva. That it took place so soon was not due to the composer – he had made no attempt to have it performed – but to the Genevan conductor Samuel Baud-Bovy, who requested permission to give the world premiere with his choral ensemble Société de Chant Sacré. In the following three years successful performances took place in Frankfurt, Zürich, Paris and Besançon. The American premiere in New York on 18 January 1952 was highly acclaimed in reviews by various composers including Virgil Thomson and Henry Cowell.

This great success took Frank Martin by surprise. Lecturing in 1962 on composers and public opinion, he drew attention to a paradox: since he had not anticipated a performance of Golgotha, he was able to compose freely without feeling obliged to please anyone, while as it turned out this oratorio became one of his most frequently performed works.

In Martin’s final years Golgotha continued to be relatively successful. The year 1968 stands out, with two sold-out concerts in the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires and a grammophone recording in Switzerland. After the composer’s death there was sporadic interest in his Passion oratorio, in both the original French version and a German translation. In his adoptive land the Netherlands, the Concertgebouworkest caused a stir in 2013 when it programmed Golgotha for its traditional Palm Sunday concert instead of Bach’s Passions. As we commemorate the death of Frank Martin fifty years ago, new opportunities arise for choirs and orchestras throughout the world to rediscover this stratified and many-sided oratorio.

Michel Khalifa


Hinke 2010
Roman Hinke, liner notes on Golgotha for the CD Harmonia Mundi HMC 902056.57, recording directed by Daniel Reuss.

Martin 1977
Frank Martin, Un compositeur médite sur son art: Ecrits et pensées recueillis par sa femme.
Neuchâtel, Editions de la Baconnière.

Martin 2009
Maria Martin, Treasured Memories: My life with Frank Martin. Bussum: Gooibergpers. [The original version was published in French in 1990.]

Meester 1992
Magda de Meester, “Le Golgotha de Frank Martin (1945-1948)”. Schweizer musikpädagogische Blätter / Cahiers suisses de pégagogie musicale 80 no. 4 (October), 184-192. [The first of four parts: continued in the same journal in July 1993, January 1994 and July 1994.]

translated by Stephen Taylor

Composer’s note: Golgotha

During the spring of 1945, I admired a marvellous collection of etchings by Rembrandt at an exhibition in our Museum of Fine Arts. Amongst so many masterpieces, I was particularly impressed by three prints, three ‘states’, each very different, of a vision of Calvary, usually entitled The Three Crosses. Against a dark background of humans, who seem to be frozen in shock, the three crosses rise up; a sheet of white light descends from heaven onto the central cross, bearing Jesus in agony. From that moment on I was obsessed with the idea to create an image of the Passion within my abilities. But, on the one hand, the magnitude of the subject caused me to doubt my powers, and on the other hand, I did not know how to accomplish this in concrete terms. I would have liked to be able to compress this entire terrible and magnificent drama into one very brief work, as Rembrandt did on his modest sheet of paper. However, I soon understood that a musical work has different requirements to an engraving, or even a poem; a very short piece of music on the Passion would be completely unsatisfactory during a song recital or a symphonic concert. I came to the conclusion that an oratorio, by its dimensions, could provide the framework and atmosphere necessary to express such a subject. I also realised that if I only used the words of the Gospels, I would be unable to establish a coherent musical form; I needed texts which could express lyrical commentary, sort of meditations on the different episodes of the sacred drama, to give a sense of what these episodes mean to us. Thus, inevitably, I was approaching the classical conception of the Passions, such as the magnificently expressed great masterpieces of J.S. Bach: yet another reason to hesitate!

However, it seemed to me that each period of time should have the right to attempt to express the important themes which nourish our minds, and that a new vision of Christ’s suffering and victory over death could provide more present-day relevance, for some people at least. Moreover, I realised that there was little risk that I would produce a menial copy of the classical Passions. In these Passions we follow the story of the death of Christ, a story told to a gathering of believers who react with chorales, arias and ensembles. My idea, in contrast, was for us to relive the sacred drama, and especially to evoke the divine person of Christ; to show him first of all in action, condemning the hypocritical Pharisees with the same vigour as when he drove the traders out of the temple; subsequently to show him during the Last Supper, preparing his disciples for his parting; then in his anguish at Gethsemane. Finally, in the second part, during the trial, to show him having overcome his anguish replying to the High Priest and to Pilate with divine peace and authority. The commentary, the parts of lyrical character, would only intersperse Christ’s different attitudes. I was fortunate to find texts by St. Augustine, long meditations on the mystery of the Passion from which I took excerpts to supplement the account from the Gospels.

