#09 | June 2024

A drum from Basel

by Stephen Westra
It is a country with so much nature that there’s little space for people. The mountains, the highest and most desolate of Europe, are largely impenetrable. Sometimes an alpinist has a go, he doesn’t always survive; a walker has to give up at some point: here nature rules. When winter comes, snow falls and stays for months, humankind lies low. Villages arose in the dales, and then the occasional town. But there just isn’t enough space for metropolises, and the mountains retake control.

Stephen Westra © Raimond Reijmers

Hardly surprising perhaps that one of the most grandiose countries in the world in terms of visual splendour produced – in the audio-context – the most ridiculous thing of all: yodelling. Impish, meaningless, silly, a yodeller counts for nothing and lowers himself somewhat: a crushed reaction to the immensity of the mountains?
Switzerland, such a natural country, does culture have a say? Does anything artistic stand a chance? Why make something if there is so much already? Are pen, brush, chisel and piano silenced in the sight of Matterhorn, Monte Rosa and Jungfrau?
It’s not as bad as all that. Switzerland made and continues to make its mark in matters cultural.

Visual artists. The semi-abstract Paul Klee of course. Ferdinand Hodler, with his crumbly mountains in half tints. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, German indeed but spending his later years in Davos, painting mountain landscapes with lots of pink – rare in painting. And August Macke: his best-known painting, Frau mit Sonnenschirm vor einem Hutladen (Hutladen in short), with those lively divisions and colours, was created at Lake Thun in 1914.
The Swiss can write as well. In the eighteenth century Jean-Jacques Rousseau made himself heard with his intense and influential Julie ou La nouvelle Héloïse, Les Confessions and Du contrat social. The romantics Jeremias Gotthelf with Die schwarze Spinne and Conrad Ferdinand Meyer with his poetic-realistic ballads. The twentieth-century Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz (Histoire du soldat), Max Frisch (Homo faber; Andorra) and Friedrich Dürrenmatt (Der Besuch der alten Dame; Der Richter und sein Henker) – Dürrenmatt and Frisch became world-famous. Nobel prizewinner Hermann Hesse settled in the Swiss canton Ticino in 1919, where he wrote his best-known books Siddharta, Der Steppenwolf, Narziss und Goldmond. Rilke arrived two years later to live in a little turret in the sweltering Rhône Valley, where he created his most profound work, the Duineser Elegien and Sonnette an Orpheus.

August Macke (1887-1914)
Frau mit Sonnenschirm vor einem Hutladen (1914)

Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918) Landschaft am Genfer See (ca. 1906)

And music? Ah, on that one Switzerland kept quiet for a long time – except to yodel or blow down an alpine horn, several metres long and with its own artistic limits. Rousseau again stood alone for centuries with his little opera Le devin du village. And then suddenly… the twentieth century came along and things took off. Arthur Honegger (Pacific 231; Le roi David), Ernest Bloch (Schelomo), the lied composer Ottmar Schoeck. And of course Frank Martin, born in Geneva in 1890.
Did the twentieth century bring along some sort of Swiss School? No, not really. Martin taught composition for several years at the Hochschule für Musik in Cologne, but did not ‘form’ his students in any imposing way. His most famous pupil, Karlheinz Stockhausen, actually went off in an opposite direction. 

Is there such a thing as a Swiss sound? No, not that either. There are lots of typically Swiss things – from pocketknife to fondue – but music that sounds Swiss: no. Not one eminence inspired by yodelling to create something uplifting.
Frank Martin did write a number of compositions ‘about’ Switzerland, including commissions from his native city Geneva. Here’s a list of his ‘Swiss works’: Musique pour les fêtes du Rhône (1929; the Rhône and the Rhine are Switzerland’s largest rivers); Du Rhône au Rhin (a festive march for the Swiss national exhibition in 1939); Cantate pour le 1er août (1941; the first of August is the Swiss National Day); Psaumes de Genève (1959).
That’s all. Not his best-known pieces.

‘Basler Trommeln’, Historisches Museum Basel

I forgot another one. Ein Totentanz zu Basel (stage music and ballet from 1943). And that’s a funny thing. Besides a boys’ choir, string orchestra and jazz instruments, Martin requires a ‘Basler Trommel’. And that’s Swiss! The oldest specimen dates from 1571, it became the model for the modern drum. Calfskin drum heads, a copper cylinder, everything tightened by ropes, played with sticks and carried on the hip. The prototype drum. Two thousand of them, the ruffle of two thousand drummers, turn up every year at the Basel Carnival. You’ll find them in the army as well. Martin composed for them.
And there’s your ‘Swiss sound’!

Stephen Westra, a Dutch composer and writer on music, lives in Utrecht, the Netherlands. He was born at Voorburg, near The Hague, and lived in Leiden, Basel and Freiburg (Germany). He completed studies in composition at Utrecht Conservatory with Ed de Boer and Henk Alkema as well as history at Utrecht University.

translated by Stephen Taylor

#08 | April 2024

The most beautiful piece ever written…

by Bobbie Blommesteijn
On 10 March 2020 I returned from a tour of Australia and New Zealand with the Netherlands Chamber Choir. Five days later, a partial lockdown was imposed in the Netherlands and the corona virus erased my diary. For the time being, we musicians had to survive without an audience and without each other. If you not only live from but especially for making music together, as I do, this was no small loss. Luckily for me, in Wellington I had completely replenished my musical reserves, since we rounded off our tour by performing the most beautiful piece – and I really do mean the most beautiful piece – ever written for choir: the Mass for double choir by Frank Martin. I could live on that at quite some length.

