On Frank Martin’s ‘Mass for Double Choir’…

November 3rd, 2016

Cross russian against alaskan skyThere are many works from the twentieth-century which, perhaps, should not have seen the light of day; perhaps they should have been resigned to the composer’s bottom drawer, substandard and reserved for the executer to decide their fate when future royalties were more important than posthumous reputation. A list of these works would be substantial and exhaustive, a hundred and one pieces sullying the names of many good composers. Some composers would, in fact, have very little to show for a life’s work if they were more discerning with their bottom drawer. However there are a few pieces for which the opposite is definitely true, when a work is far too good to be consigned to a drawer for any length of time, whatever the aesthetic judgement of the composer – Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir is undoubtedly one of those.

It is hard to believe that this work, written in the 1920s, would sit in Martin’s drawer for nearly forty years until after heavy persuasion he released it for publication and performance in 1963. A work of such searing beauty and luminescence should surely have not sat in a drawer gathering dust along with faded sketches for tuba concerti and comic operas (or whatever else composers keep in the bottom drawer) whilst the world was crying out for more sacred masterpieces to rival Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater. Why did he choose to exile his only unaccompanied choral work for so long?

The answer one suspects lies in the composer’s strong Christian faith, a faith which governed his life, both personal and artistic. Born into a Swiss Calvinist family (his father was a minister) in 1890 his work would be hugely indebted to his faith, and somewhat like Messiaen, his work would never stray too far from Christian themes and issues. To write a work which expresses the very essence of his faith and then have it performed and open for public dissemination appeared to be a step too far for the intensely devoted Martin. As he wrote in the 1960s: “I did not want it to be performed…I consider it…as being a matter between God and myself. I felt then that an expression of religious feelings should remain secret and removed from public opinion.” Not many composers can claim to have such strong beliefs about their work and the relationship between artist and God, certainly not in the more secular-leaning twentieth-century. It brings into mind Igor Stravinsky who dedicated his own personal declaration of faith, the Symphony of Psalms: “to the Glory of God…and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.”

The work begins with a beguiling, imitative Kyrie with long, lithe phrases twisting between the two choirs in delicate antiphony. The music is undeniably influenced by plainchant with its long, conjunct melismatic lines but it is not based on chant as a work by Duruflé or Langlais might. Coming from a Calvinist background Martin was not exposed to the Catholic tradition of associated plainchant melodies, his setting is purely a personal response to the text and the ‘mood’ it suggests. A slight change of tempo mid-way through the movement introduces a dotted idea which permeates the music from this point onwards, creating a subtle tension which is only really resolved in the penultimate bars and the Tierce de Picardie of the final ‘eleison’.

The opening of the Gloria is perhaps the most sublime moment of the Mass, with antiphonal stretto entries building into two glorious statements of ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’, the intensity of the first only matched by the sheer power of the second. The rest of the movement perhaps never lives up to this majestic opening, but the impressive polyphonic and rhythmic writing show traces of Bach and traces of Martin’s work away from the choral world where he would teach rhythmic theory for many years in Holland.

The Credo and Sanctus rattle along in a similar fashion culminating in a powerful ‘hosanna’ and a fortissimo E major chord. And that chord would have been the end of the Mass if Martin had sought a performance in 1922, but the work was placed in the drawer for its first sojourn, this time for four years before Martin returned to it in 1926 to add an Agnus Dei. Nobody (as far as I’m aware) is entirely sure why he took this break, but we shouldn’t worry about it too much, for Martin fashioned one of his most sublime and inspirational creations in his finale to the Mass. Similar in scope and design to the Kyrie, with legato plainchant-inspired lines the overriding melodic impulse. Here he has the two choirs as very separate and distinct groups, one with a steady rhythmic tread intoning the text in rich harmonies, the other with the loose-limbed polyphony that began the Kyrie. Both choirs come together in the final bars in an understated benediction on the words ‘dona nobis pacem’; togetherness is achieved in a rapturous G major, a suitable sonority to finish this most heartfelt and affecting of works – definitely better than the bottom drawer.


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