True to the first idea, inspired by Rembrandt’s etching, I tried to put the spotlight on the person of Christ, leaving all others in the shadows; for this reason, I decided not to mention St. Peter’s denial. Only two figures stand against him: the High Priest and Pontius Pilate. As I did not intend to follow the story of the Passion step by step from one of the Gospels, but to give an overall view of the sacred drama, I chose from each of the Gospels what I found to be the essence and the most suited to my purpose. This resulted in seven scenes, the first of which is Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and the people’s enthusiastic welcome. The second is entirely devoted to the words spoken by Jesus condemning the hypocrites at the temple. The third is the Last Supper and the fourth takes us to Gethsemane. The first part ends when Jesus is arrested there. The second part consists of the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin (5th scene), before Pilate (6th), and finally leads us to Calvary (7th).

The first scene is preceded by an important chorus which conveys our attitude towards the Passion, followed by a meditation sung by the choir: “How far, oh Saviour and Lord, only Son of the Father, how far wilt Thou come down in Thy measureless humility?” The words spoken at the temple are followed by a meditation, mystic in character, given to the soprano solo: “One day will I too have the good fortune to behold the blessed day, to behold thy fair beauty, when thou wilt enter into my being, thou, my only heavenly consolation?” The Last Supper is followed without a break by the scene at Gethsemane. After the arrest of Jesus, a meditation is sung by the soloists and taken up by the choir, which ends the first part: “Oh see the Lamb of God, taken away by sinners.”

The second part begins with a long lament given to the alto solo, expressing the solitude and distress of the abandoned soul: “What shall I say? What shall I do? Where, oh where shall I find the beloved?” The choir replies, as if from afar, with words of consolation by the psalmist: “I will lift up my eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord which made heaven and earth.” But it is not yet the confirmation of triumph; the soul remains abandoned; Jesus is still in the hands of the sinners. Then comes the high-energy scene of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, which begins with dignity and ends with insults, blows and spitting. The female choir intervenes abruptly with a meditation on our own ignominy. Jesus is then brought before Pilate and once again, in a different way, the scene begins calmly and ends with the population shouting: “Crucify him!” and Pilate’s abandonment. Then it is the scene of Calvary sung by the low voices of the choir, interspersed with only very few words of Jesus on the cross, as told in the Gospel according to St. John. But when Jesus gives up his spirit the choir suddenly cries out: “Oh death! where is thy sting? Oh grave! where is thy victory?” The whole final chorus evokes the luminous mystery of the Resurrection.

I have given more emphasis here to what my intentions were, rather than to the musical realisation of this oratorio. However, before ending, I need to say some words about it. In this musical composition, I have tried to exclude anything which might seem to be some kind of aesthetic research, by keeping as much as possible to my idea of the right expression for each scene and each sentiment. I was not afraid to write certain passages in a very simple musical language, and others in a much more complex and tormented language, which could doubtlessly appear difficult for those who have to study it, especially the vocal parts. Let me assure you that no difficulties were included in this score unless I found it essential for the musical expression of the text.

One of the great problems for singers lies in the fact that the melodic lines only make sense together with the other voices, the harmony and the bass line. It is only when the sound construction is complete and assured, that the musical sense is revealed. Of course, this does not help with studying! I hope that the Chanteurs du Chant Sacré will be rewarded finally for their great trouble and that they will be able to find some joy in performing this oratorio.

[…] Before going any further, I would like to tell you about another composition on sacred texts that I’m working on at the moment, of my own free choice. It is not a commissioned work and there is no excuse for taking it on, after all that I have just said. This new oratorio is a Passion in two parts, the first of which is now complete. I chose the text from different Gospels, and some contemplative parts from writings by St. Augustine. The decision to devote myself to this work contradicts any reasonable reflections on this subject, requiring a few words of explanation. Moreover, writing a Passion after the ones left to us by J.S. Bach must certainly appear very pretentious. In a way this decision was imposed on me after I saw Rembrandt’s etching The Three Crosses. In spite of all my inner reticence, this subject gripped me, especially this vision, new to me, of the Passion which Rembrandt’s work evoked.