Bobbie Blommesteijn © Ramon Philippo | Rap Fotografie

The first time I sang part of the Mass, the Sanctus, I was about sixteen years old. I went straight to the Haarlem city library to look for a CD (as one did in pre-Spotify days) to satisfy my curiosity about the rest of the work. I renewed the lending period twice, and if I could have prolonged it even further, I would have. From the opening of the Kyrie, which sounds like a ray of light piercing a dark space, to the Agnus Dei, where in the Dona nobis pacem you feel the ground falling away under your feet – I simply couldn’t get enough of it. And even now, having sung it some ten times with different conductors and choirs, it still grabs me by the throat. 

The last time I sang it was last summer, nota bene in the Valhalla of choral music, the United Kingdom. I stood among colleagues from world-famous groups like The Sixteen, Voces8, The Monteverdi Choir and so on. I was astonished to discover that most of them had never heard of this masterpiece, let alone performed it. On the other hand I was delighted, for now all these singers were about to discover this jewel, and I was to witness it!

‘Mozart, Mahler and the Matthew Passion are nothing compared with Martin’s Mass’

It is no small claim of course to say that something is the most beautiful choral work ever. I hear the crowd protesting and muttering ‘what about the St Matthew Passion, Mozart’s Requiem and Mahler’s Eighth?’ Oh no, dear people, Mozart, Mahler and the Matthew Passion are nothing compared with Martin’s Mass. And you can trust me, because I know what I’m talking about. And what’s more, I can tell you that there’s now a bunch of professional singers in England who agree that the zenith of choral music was not written by an Englishman, but by a Swiss by the name of Frank Martin.

One day there will be one last piece that I will sing before I die. For God’s sake, let it be this one! Let my ultimate deed on earth be a performance of Martin’s Double Mass. Then I can pass on with a full heart. Or perhaps another lockdown.

The Dutch soprano Bobbie Blommesteijn is a much sought-after ensemble singer and works with, among others, the Netherlands Chamber Choir, Cappella Amsterdam, Collegium Vocale Gent, the soloists of the Balthasar Neumann Chor, Arcangelo and Voces8. In addition to her work as a singer, she worked as a freelance reviewer, writer and researcher (focused on theatre history), and collaborated on the publication 1001 women in the 20th century.

translated by Stephen Taylor

#07 | February 2024

Frank Martin, Armin Jordan and me…

by Fabio Di Càsola
In 1991, I was still a student in Geneva and had just won first prize at the famous Geneva Music Competition. The last winner had been my clarinet teacher many years earlier. There was a concert with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, which was to perform Frank Martin’s Concerto for seven wind instruments and orchestra. Famous musicians played as soloists in this concert. My teacher was supposed to play the clarinet. All musicians knew the former orchestra’s permanent conductor, Armin Jordan, very well.

Fabio Di Càsola

‘It was a great honour for me
but also a bit scary.’

For some reason that I can’t remember, my teacher couldn’t participate in this concert, so he allowed me to stand in for him. It was a great honour for me, but of course also a bit scary because I had never played this piece before. There was only one rehearsal with the orchestra, the dress rehearsal, and the concert was broadcast live on Swiss radio and recorded for television. It won’t surprise anyone that I was under enormous pressure.

‘Who is he again? Is he good enough?’

Armin Jordan didn’t know me yet, so as soon as I came on stage at the rehearsal he looked at me with a very penetrating gaze and asked the other musicians: ‘Who is he again? Is he good enough?’ The musicians explained to him that I had just won this famous competition, but the conductor continued to look at me very skeptically.

‘He did change his gaze and indicated he accepted me.’

As luck would have it, this piece had a big, not-so-easy clarinet solo in the first few minutes. Only after this passage did the conductor conspicuously change his gaze towards me in a sign of approval? The concert then went well, but I was anxious until the end for constant fear of disappointing him. And so my first encounter with Frank Martin’s music was characterized by immense stress and a relaxed ending. What an introduction! I will never forget it!

Fabio Di Càsola
soloist, chamber musician and professor of clarinet at the Hochschule der Künste in Zürich

#06 | January 2024

A broken lance for Frank Martin

by Thomas Beijer
Searching for Frank Martin on Google yields a screen full of images of a surly, bristly haired basketball coach from South Carolina. On half the photos he scowls into the distance, on the other half he does little other than scream at people. The Frank Martin who scores second place in terms of number of pictures is a bald headed chap who, like his namesake, also seems mainly occupied in shouting at people. That’s a coincidence, I thought to myself. But when I took a closer look I realised it was one and the same Frank Martin, but now lacking hair.

But if you don’t give up and dauntlessly carry on scrolling, you’ll find the odd photo of a cultured gentleman with thick curly hair and twinkling eyes in a striking elongated face. This is him: the Swiss composer Frank Martin. His name is French not American. And unlike the Frank Martin from South Carolina he is terribly unknown – at any rate for a great composer. And we have to do something about that.

