Music: Frank Martin—Guide to the Millennium

The best prescription for millennium jitters is the liturgical year. In a sense, each liturgical year is millennial because it contains within itself a complete cycle of salvation history, which is what gives the term millennium its biblical significance. It also anchors us to the source of the temporal millennium as we celebrate the approach of the 2000th year since Christ’s birth. One of the best musical guides through the liturgical year is the son of a Swiss Calvinist minister, Frank Martin.

Born in Geneva in 1890, Martin was encouraged by his parents to pursue a career in physics and mathematics. As a youngster, however, he exhibited a powerful inclination toward music. He began composing music at the age of nine. At twelve, he was deeply moved by a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Bach’s lasting influence was apparent from Martin’s motto: “Bach today, yesterday and forever.”

After meeting Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet, Martin came under the influence of the works of Debussy and Ravel, which bore fruit in his beautiful Piano Quintet of 1919. That influence, however, was fleeting. Martin was far more decisively formed by his encounter with Schoenberg’s serialism. Martin struggled to adapt Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique to his own compositional needs, which required the retention of tonal harmonies. Martin is primarily known for his success in this endeavor, with such brilliant works as the Petite Symphonie Concertante; Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments, Timpani, Percussion and Strings; and his Ballades for various instruments.

My own admiration for Martin was limited to these and other works, in some of which, however, I found a certain brittleness. Martin’s instrumental works were interesting, but I seldom felt compelled by them. Martin’s superb craftsmanship, however, is never in doubt. It is when Martin moved from craft to conviction that the kind of aridity I occasionally found disappeared. By conviction, I mean a religious conviction of the deepest sort. The famous cellist Pierre Fournier said Martin’s creative genius was “nurtured by the silent meditation in his work and by the fervor of his faith.” That faith animates moments of transfixing beauty in Martin’s sacred music, when he seems to break through the limitations of his medium to reveal the Holy.

It is the character of Martin’s faith that defines him. “As son of a minister, and as the son of a minister who has not renounced his faith,” he said, “religion has affected me twice as strongly.” Yet Martin’s religion did not have a sectarian cast. Rather, he seems to have been a pre-Reformation Christian with catholic tastes. In fact, after listening to his sacred works, one must go even further. Martin’s religious sensibility, if not his musical style, was essentially medieval. In reflecting on the text of the Requiem, he wrote, “These pictures originating from the Middle Ages appealed directly to the depths of my soul.” This seems also to have been true of the Mass; the Gospel narratives he set in his Passion, Golgotha; the Maria-Triptychon, consisting of the Ave Maria, Magnificat, and Stabat Mater; the monologues from Jedermann, Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s play after the medieval morality play, Everyman; In Terra Pax, an oratorio with texts from Isaiah, Revelation, the Gospels, and the Our Father; and the oratorio, Le Mystere de la Nativite, based on a French medieval mystery play, from which Martin also drew for his short oratorio, Pilate. Even some of Martin’s instrumental music is explicitly religious, as in his Polyptque (Six images of Christ’s Passion) for Violin and Two String Orchestras.

It is not only the subject matter, but the spirit in which he approached it that defines Martin as medieval. In an age when so many considered the artist the subject of his art, Martin thirsted for anonymity. In Entretiens avec Jean-Claude Piguet (1967), Martin recalled that he did not initially compose his sacred music with any intention that it should be performed. He described his Mass as “something between God and myself.” Martin thought it ideally should be premiered anonymously in a liturgy. Realizing that such an attempt would only draw more attention to its author, he kept his Mass in a drawer for 40 years.

In another way, however, Martin did achieve a kind of anonymity. While listening to his religious music, one never thinks of Martin. As well made as it is, the music is never clever in a way that would call attention to its maker. This is partly the result of Martin’s superb craftsmanship; so well suited are the means that the end is reached without drawing attention to them. But more certainly, this is due to Martin’s humility and deep reverence for his subject matter. For instance, he called Christ’s Passion “the greatest of all subjects.”‘

With Martin as our guide through the liturgical year, we should begin with his Mass because the Mass more or less carries the liturgical year within itself each day. In 1922, Martin began composing one of the sweetest, most gentle Masses of the 20th century, which has the intimacy of a personal confession of faith. It ranks with other 20th-century settings by Vaughan Williams, Poulenc, and Caplet. Martin was 32 when he began his Mass, finishing it four years later with the addition of the Agnus Dei. He then placed it in a drawer for the next four decades. “I did not want it to be performed,” Martin said, “since I was afraid that I would be judged from a purely aesthetic viewpoint…. I felt then that an expression of religious feelings should remain secret and removed from public opinion!’

Martin’s only a capella work, the Mass is written for double choir. With alternating homophonic, antiphonal, and polyphonic passages, the choirs express hushed reverence, wonder, and exultation with a clarity and luminosity rare in this century. Martin’s “private” musical devotion bespeaks an already deep, personal relationship of a man on his knees before his Savior.

For the first of the two central events of the liturgical year, Christmas, Martin composed an oratorio in 1959. Le Mystere de la Nativite contains some of the most touching faith-filled music I have heard. The character of this work calls to mind the carved wooden panels depicting biblical scenes found around the exterior of the apse and choir walls of many medieval cathedrals. It is as if these medieval bas-reliefs suddenly sprang to life musically, though in a 20th-century idiom. However, the idiom is not Martin’s usual chromaticism. In Le Mystere, he said that he “used a very bare and entirely diatonic musical language for the celestial world.” For the scenes in Hell, a nearly atonal language expresses the diabolical cacophony (though the devils are more redolent of Punch and Judy than Milton). Overall, it is a highly lyrical work.