There is a strange white light which falls vertically onto a dark world where, below the three crosses bearing the dying Jesus and the thieves, a whole world of figures seem frozen in a kind of prostration. In the first “states” of this etching, they seem to be looking away from the unfolding drama. In the last “state” Rembrandt has turned them around so they seem to be looking at the crosses; but perhaps they are even more frozen in their contemplation than when they seemed to want to flee. This is probably Rembrandt’s strongest work; in any case the one which expresses his spirit best of all. On this little piece of paper, we see the moment in the history of the world when the fundamental incompatibility between our material world and the spiritual world is most strikingly revealed. With the spirit revealed in all its clarity in the person of Christ, it was inconceivable for the world not to refuse or reject him. The world could not bear the brightness of such a light because primarily it was not illuminated but obscured. With a few strokes of shadow and light, on a small rectangle of paper, Rembrandt documented this tragic opposition and the supreme hope which this great light, descending from heaven onto these three crosses, can offer us.

There could be no question of transposing a similar conception into music, nor the emotion I felt on contemplating these Three Crosses, all that remained was a sort of inner obligation to tackle this subject, for once in my life and within my abilities, the greatest subject of all. I know that many will only see a piece of music like other works of music; I know that it will be seen as matter of artistic value, whose aesthetics will be discussed. I find that utterly disagreeable in advance. I also know that the oratorio could shock the intimate feelings of some believers, that it would be uncomfortable for them to hear a singer expressing the very important role of Christ, and that would grieve me. I know all the dangers of such an undertaking and that a work of this sort would more or less fall short in our artistic world. But in any case, I must write this oratorio one day, so it might as well be today rather than tomorrow. There is always hope that it could once, in spite of its imperfections, give someone the sense of this tragic encounter of shadow and light. I add that my plan, in this oratorio of the Passion which I call Golgotha, is quite different to that of J.S. Bach. His work is church music, written for his church, and his Passions seem to express above all the believers’ feelings for the Passion. The Evangelist tells the story, dramatized more or less by the intervention of various characters and of the choir. But the accent is on the recitatives, the arias sung by the soloists, the big, lyrical choruses and the chorales. Bach’s Passions represent worship of the Passion and reach out to deeply committed Christians, expressing varying sentiments and faith.

The Golgotha, which I intend to complete, aims to present the event itself, leaving the listener to draw his own conclusions. This will be an oratorio to be played in a church, but it will not be church music. It should be like a performance of the Passion drama, but not in worship. The contemplative parts which separate the different scenes, settings of text by St. Augustine, are only there to give time for meditation and to give orderliness to the totality in a musical form, which could not be done with the narrative texts of the different gospels. During the entire first part, which takes us up to the arrest of Jesus, I emphasize certain characteristics of his person which become evident during the days preceding the Passion. They explain his gestures and words spoken in the temple, when he violently condemns the religious leaders. Thus, I have included a large part of these statements, which are truly provocative and which led fatally to his condemnation: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.” During the last days of his life, the human aspect of Christ is affirmed distinctly and continues until his definite acceptance at Gethsemane, when he speaks the words: “Thy will be done.” When he is arrested, he is just a poor accused man, no more than a condemned prisoner who is dragged to his agony. However, although vanquished in the eyes of the world, he is totally victorious in his human nature; he is truly victorious.

Frank Martin

(Extract from the lecture ‘Le compositeur moderne et les textes sacrés’, given in Basel in May 1946. In: Un compositeur médite sur son art, op. cit.)

translated by Rachel Ann Morgan

Recordings (selective list)

Cappella Amsterdam/Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir Daniel Reuss Harmonia Mundi – HMC 902056.57 ℗ + © 2010 2010 https://open.spotify.com/album/5e4wykw9slSUhadRLliVgZ?si=vNpBP2S5SJisHRN2HSNHSQ
Symphony Orchestre/Faller Choir/Choir University de Lausanne Robert Faller Erato ℗ 1969 + © 1998 Apex © 2007 Warner Classics 2007 https://open.spotify.com/album/2V55RTXC5n9ADxmWllzwRa?si=CD0VDN-LSPGu6rn6e7EKYg
Ensemble Vocal de Lausanne & Sinfonietta de Lausanne Michel Corboz Cascavelle VEL 3004 / Brilliant Classics ℗ 1994 2005 https://open.spotify.com/album/3NHpSEBbjlGAHZljCyo4WG?si=C5EQVFoTSLGWmC9K3LaZ5Q
Berliner Symphoniker
Solistenensemble der Musikhochschule Luzern
Luzerner Knabenkantorei/Kantorei der Stiftskirche Stuttgart
Alois Koch Musiques Suisse MGB CD 6221 ℗ + © 2004 2004 https://open.spotify.com/album/1O41OKMQxgqPsYCVzXnp1C?si=VgT0F-vuSJmEHV1vCgQSDg
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks & Münchner Rundfunkorchester Marcello Viotti Hänssler PH04037 ℗ 2000 + © 2005 2005 https://open.spotify.com/album/3f53likziBntojtqmppVpg?si=j_xHoD9gQ4epdUtUvT2bxQ
Chor der Erlöserkirche Bad Homburg, Frankfurter Bläservereinigung & Offenbacher Kammerorchester Hayko Siemens VENGO 354.402/03 ℗ + © 1988 1988 https://open.spotify.com/album/5v1nseTpodYEetOQUqY3Jw?si=O93aZ1ItTy6kyoP8FdQLsQ
Wiener Singakademie, Concentus Vocalis & Wiener Jeunesse Orchester Herbert Böck Hansler 98327 © 1998 + ℗ 1999 1999 https://open.spotify.com/album/0kwOwAdzqSONK7I4Nbkv9t?si=EN4kin9BTsK7vapjJcOntA