  © Thomas Beijer

For why is Elgar’s Cello Concerto played by almost all cellists in the world – some two hundred million – while Martin’s Cello Concerto is played by – let’s say – three? Why does Verdi’s La traviata get performed about six hundred thousand times a year and Martin’s Der Sturm probably never? Why do all those pianists play Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto while none at all perform Martin’s Second Piano Concerto?

It wouldn’t surprise me at all if I’m the only person in the Netherlands to actually possess a score of that work. I’m serious. I bought it about ten years ago at Broekmans & Van Poppel, the best stocked music shop in the country. The shopkeeper went to the back and came out with a brand-new book which looked as old as Methuselah. He blew off a layer of dark grey dust, had a close look – when he’d finished coughing – at the price tag and came to the conclusion that I was the first customer in fifty years to ask for a copy.

The Austrian pianist Paul Badura-Skoda played the work in 1972 with the Concertgebouworkest under Josef Krips, but as far as I know it has never been performed again in the Netherlands. I’m trying to do something about this, but it’s not that easy. “Couldn’t you play Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto?” they cry. “Nobody knows the one by Martin.” “That’s correct” I reply, doing my best to be polite, “but if we don’t play it that’s how things will stay.”

But I’m not going to give up. I’m a patient person. One day I’ll manage to get that masterpiece performed. And until then I can’t die peacefully. I simply refuse to do so. If the Grim Reaper comes to get me I won’t go along with him. “Just come back later” I’ll say. “I first have to play Frank Martin’s Second Piano Concerto.”

I suspect that the Reaper will be quite reasonable. Especially if I give him a complimentary ticket.

Thomas Beijer
pianist (winner of the Netherlands Music Prize 2022) but also composer, writer and artist

This column appeared earlier in the journal of Muziekcentrum De Bijloke Ghent (BE).

translated by Stephen Taylor

#05 | December 2023

Musicians’ musings: Monologues from Jedermann

Personal notes compiled by Anna de Veij Mestdagh

second violinist in the Concertgebouworkest

The Concertgebouworkest in Amsterdam (NL) has a particular tie with the composer Frank Martin. Besides the fact that his wife was Dutch and he spent his later 28 years in the Netherlands, whenever we played his music it invariably made a deep impression on us. Not least the Sechs Monologe aus Jedermann, which we performed last December under Pierre Bleuse (standing in for Antonio Pappano) with the baritone Thomas Oliemans (substituting at the last moment for Matthias Goerne). In 1987 we played this remarkable work for the first time and never since. Let’s hope it won’t be that long before it’s on the programme again!

Anna de Veij Mestdagh © Milagro Elstak

Arndt Auhagen, a fellow second violinist, has the following to say: “At the Salzburg Festival the play Jedermann has been performed in the streets every year for more than a century. This originally English dramatic work from the 16th century was adapted by Hugo van Hofmannsthal in the early 20th century; in 1920 Frank Martin saw it for the first time in Salzburg. As the son of a church minister Martin had always been strongly attracted to medieval religious mystery plays, and so he was inspired to compose music for the Sechs Monologe”. The version for baritone and piano was premiered in Gstaad in 1944 with the composer at the piano; the orchestral version was first performed in Venice in 1949.

My colleague Martin Schippers, (bass) trombonist, wrote after our concerts in December: “For me it was the first time but hopefully not the last. Music by Frank Martin is always well composed, and the scores have the same quality: the dots, dashes, commas etc. are always accurate. Excellent!” The two concerts, in which the Sechs Monologe aus Jedermann were combined with pieces by Lili Boulanger and Camille Saint-Saëns, where indeed a great success.

To conclude, my own experience: “In the Sechs Monologe we hear the narcissist ‘Jedermann’ struggling with his fear of death. Not until he understands why Christ died on the cross can he free himself from the grip of the devil. In a penetrating musical language Frank Martin succeeds in expressing the feelings of this ‘Jedermann’, feelings of fear, unrest, suffering and final resignation. To this end he employs Arnold Schönberg’s twelve-note technique, while not entirely abandoning the sense of key. I experience this style as a sort of sliding tonality, in which you are led from one key to another. The result is a profound and lively emotion and a strong awareness of the inevitability of fortune. The Amsterdam audience too was deeply moved, and at the end it was deathly quiet in the auditorium, which says more than enough.”

translated by Stephen Taylor

The Sechs Monologe aus Jedermann were performed by the Koninklijk Concertgebouworkest in Amsterdam on 6 and 7 December 2023.

Listen to the 1963 recording of the Sechs Monologe aus Jedermann with the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Frank Martin.
(via Spotify)

Frank Martin, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the Berliner Philharmoniker
during a rehearsal in Berlin, 1963

#04 | December 2023

Inspired by Martin: Missa Pro Defunctis by Franco Prinsloo

Franco Prinsloo is a composer/conductor from Pretoria, South Africa

Music has the remarkable power to inspire, to connect, and to transcend time and place. It speaks to the human spirit, and one piece of music can be a catalyst for a composer’s creative journey. For me, that catalyst was Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir. When I first heard this masterpiece as a student, I was instantly captivated by its dense harmonies and the expressive use of plainsong melodies. This experience proved to be the beginning of my own journey as a composer.