For his text, Martin drew from Arnoul Greban’s Le Mystere de la Passion, written around 1450. Greban’s Passion play consists of 35,000 verses, most of them in rhymed couplets. Martin extracted twelve scenes that neatly encapsulate salvation history up to the Presentation in the Temple. After a prologue in Heaven, we are shown devils rejoicing in Hell at the arrival of the first human souls; Adam and Eve in limbo, anxiously wondering, “When com’st Thou, sweetest Messiah?”; and then God sending Gabriel to Mary.

The remaining scenes take us from the Annunciation to the Presentation. Both the text and the music have that special kind of innocence, intimacy, and sense of spiritual reality that only those with true faith possess. The setting of Gabriel’s announcement to Mary is one great love song, as are Mary’s first words to the newborn Jesus. Simeon’s longing to see the Messiah could not be more beautifully and poignantly expressed, or the celebration at Jesus’s arrival in the Temple more joyously conveyed.

Le Mystere is a work of true radiance, a rare masterpiece of the spirit. It shines inwardly throughout. Martin must have had the soul of a child to write something this pure. I have seldom come across music that goes so directly to the heart, and in mine it shall long remain. At each Christmas, if not more often, I shall return to this direct, childlike vision of our Savior’s coming.

The second lodestar of the liturgical year is Easter, preceded by the Passion. In 1945, Martin was impelled to undertake his setting of the Passion, Golgotha, by an encounter with Rembrandt’s famous etching, The Three Crosses. Like Rembrandt, Martin said he wished to depict “the hour, in the history of the world, when the basic incompatibility between our material world and the world of the spirit was so vividly revealed.” He declared his “intention was to make the sacred tragedy come to life again before our very eyes, and above all to portray the divine figure of Christ.”

Martin took his narrative from all four Gospels and interspersed among the scenes from the Passion excerpts from St. Augustine’s Meditations. Golgotha begins with searing cries of “Pêre,” taken from a passage in the Confessions, and then proceeds to Palm Sunday. Martin’s choral setting of the Hosannas that greet Christ in Jerusalem is a sublime and ravishing revelation of Christ’s true identity. The setting of St. Augustine’s Meditation No. 7 that follows is an exquisite musical meditation of the utmost delicacy and spiritual refinement. In the scene before the Sanhedrin, Martin powerfully contrasts the anger and tumult of the crowd to Christ’s serenity. The depiction of the crowd’s behavior before Pilate is completely harrowing, as is Pilate’s cry of “Ecce Homo.”

In surprising contrast, Martin gently renders the actual scene of Calvary, taken from St. John’s Gospel, as a quiet, grief-stricken prayer, subdued and reverential. The concluding section, the Resurrection, both seraphically and powerfully proclaims victory over death in the majesty of the risen Christ. Here, Martin has created a work of the utmost sublimity, a Passion setting that rises over our own century and that can only be compared to the works of his great master, Bach, in its achievement.

Martin also composed a Requiem Mass, premiered at the Lausanne Cathedral in 1974, the year before he died. In it, he returned to the more chromatic language found in some of his instrumental works. Martin does not provide the soothing reassurance found in the Requiems of Faure or Durufle, both of whom omitted the Dies Irae altogether. The chromaticism in Martin’s Requiem creates a sense of unease and distress that is entirely appropriate to what he saw as the certain prospect of judgment and the possibility of Hell. Death does not waft you into Heaven. It brings you to a terrible moment of truth. Martin wished to show death “in all the anguish and suffering, physical and emotional, that it bears.” The Dies Irae is three times longer than the next longest section of the work. Unlike the exultant Sanctus in Martin’s Mass, the Sanctus in the Requiem expresses anguish. The chromatic edge of anxiety carries through even to the Agnus Dei. This is not neurotic anxiety; it is spiritual realism. The nearly pervasive disquiet is, however, dispelled all the more effectively when the chromatic clouds disperse in the Offertorium, as the sopranos tenderly exclaim the radiance of Rex gloriae; again, in the In Paradisum; and in the concluding Lux aeterna, in which the light triumphantly bursts forth.

In Golgotha, Christ’s divinity is manifested in his acceptance of His death. In the Requiem, Martin seems to be saying we are most like Christ in accepting our own death. “What I have tried to express here is the clear will to accept death,” Martin said, “to make peace with it…. Equally important, though, is the willingness to behold death in full confidence of the forgiveness to come, in full expectation of true, eternal peace.” It is not this peace that Martin attempts to portray but the expression of an “ardent prayer, hoping to attain it by the grace of God.”

Martin hoped that his Requiem would bring to its listeners “the same feeling of trust and peace that moved my soul as I worked on it.” In it and his other sacred works, Martin succeeded in conveying his profoundly religious inspiration. Whether listeners receive it will in large part depend on what they bring to it. Martin was keenly aware of this dimension when he wrote of how his Polyptyque might be regarded. He said, “With some people, this music will be able to help them re-create within themselves these pictures of the Passion; for others, they will be pieces, more or less interesting, more or less successful, for solo violin and two string orchestras.”

For those with ears to hear, Martin’s music is like a rock of faith in the 20th century, and its message will carry anyone willing to pay it heed safely into the 21st and beyond. That message was encapsulated in Martin’s last work, completed only ten days before he died, the cantata, Et la Vie l’emporta. The title roughly translates as, And Life Won the Day. It did, and will again, forever—which is what the millennium really means.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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