Thursday, 17 April 2014

Piece of the day: Mass for Double Choir by Frank Martin

Frank Martin (1890-1974) isn't a composer that you hear very much of. He was a Swiss composer who spent a large portion of his life in the Netherlands.



Among his works we can find an operatic setting in German of Shakespeare's "The Tempest", two piano concerti, a harpsichord concerto, a 'cello concerto, a violin concerto, a concerto for various wind instruments and six ballades for solo instruments and orchestra. We can also find a symphony, a chamber symphony, a ballet and a requiem mass among other works. His style is fundamentally tonal, but the composer had an atonality phase like most others during the early thirties. 

What's surprising is that he had a great talent for the piano since his early childhood, when he apparently composed full songs at the age of nine before having received formal musical tuition. It seems that his musical studies were not very thorough, having studied music informally whilst reading maths and physics at Geneva University. Later on he worked with Dalcroze, the developer of Eurythmics (a method of musical teaching that focuses especially on kinaesthetic aspects).

But what seemed to spark an interest in the boy was hearing a performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion when he was twelve. Hereon, we can observe a fondness for Bach and the choral genre: he wrote and played on the harpsichord and clavichord, wrote plentiful vocal settings of religious texts and his chamber symphony is somewhat evocative of Bach's fifth Brandenburg Concerto, as the harpsichord and harp perform as soloists, not as a basso continuo. 

This mass in particular has something about it which makes it very individual. It is not like some pieces that feel as if they end prematurely or too late, but it is almost perfectly formed and has a particular sense of continuity in its programmatic style.

There are some features which I would like to point out.
First off, the piece is set brilliantly for double a cappela choir. The part writing shows a high level of craftsmanship, that we might expect from Martin's experience in choral writing.
The piece is really programmatic, with sections of the text being emphasised with the musical phrasing etc...
For example, in the Creed, the phrase "et homo factus est" is sung with a sudden tempo change, making it slow and reverent, almost reflecting the head-bow done in the mass whilst saying this phrase. 
"Crucifixus" is sung with the interval of the tritone, giving it a sense of turmoil. Furthermore, before this, the tenors proclaim "decisively" "begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father" just to get rid of two or three heresies right there on the spot.

The final section that is the "Agnus Dei" sounds truly penitent and bleak, with one choir slaving away at a quasi-drone whilst the other choir sings a rather menacing melody on top of that, which overall really conveys a call for mercy. It also reminds me of the Hebrew slaves asking for mercy and reminiscing (see Psalm 137). 

Overall, Frank Martin's Mass for double a cappela choir is a great work of art which is great to listen to mostly due to its form and line. Especially recommended during this time.

Do tell me what you think!