Franco Prinsloo

I owe my introduction to Martin’s Mass to my teacher, the renowned conductor and composer Awie van Wyk of the University of Potchefstroom Choir. Under his guidance, I had the privilege of performing the Kyrie and Agnus Dei from Martin’s Mass. It was a transformative experience that had a lasting impact on me as a singer and a budding composer.

Much like Martin was inspired by Bach, I was inspired by Martin’s Mass to create my own composition, Missa Pro Defunctis. This composition, like Martin’s, is rooted in the Roman Catholic tradition and consists of five movements with Latin texts. However, the Missa Pro Defunctis departs from tradition by including a Nunc Dimittis and Et Vos Igitur alongside the standard Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. Frank Martin’s Mass had to patiently wait to be premiered. His masterpiece remained tucked away in a drawer for over forty years, shrouded in quiet anticipation, until a conductor of a Hamburg church choir finally asked to see the score and breathed life into it with the first performance in 1963. My Missa Pro Defunctis, unfolded over the span of more than 15 years, commencing in 2008 and reaching its completion in 2023. Each movement of the mass was composed after the passing of a loved one, imbuing it with personal sentiment and a unique emotional depth.

In 2023, the Kyiv Symphony Choir premiered the Missa Pro Defunctis during their 30th-anniversary concert. In the midst of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the choir’s unique sound and the addition of six bassi profundi stood out as a testament to the power of music to connect people across borders. The performance was broadcast live on YouTube, allowing viewers around the world to witness the magic of music in the face of adversity.

The world of music is a continuous exchange of inspiration between composers, each building on the foundations laid by those who came before. Frank Martin’s influence on my work and the performance of my compositions by choirs worldwide illustrate the enduring impact of music on our lives. It is a reminder that creativity knows no boundaries and that the spirit of music can prevail even in the most challenging times.

Kyrie from Franco Prinsloo’s Missa Pro Defunctis on YouTube, performed by Vox Chamber Choir, Pretoria.

#03 | November 2023

Frank Martin and his student society

by Alain Corbellari

Frank Martin and I have one thing in common in our biographies: we both belonged to the same student society, the Zofingia, in French Zofingue, which is the oldest of these Fraternities that we, in Switzerland, have inherited from German culture. Founded in 1819 by students who came by foot from Bern and Zurich and adopted the name of the town where they met halfway between their universities, Zofingen, this society quickly spread to all the other higher education establishments in Switzerland, and is now over two hundred years old. Its members can be identified by their red-white-red caps and saltire, and they still meet for a weekend every summer in the small Aargau town that gave them its name.

Branches still exist at all Swiss universities and, even though membership has not kept pace with the exponential growth in the number of students in Switzerland (incidentally, they still don’t accept women!), they are still active today. This is not the place to talk about the history of this student fraternity, to which all other fellow or rival societies are affiliates by consequence or offshoot: suffice it to say that it was eventful, especially in its early days. Such eminent figures as the writers Jeremias Gotthelf and Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, the conductor Ernest Ansermet, the psychologist Carl Gustav Jung and General Henri Guisan were all members.

Rather frivolous philosophical thoughts
In 1908, Frank Martin – who, let’s not forget, started out studying mathematics and physics — joined the Geneva section of Zofingen. He seems to have retained only fond memories of this brief period (he left the university in 1910, but of course remained an ‘Old Zofingian’), which he described sixty years later in Feuille centrale (the Society’s umbrella publication) no. 8 of 1970 in four witty pages in which I enjoyed recalling experiences that were similar in every way to those I had had in the same setting (but in Neuchâtel) eighty years later. Martin talks about that “time of very intimate friendships, of long nocturnal reveries after the sessions, when great and rather frivolous philosophical thoughts mingled with very human and passionate feelings”. He also recounted (and here too I could identify with him) that during the sessions he liked to improvise on a beer-soaked piano, and that he had even formed a choir to which he had entrusted a work that his fellow Zofingians had never been able to master. A year before his death, in 1973, the Geneva section of the Society presented him with a commemorative medal.
I, in turn, helped to keep his memory alive in the Zofingian context by publishing articles about him in issues 6 of 1990 and 2 of 2010 of Feuille centrale, as well as in the book commemorating the Society’s bicentenary in 2020.

Mischievous, playful spirit
Need I say that I have never been surprised to find in the life and work of Frank Martin that festive, mischievous, playful spirit that is the best thing about student societies? The Symphonie pour orchestre burlesque, La Nique à Satan and Monsieur de Pourceaugnac might not be quite what they are if their author had not been a Zofingian, and one might even wonder whether the opera after Molière would not recall the theatrical evenings (now, alas, out of favour) that the members used to put on every year, in which great repertoire was willingly served up and mocked at the same time.

