Interest Grows in a Master of Choral Power

Posted May 25, 2018 3:52 p.m. EDT

At the beginning of the Mass for Double Choir by Swiss composer Frank Martin, simple, flowing lines for the altos evoke the purity of Gregorian chant. Then the sopranos make their entrance, and the harmonies shift in surprising directions. Fusing elements of Renaissance polyphony and Baroque counterpoint with the gauzy, layered chords of the French Impressionists, it is music of beauty, mystery and power.

Martin was born in Geneva in 1890, the 10th child of a Calvinist minister and his wife, both avid amateur music makers. He wrote his Mass between 1922 and 1926 but withheld it from performance for nearly 40 years because he regarded it as an act of personal worship.

By then, Martin, who died in 1974, had completed nearly all of his most significant vocal compositions, many involving choruses, which an increasing number of musicians, scholars and critics view as his crowning achievements.

These works are finding new advocates in the United States, among them conductor Joe Miller, who will lead the Mass on Saturday at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina, joined by his Westminster Choir. “I consider it to be one of the pinnacle a cappella works of the 20th century,” Miller said. “The score very much looks like a marriage between Bach and Debussy, or Bach and Ravel.”

While Martin’s instrumental pieces are occasionally heard in America, his choral music remains rare. His Requiem, which was given its premiere by the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in 1973, has been presented only once in this country, according to its publisher, Universal Edition. But interest is growing.

In 2016, when Clara Longstreth led the New Amsterdam Singers in “Golgotha,” the composer’s Passion oratorio, at Trinity Church in New York, it was only the third performance here since the Dessoff Choirs gave the U.S. premiere at Carnegie Hall in 1952. That oratorio “may be Martin’s masterpiece,” Anthony Tommasini wrote in The New York Times of a recording of the work in 2010 — a decided contrast to the reaction of a Times predecessor, Olin Downes, who found it “lacking in virility and significance.”

Last summer in Chicago, Carlos Kalmar conducted “In Terra Pax,” written to commemorate the end of World War II, with the Grant Park Music Festival Orchestra and Chorus. And since 2014, the secular oratorio “Le Vin Herbé,” Martin’s pared down but poignant take on the Tristan legend, has been mounted by opera houses in Boston, Chicago and Long Beach, California.

Martin’s only opera, “Der Sturm,” based on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” was recorded complete for the first time in 2008. Miller, the director of choral activities at the Westminster Choir College and at Spoleto, recently recorded the Mass on the Westminster Choir College label for release in September.

“It’s a tour de force for the chorus, and one of the most virtuosic moments is in the Sanctus,” he said. “The vocal writing has an incredibly wide range, the imitative counterpoint is going back and forth in rapid fire between the two choirs, and Martin is using a 5/8 meter.”

Indeed, conductor Kent Tritle, who has led the Mass and the “Five Songs for Ariel,” suggested that one factor in the dearth of U.S. performances of Martin’s choral music is their intonational and coloristic difficulty, particularly for amateur choirs.

He added that in past decades, the works published by U.S. (as opposed to European) firms were typically available at cheaper rates and were more likely to be given promotional readings at choral conventions. There is also the cost of hiring musicians for larger pieces like the 90-minute “Golgotha” and the 45-minute Requiem, whose scores, Tritle said, are languishing on the bookshelves in his office at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where he is the director of music.

Martin’s first surviving composition is a children’s song he wrote when he was 9. He studied privately with Joseph Lauber, a pupil of Massenet, and wrote his first officially acknowledged works during his 20s, drawing on both French and Germanic traditions of the time, as well as on folk music. Martin also concertized as a pianist, harpsichordist and conductor, living in Zurich, Rome and Paris.

He did not find his true artistic voice until the 1940s, when he created “Le Vin Herbé” and “Petite Symphonie Concertante,” which brought international attention and performances by prestigious orchestras and festivals. (About two-thirds of his output was written after he turned 50.)

Several years earlier, he had encountered Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone system of composition. Martin embraced chromaticism, which weakens music’s sense of a tonal center, but refused to abandon tonality altogether. In doing so, he alienated both die-hard advocates of serialism and musical conservatives. More synthesist than innovator, he blended disparate influences into a distinctive whole, which now seems very much of our time.

Martin’s sacred music is notable for the heartfelt sensitivity and theological discernment he brings to his settings of religious texts. Unusually for a Passion setting, “Golgotha” ends with the triumph of the Resurrection rather than the sorrow of the Crucifixion. Kalmar believes that “In Terra Pax,” with its universal cry for peace and hope, stands a better chance of attracting future presenters. Yet he doubts that the composer’s choral music will enter the mainstream.

“At the end of the day,” Kalmar said, “I think Frank Martin will always be in a niche. But the niche has to be observed and nurtured.”