From September 2023, a new blog will be published on this page every month.


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.

translated by Rachel Ann Morgan

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