Alain Corbellari, Associate Professor at the UNIL,
Lausanne University (CH), author of
Frank Martin, Un lyrisme intranquille (2022)

translated by Rachel Ann Morgan

Flag of the ‘Société de Zofingue’ in Geneva, 
designed by Louis George (1831-1901)

#02 | October 2023

My father is 76, I am 17…

by Teresa Martin
I arrive home, as if bewitched, from a dance summer school where flamenco was one of the choices. We waste no time: the furniture of the beautiful salon on Bollelaan is pushed aside and the rugs rolled up. The demonstration of what I have learnt can begin. My father is fascinated. More than that, he is touched, moved by the profundity in flamenco and fascinated by the complexity of the rhythms. He wants to see and hear everything, to know and understand everything. He wants to get to know the strict rules you must abide by and to fathom the freedom it allows you. 

More courses follow, I don’t miss a single one. There will be other rhythms and other colours, other emotions. Besides the severity of some forms, also the joyful forms full of zest and humour. And my father becomes more and more entranced. A beautiful antique Chinese vase falls off the cupboard due to the vibrations of stamping on the parquet, there is laughter, it is no big deal, I am encouraged to keep going.

Teresa Martin dancing the Fantaisie sur des rythmes flamenco (Luzern, August 1974)

In 1970, Paul Sacher asked my father if he would like to compose something for the wonderful oboist Heinz Holliger and his wife, the equally extraordinary harpist, Ursula Holliger, accompanied by chamber orchestra. My father accepted the commission and wrote the Trois Danses. From the first bar to the last, he is faithful to the rhythmic rules and the soul of Flamenco is constantly palpable. Yet the Trois Danses are entirely in his own style. Not for one moment is it an ‘Espaniolade’.

Years later, I was dancing in a tablao flamenco in Mallorca. A tablao flamenco is a kind of ‘café chantant’. Mallorca had one of the best tablaos then because the island had money. The whole cast was made up of gypsies, I was the only ‘paya’ (non-gypsy). My father and mother sat in the front row late into the night and enjoyed the atmosphere. Among other things, I danced a soleares, a very profound, slow dance. The cante (the singing) and guitar of the soleares are one of the most beautiful forms within the whole range of ‘palos’ in flamenco (rhythmic and emotional structures). My father was so deeply moved that my mother later told me that in the hotel he said, “I must compose something pour cette fille that she will be able to dance”.

When Viennese pianist Paul Badura Skoda asked my father to write a Fantaisie for him, my father accepted under two conditions: that the piece would be based on flamenco rhythms and that he would perform it for the first time with dance. Paul Badura Skoda loved it. He accepted it enthusiastically. And so the Fantaisie sur des rythmes flamenco came about. It was premiered at the Lucerne Summer Festival in 1974; it was a resounding success.

My father was already ill, very weakened; it was a few months before his death. But he was beaming from head to toe and, back at the hotel after the premiere, he told my mother how intensely happy he was.

Teresa Martin (1949) is the youngest daughter of the composer and Maria Martin. She is a flamenco dancer and choreographer (teresamartin.eu) and lives in Andalucia (Spain). She is a board member of the Frank Martin Society.

translated by Rachel Ann Morgan

Teresa and Frank Martin, Castillo de Aro (Spain), Summer 1971

Listen to the Fantaisie sur des rythmes flamenco (via Spotify)
The 8 CD-box Paul Badura-Skoda, a musical biography – 75th Birthday Tribute contains a recording of a live performance of
Martin’s Fantaisie sur des rythmes flamenco by Paul Badura Skoda, to whom Martin dedicated this work. Listen to the warm and enthusiastic introduction (Spotify) and performance by this famous pianist.

#01 | September 2023

Golgotha and sacred music

by Alain Corbellari

The very first Frank Martin work I heard was Golgotha. My uncle had a recording of Robert Faller’s version, which I still think is unsurpassed, and as the music sounded a bit modern to his ears, he had no problem giving it to me. I must have been about 13 or 14 years old at the time; I was very devout (which is something I’ve grown out of), and the subject of religious music was of great concern to me. I wondered, for example, whether a Protestant had the right to set to music certain typically Catholic formulations, such as the unam sanctam catholicam ecclesiam of the Mass. The example of Frank Martin enabled me to remove all these scruples.

To say that Golgotha was a revelation is not an exaggeration: at last, I had discovered a composer who expressed in music a religiousness that was both modern and spoke directly to the senses. At the time, I was thinking about the possibility of writing a passion that did not slavishly follow the text of a single Gospel, and I found what I was looking for so exactly in Martin that my own project vanished of its own accord. In fact, my rather clumsy idea of a stage version of the Passion was surpassed by Martin’s solution: to reconstruct the whole drama from the four Gospels taken in turn, but of course without underlining the contradictions between the texts. The choice of excerpts from St Augustine’s Meditations for the lyrical pauses also appealed to me more than the sanctimonious texts used by Bach (which obviously take nothing away from Bach’s genius; Frank Martin himself would no doubt have looked at me severely if he had seen me make this slight reservation about the author of the St Matthew Passion).

Ecumenical nature
That the twentieth century has seen a revival of religious music is indisputable: both on the Orthodox (Stravinsky, Janáček, Pärt) and Catholic (Messiaen, Penderecki) and even Jewish (Bernstein) sides, composers have demonstrated a remarkable capacity for renewal. Nevertheless, it is striking to note that the great point of reference for everyone remains Johann Sebastian Bach: Penderecki and Arvo Pärt remain linked to the model of the passion based on a single Gospel and, on this formal point, are less daring than Martin.