This QR code gives access to this specific page and can be downloaded for use in concert programmes, other printed matter or on screen to provide information about Frank Martin’s Passion oratorio Golgotha.

(original version in Dutch)

Golgotha, een gelaagd en veelzijdig oratorium

De overwinning van het licht op de duisternis staat centraal in de religieuze muziek van Frank Martin. Dit geldt zelfs voor zijn passie-oratorium Golgotha, dat zich daardoor van beroemde tegenhangers uit het verleden onderscheidt.

‘Wezenlijk en soeverein licht!’ Met deze exclamatie eindigt Golgotha in extatische vreugde, direct nadat koor en vocale solisten de opstanding van Jezus Christus bezongen hebben. De vrolijke en uitbundige toon van de betreffende muziek lijkt op het eerste gezicht te botsen met de zware emoties die het lijdensverhaal met zich meebrengt. Maar voor elke christen zijn het lijden, de dood en de verrijzenis van Jezus onlosmakelijk met elkaar verbonden. In weerwil van Bachs passies besloot Frank Martin dan ook in een vroeg stadium dat de opstanding onderdeel van zijn eigen passie-oratorium zou zijn. Hij gebruikte daarbij verwijzingen naar het ware Licht van God die hij vond in een jubelzang voor de paaswake (Exsultet) en in de aan Augustinus toegeschreven meditaties. Deze laatste teksten stelden hem ook in staat om binnen de tiendelige compositie een bevredigend evenwicht te vinden tussen de feitelijkheid van het bijbelrelaas en de subjectieve reflectie van een gelovige.

Dat licht een sleutelrol in Golgotha moest spelen, stond van meet af aan vast. In juni 1945, een maand na de wapenstilstand in Europa, zagen Frank Martin en zijn vrouw Maria een tentoonstelling van Rembrandts etsen in het Musée d’Art et d’Histoire van hun toenmalige woonplaats Genève. Martin werd diep geraakt door de gravure De drie kruisen. Daarin wordt de gekruisigde Jezus frontaal afgebeeld, verlicht door een hemels licht. Links en rechts staan de kruisen van de twee misdadigers die tegelijk met hem op de heuvel Golgotha terechtgesteld werden. Na enkele bezoeken aan de tentoonstelling wist Martin zeker dat hij in muziek moest proberen uit te drukken wat Rembrandt zo krachtig op een stukje papier had weergegeven.

Zo ontstond het plan om een passie te componeren, een voornemen dat Martin zelf als groot Bach-liefhebber ‘bijzonder hoogmoedig’ vond. Sinds hij op z’n twaalfde een uitvoering van de Matthäus-Passion had bijgewoond, was hij in de ban van de Thomascantor. Hij kende elke noot van Bachs passies, maar moest nu een manier vinden om zich aan zijn grote voorbeeld te ontworstelen. Het hielp wel dat hij zonder opdracht en puur vanuit een innerlijke drijfveer zou werken.

Tijdens een korte retraite in Chexbres aan het Meer van Genève kwam Martin al wandelend tot de conclusie dat hij bereid was deze uitdaging aan te gaan. Hij stelde de tekst samen en begon in juli 1945 met componeren terwijl hij met zijn gezin vakantie vierde in het zomerhuis van Paul Sacher in Saanen. (Zes jaar eerder had Bartók in datzelfde châlet Aellen zijn Divertimento gecomponeerd, eveneens op uitnodiging van de Zwitserse dirigent en mecenas.) Zoals in de partituur vermeld, voltooide Martin de eerste helft op 5 januari 1946. Hij moest zich vervolgens op andere projecten richten, zoals de Petite symphonie concertante en de muziek bij Racine’s toneelstuk Athalie.

