From September 2023, a new blog will be published on this page every month.
#07 | February 2024
Frank Martin, Armin Jordan and me…
by Fabio Di Càsola
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
author of Frank Martin, Un lyrisme intranquille (2022)
translated by Rachel Ann Morgan
Een gebroken lans voor Frank Martin
door Thomas Beijer
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.
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).