Understandably, as a Swiss with a Protestant upbringing, I had a particular liking for Honegger and Martin, whose Bach legacy comes across particularly naturally. However, we must emphasise the particularly ecumenical nature of Martin’s music, the author of a Mass, a Magnificat, an Ave Maria and a Requiem, all types of work that Honegger avoided writing, preferring, if one may say so, to approach the religious in a less direct way, through the oratorio or even with his ‘liturgical’ symphony.
It should also be remembered that In Terra Pax was performed both in the Vatican (with the approval of Pope Paul VI) and in Israel. Frank Martin thus seems to me to provide the most accomplished example of modern religious music that is both deeply rooted in tradition and freed from all that is weighty and conventional about it.

No belief but only faith
The simplicity of the Messe à double chœur (which is nonetheless frighteningly complex to put into practice), the asceticism of the Requiem, the sequences full of naive freshness in the Mystère de la Nativité, which fit in so well with Arnoul Gréban’s old text, and, perhaps most of all, the Our Father of In Terra Pax, which rivals the bareness of his orthodox musical settings, truly express for me the essence of a feeling that Martin himself summed up when he said, in an apparently paradoxical way, that he had no belief but only faith.

Alain Corbellari, Associate Professor at the UNIL, Lausanne University (CH),
author of Frank Martin, Un lyrisme intranquille (2022)

translated by Rachel Ann Morgan

Een gebroken lans voor Frank Martin

door Thomas Beijer
Zoek op Google naar Frank Martin en op het scherm verschijnt een hele rits afbeeldingen van een norse, borstelharige basketbalcoach uit South Carolina. Op de ene helft van de foto’s tuurt hij stuurs voor zich uit, op de andere helft is hij druk bezig met schreeuwen tegen mensen. De Frank Martin die na hem de meeste afbeeldingen oplevert, is een kaalgeschoren kerel die, net als zijn naamgenoot, óók voornamelijk tegen mensen lijkt te schreeuwen. Dat is ook toevallig, dacht ik. Maar toen keek ik beter en zag dat het gewoon diezelfde Frank Martin was, zij het nu met absentie van haar. 

Wie echter de moed niet opgeeft en onvervaard naar beneden blijft scrollen, ziet her en der ook foto’s verschijnen van een beschaafde heer met een dichte bos krullen en ogen vol twinkelingen in een opvallend langwerpig gezicht. Dát is hem: de Zwitserse componist Frank Martin. Zijn naam niet op z’n Amerikaans maar op z’n Frans uitgesproken. En in tegenstelling tot de Frank Martin uit South Carolina is hij schrikbarend onbekend – althans voor een grote componist. En daar moeten we iets aan doen.

  © Thomas Beijer

Want waarom wordt het Celloconcert van Elgar gespeeld door vrijwel alle cellisten ter wereld, zo’n tweehonderdmiljoen, en het Celloconcert van Martin door, tja, pakweg drie?
Waarom staat Verdi’s La traviata bij benadering zeshonderdduizend keer per jaar op het podium en Martins Der Sturm bij benadering nul keer per jaar? Waarom spelen pianisten collectief het Tweede pianoconcert van Rachmaninov en collectief níét het Tweede pianoconcert van Martin?

Het zou me niks verbazen als ik de enige in Nederland ben die de partituur van dat pianoconcert überhaupt heeft. Ik meen het. Die kocht ik een jaar of tien geleden bij Broekmans & Van Poppel, de best gesorteerde muziekhandel van Nederland. De winkelier ging naar achteren en kwam terug met een gloednieuw boek dat eruitzag als een stokoud boek. Hij blies er een laag donkergrijs stof vanaf, bestudeerde – toen hij klaar was met hoesten – de prijssticker en kwam tot de conclusie dat ik de eerste klant in vijftig jaar was die ernaar vroeg.

De Oostenrijkse pianist Paul Badura-Skoda heeft het stuk in 1972 gespeeld met het Concertgebouworkest onder leiding van Josef Krips, maar daarna is het voor zover ik weet nooit meer uitgevoerd in Nederland. Daar probeer ik iets aan te doen. Maar dat is moeilijk. “Kun je niet het Tweede pianoconcert van Rachmaninov spelen?”, krijg ik steeds te horen. “Dat van Martin kent niemand.” “Dat klopt”, antwoord ik dan, met enige moeite, uiterst beleefd, “maar als we het niet spelen, dan blijft dat ook zo.”

Ik geef echter niet op. Ik heb geduld. Ooit zal het me lukken om dat meesterwerk op de planken te krijgen. Eerder zal ik niet rustig kunnen sterven. Dat vertik ik simpelweg. Als Magere Hein me komt halen, ga ik gewoon niet mee. “Kom later maar terug”, zeg ik dan. “Ik moet eerst nog het Tweede pianoconcert van Frank Martin spelen.”

Ik verwacht dat de heer Hein daar heel redelijk op zal reageren. Zeker als ik hem een vrijkaartje beloof.

Thomas Beijer
pianist en winnaar van de Nederlandse Muziekprijs 2022, maar ook componist, schrijver en tekenaar

Deze column verscheen eerder in het magazine van Muziekcentrum De Bijloke Gent (BE).