In juli 1946 verhuisden de Martins van Zwitserland naar Nederland, het land van Maria. Ze betrokken medio november een huis aan de Amsterdamse Prinsengracht. Begin 1947 hervatte de componist het werk aan Golgotha. Hij rondde de tweede helft in oktober af, met uitzondering van het tiende en laatste tafereel. Dit omvangrijke slotkoor, dat al zo lang had kunnen rijpen, kwam op 8 juni 1948 gereed na slechts enkele dagen werk. In de herfst van datzelfde jaar voltooide Martin de orkestratie, ondanks een onderbreking wegens een concertreis naar Zuid-Amerika. Terugblikkend schreef hij later aan koordirigent Willy Fotsch dat hij en zijn vrouw deze lange ontstaansperiode beschouwden ‘als een gezegende tijd, een heilige week die bijna drie jaar duurde’.

* * * * *

Wat de tekstopbouw betreft, vallen de tien taferelen van Golgotha in drie categorieën uiteen. De delen 1, 6 en 10 bevatten geen bijbelteksten en staan geheel in het teken van meditaties. (Zoals besproken wordt in het slotdeel de verrijzenis van Jezus aangehaald, maar dan zonder citaten uit de evangeliën.) In de delen 2, 3, 5, 7 en 9 wordt een evangelietekst telkens gevolgd door een meditatie. Typerend voor deze ‘combinatiedelen’ is de sfeerverandering op het moment dat de opwinding of de tragiek van het bijbelverhaal plaatsmaakt voor een spirituele beschouwing. De overgang binnen deel 7 is bijzonder effectief doordat de herhaalde aanroep ‘Christ!’ overeind blijft: in de bijbeltekst gaat het om vijandelijke kreten door de opgehitste menigte, in de meditatie om liefdevolle tekenen van compassie door de nederige zondaar.

De delen 4 en 8 ten slotte bevatten alleen het bijbelse narratief, zonder commentaar. Vermoedelijk vond Martin het belangrijk om de delen 4 en 5 respectievelijk 8 en 9 met elkaar te verbinden om het bijbelse relaas op deze cruciale punten niet te onderbreken. In het eerste geval gaat het om de naadloze overgang tussen het Laatste Avondmaal en het gebed op de Olijfberg bij Gethsemané, in het tweede geval om de kruisweg naar Golgotha vlak nadat Pilatus zijn gevangene aan het volk heeft overgeleverd.

Behalve de meditaties van Pseudo-Augustinus gebruikt Martin ook korte fragmenten uit de Belijdenissen van Augustinus en uit het Credo (deel 1), uit psalm 121 (deel 6), uit de Eerste Brief aan de Korintiërs en zoals vermeld uit het Exsultet (deel 10).

In zijn libretto en in de muzikale zetting richt Frank Martin zoveel mogelijk de schijnwerpers op de persoon van Jezus, net als Rembrandt in zijn ets. De zanger (bariton) die Jezus op het concertpodium vertolkt, beperkt zich tot deze rol. Verder krijgt Jezus extra aandacht in gebeurtenissen die aan het eigenlijke lijdensverhaal voorafgaan: de intocht in Jeruzalem (deel 2) en de verwijten aan de schriftgeleerden en farizeeën in de tempel (deel 3). Aan de andere kant beperkt Martin het aandeel van andere personages: Judas heeft slechts twee woorden te zeggen en Petrus schittert door afwezigheid. Zelfs de figuur van de evangelist vervaagt, omdat de betreffende citaten beurtelings door de solisten worden gezongen, soms ook door een duet en in deel 9 op verrassend ingetogen wijze door het gehele koor. De twee bijbelse figuren die enigszins uit de verf komen, zijn de Hogepriester (bas) in deel 7 en vooral Pilatus (tenor) in deel 8.