Het allermooiste stuk ooit geschreven…

door Bobbie Blommesteijn
Op 10 maart 2020 kwam ik terug van een tournee naar Australië en Nieuw-Zeeland met het Nederlands Kamerkoor. Vijf dagen later ging Nederland voor het eerst in een gedeeltelijke lockdown en veegde het coronavirus mijn hele agenda leeg. Voorlopig zouden wij musici het moeten doen zonder publiek en zonder elkaar. Als je, zoals ik, niet alleen leeft van maar vooral vóór het samen muziek maken, dan is dat nogal een aderlating. Gelukkig had ik in Wellington mijn muzikale reserves helemaal kunnen vullen, want onze tour daar sloten we af met een uitvoering van het aller-, maar dan ook echt allermooiste stuk dat ooit geschreven is voor koor: de Dubbelkorige Mis van Frank Martin. Hier kon ik nog wel even op in teren.

Bobbie Blommesteijn © Ramon Philippo | Rap Fotografie

De eerste keer dat ik een deel uit de mis zong, het Sanctus, was ik een jaar of zestien. In de Haarlemse Stadsbibliotheek ging ik direct op zoek naar de cd (zo deed men dat pre-Spotify) om mijn nieuwsgierigheid naar de rest van dit werk te bevredigen. Ik heb die uitleentermijn tot twee keer toe verlengd, en als het had gemogen had ik het gerust nog een keer gedaan. Van de opening van het Kyrie, die klinkt als een straaltje licht dat door een kier een donkere ruimte invalt, tot aan het Agnus Dei, waarbij je in het ‘Dona nobis pacem’ de grond onder je vandaan voelt wegzakken – ik kon er geen genoeg van krijgen. En zelfs nu ik het geheel al een keer of tien heb uitgevoerd met verschillende dirigenten en verschillende koren blijft het me bij de keel grijpen.  

Afgelopen zomer zong ik het voor het laatst, nota bene in het walhalla van de koormuziek: het Verenigd Koninkrijk. Ik stond tussen collega’s die zingen bij wereldvermaarde groepen als The Sixteen, Voces8, The Monteverdi Choir, noem maar op. Ik was onthutst toen ik ontdekte dat het gros van hen nog nooit van dit meesterwerk had gehoord, laat staan het had uitgevoerd. Aan de andere kant was ik dolgelukkig. Per slot van rekening zouden al deze zangers deze parel nu gaan ontdekken, en ik mocht daar getuige van zijn!

‘Mozart, Mahler and the Matthew Passion are nothing compared with Martin’s Mass’

Het is nogal een claim natuurlijk, zeggen dat iets het allermooiste stuk voor koor ooit is. Ik hoor de meute al protesteren en dingen morren als ‘Matthäus’, ‘Requiem van Mozart’ of ‘Achtste van Mahler’. Nee lieve mensen, Mozart, Mahler en Matthäus vallen in het niet bij de Mis van Martin. U kunt me met een gerust hart vertrouwen, want het is per slot van rekening mijn vak. Bovendien kan ik u vertellen dat er nu in Engeland een zootje professionele zangers rond loopt dat zal beamen dat het hoogtepunt van de koormuziek niet van de hand van een Engelsman is, maar van een Zwitser die luistert naar de naam Frank Martin.

Er zal ooit een keer een laatste stuk zijn dat ik zing voordat ik sterf. Laat het in godsnaam dit stuk zijn! Laat mijn allerlaatste daad op aarde het zingen van de Dubbelkorige Mis van Martin zijn. Dan kan ik met een vol hart sterven. Of eventueel weer in lockdown.

De Nederlandse sopraan Bobbie Blommesteijn is een veelgevraagd ensemble-zangeres. Ze zingt in het Nederlands Kamerkoor en werkt met onder andere Cappella Amsterdam, Collegium Vocale Gent, de solisten van het Balthasar Neumann Chor, Arcangelo en Voces8. Naast haar werk als zangeres is ze freelance recensent, schrijver en onderzoeker (met een focus op theatergeschiedenis) en werkte ze mee aan de publicatie 1001 vrouwen in de 20e eeuw.

Een trommel uit Basel

door Stephen Westra

Het is een land met zoveel natuur dat er weinig ruimte is voor mensen. De bergen, de hoogste en meest woeste van Europa, zijn er grotendeels onbegaanbaar gebied. Een alpinist probeert eens wat, overleeft het soms niet; een bergwandelaar moet op zeker moment afhaken: hier heerst het alleenrecht van de natuur. Is het winter, valt de sneeuw en blijft maandenlang liggen, dan houdt de mens zich al helemaal koest. In de dalen vormden zich dorpen, daaruit soms steden. Maar voor metropolen is gewoon de ruimte niet, de bergen nemen het dan weer over.