Frank Martin, zoon van een calvinistische predikant en grote bijbelkenner, zorgt voor een uitgekiend evenwicht tussen de twee grote delen van Golgotha. In de eerste helft (delen 1-5) manifesteert Jezus zich als emotioneel en kwetsbaar mens tussen de mensen, in de tweede helft (delen 6-10) treedt hij vooral op als afstandelijke en majesteitelijke God. Sterfelijk als mens, rechtvaardig als God: deze typering van Christus in de Belijdenissen van Augustinus (X, 43) zou hier als motto kunnen dienen. In deel 1 citeert Martin een passage uit het betreffende hoofdstuk, waarin de kerkvader over de tweevoudige gestalte van de Heer schrijft.

Maria Martin benadrukt in haar memoires dat haar man ondanks zijn afkomst geen calvinist was, maar een christen in de brede zin. Zelfs op detailpunten in de tekstzetting lijkt Frank Martin een oecumenische houding aan te nemen. Musicologe Magda de Meester wijst erop dat hij bepaalde protestantse uitdrukkingen door katholieke equivalenten vervangt. Blijkbaar hoopte Martin dat zijn tekst zowel protestanten als katholieken zou aanspreken. Hij was dan ook in zijn nopjes toen hij na een uitvoering van Golgotha twee katholieke priesters zich hoorde afvragen of de componist nou katholiek of protestants was.

In muzikale zin biedt Golgotha een keur aan zettingen in een breed spectrum tussen sobere homofonie en weelderige polyfonie. Het koor heeft een prominent aandeel. Martin kiest meestal voor donkere orkestkleuren die de tragiek van het lijdensverhaal onderstrepen. Opvallend zijn de inbreng van het orgel binnen de orkestrale textuur en de rol van de fagot als alter ego van de zoekende alt in deel 6. De piano in het orkest speelt vaak in het lage register en laat zich geregeld van zijn meest percussieve kant horen. Zoals gebruikelijk zorgt Frank Martin in navolging van Debussy voor een vloeiende en natuurlijke declamatie van het Frans, waarbij de vocale lijnen van de solisten meestal in trapsgewijze bewegingen voortschrijden.

Golgotha werd al op 29 april 1949 in Martins geboortestad Genève ten doop gehouden. Dat het zo snel ging, lag niet aan de componist – hij had niet eens geprobeerd een uitvoering tot stand te brengen – maar aan de Geneefse dirigent Samuel Baud-Bovy, die hem om toestemming had gevraagd de wereldpremière met zijn koorgezelschap Société de Chant Sacré te verzorgen. In de drie jaren daarna volgden succesvolle uitvoeringen in Frankfurt, Zürich, Parijs en Besançon. De Amerikaanse première in New York op 18 januari 1952 kreeg lovende recensies van uiteenlopende componisten als Virgil Thomson en Henry Cowell.

Dit grote succes overviel Frank Martin. In een lezing uit 1962 over de componist en de publieke opinie wees hij op de paradox dat hij geen uitvoering van Golgotha verwachtte en daardoor vrij kon componeren zonder het doel om het publiek te bekoren, maar dat dit oratorio uiteindelijk een van zijn meest gespeelde werken werd.

In Martins laatste jaren bleef Golgotha relatief succesvol. Het jaar 1968 was belangrijk met twee uitverkochte concerten in het Teatro Colón van Buenos Aires en een plaatopname in Zwitserland. Na de dood van de componist was er sporadisch aandacht voor zijn passie-oratorium, in de originele Franse versie dan wel in Duitse vertaling. In zijn adoptieland Nederland baarde het Koninklijk Concertgebouworkest opzien toen het voor de jaarlijkse passie-uitvoeringen van 2013 Golgotha programmeerde in plaats van Bachs passies. Nu het vijftigste sterfjaar van Frank Martin herdacht wordt, zijn er nieuwe kansen voor koren en orkesten wereldwijd om dit gelaagde en veelzijdige oratorium te herontdekken.

Michel Khalifa


Hinke 2010
Roman Hinke, liner notes on Golgotha for the CD Harmonia Mundi HMC 902056.57, recording directed by Daniel Reuss.

Martin 1977
Frank Martin, Un compositeur médite sur son art: Ecrits et pensées recueillis par sa femme.
Neuchâtel, Editions de la Baconnière.

Martin 2009
Maria Martin, Treasured Memories: My life with Frank Martin. Bussum: Gooibergpers. [The original version was published in French in 1990.]

Meester 1992
Magda de Meester, “Le Golgotha de Frank Martin (1945-1948)”. Schweizer musikpädagogische Blätter / Cahiers suisses de pégagogie musicale 80 no. 4 (October), 184-192. [The first of four parts: continued in the same journal in July 1993, January 1994 and July 1994.]