Stephen Westra © Raimond Reijmers

Niet zo verwonderlijk misschien, dat visueel een van de meest grandioze landen ter wereld op het vlak van audio juist het aller lulligste moest voortbrengen: het jodelen. Olijk, nietszeggend, onnozel, een jodelend mens telt voor 0 en verlaagt zich eigenlijk een beetje: een verslagen reactie op het immense van de bergen?
Want Zwitserland, zo’n natuurlijk land, heeft cultuur er nog inspraak? Komt er artistiek iets van de grond? Waarom iets maken als er al zoveel is? Zwijgen pen, penseel, beitel, klavier in het zicht van Matterhorn, Monte Rosa en Jungfrau?
Dat blijkt mee te vallen. Cultureel wist en weet Zwitserland zich te roeren.
Beeldend kunstenaars. De semi-abstracte Paul Klee natuurlijk. Ferdinand Hodler, met zijn brokkelige bergen in halftinten. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Duitser weliswaar maar zijn latere jaren doorbrengend in Davos, berglandschappen schilderend met veel, in de schilderkunst zeldzaam, roze. En August Macke: zijn bekendste schilderij Frau mit Sonnenschirm vor einem Hutladen, kortweg Hutladen, met die levendige vlakverdeling en kleuren, schilderde hij in 1914 aan de Thunersee.

Schrijven kunnen de Zwitsers ook. In de achttiende eeuw roerde zich Jean-Jacques Rousseau, met zijn intens invloedrijke Julie ou La nouvelle Héloïse, Les Confessions en Du contrat social. De romantici Jeremias Gotthelf met Die schwarze Spinne en Conrad Ferdinand Meyer met zijn poëtisch-realistische balladen. De twintigste-eeuwse Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz (Histoire du soldat), Max Frisch (Homo faber; Andorra) en Friedrich Dürrenmatt (Der Besuch der alten Dame; Der Richter und sein Henker) – Dürrenmatt en Frisch werden wereldberoemd. Nobelprijswinnaar Hermann Hesse vestigde zich in 1919 in het Zwitserse canton Ticino, schreef er zijn bekendste boeken Siddharta, Der Steppenwolf, Narziss und Goldmond. Rilke trok er twee jaar later heen, naar een torentje in de smoorhete Rhônevallei waar hij tot zijn diepzinnigste werk kwam, de Duineser Elegien en Sonnette an Orpheus.

August Macke (1887-1914)
Frau mit Sonnenschirm vor einem Hutladen (1914)

Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918) Landschaft am Genfer See (ca. 1906)

En de muziek? Nou, op dat punt hield Zwitserland lang zijn mond. Behalve dan om te jodelen of op een alpenhoorn te blazen, een meterslang ding dat artistiek gezien zijn grenzen kent. Alweer Rousseau stond met zijn kleine opera Le devin du village eeuwenlang alleen. Tot opeens… de twintigste eeuw daar was, en dan begint het. Arthur Honegger (Pacific 231; Le roi David), Ernest Bloch (Schelomo), de liedcomponist Ottmar Schoeck. En natuurlijk Frank Martin, in 1890 geboren in Genève.
Was er in de twintigste eeuw sprake van zoiets als een Zwitserse School? Nee, dat niet. Martin doceerde enkele jaren compositie aan de Hochschule für Musik in Keulen, maar ‘vormde’ zijn studenten niet dwingend. Zijn beroemdste leerling, Karlheinz Stockhausen, ging zelfs diametraal andere wegen.

Bestaat er een Zwitserse klank? Ook dat niet. Er is veel typisch Zwitsers – van zakmes tot fondue – , maar muziek die Zwitsers klinkt: nee. Geen grootheid die het gejodel inspireerde tot iets verheffends.
Frank Martin schreef wel een aantal composities ‘over’ Zwitserland, bijvoorbeeld in opdracht van zijn vaderstad Genève. Even die ‘Zwitserse werken’ op een rijtje: Musique pour les fêtes du Rhône (1929; de Rhône is met de Rijn Zwitserlands grootste rivier); Du Rhône au Rhin (een feestmars voor de Zwitserse nationale tentoonstelling van 1939); Cantate pour le 1er août (1941; 1 augustus is de Zwitserse nationale feestdag); Psaumes de Genève (1959).
Dat was het. Niet zijn bekendste werken.

‘Basler Trommeln’, Historisches Museum Basel

Ik vergat er nog eentje. Ein Totentanz zu Basel (toneelmuziek en ballet, uit 1943). En dat is nou leuk. Hier schrijft Martin behalve jongenskoor, strijkorkest en jazzinstrumenten de ‘Basler Trommel’ voor. En die is Zwitsers! Het oudst bewaard gebleven exemplaar stamt uit 1571. Het werd voorbeeld voor de moderne trommel. Twee met kalfsvel bespannen open einden (de trommelhoofden), een koperen cilinder, alles strak gehouden door touwen, met stokken bespeeld en gedragen op de heup. Het prototype trommel. Met z’n tweeduizenden maken ze, door tweeduizend man beroffeld, nog jaarlijks hun opwachting bij het Carnaval van Basel (Basel Fasnacht). Je vindt ze ook in het leger. Martin componeerde ervoor.
Daaruit spreekt zéker een ‘Zwitserse klank’!

Stephen Westra, Nederlands componist en publicist, woont in Utrecht. Hij werd geboren in Voorburg en woonde onder meer in Leiden, Fort Collins (VS), in de buurt van Freiburg (D) enin  Dornach, nabij Basel. Hij studeerde compositie aan het Utrechts Conservatorium bij Henk Alkema en Ed de Boer. Daarnaast voltooide hij een studie geschiedenis aan de Universiteit Utrecht.