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It was not until 1940, at the age of 50, that Frank Martin was invited to join Universal Edition. Emil Hertzka had died eight years before, Austria had been annexed by the Third Reich and the firm had been “aryanized”. It was now called “Universal Edition Johannes Petschull” after the new director. Among the employees, however, there were some who did their best to keep Hertzka’s spirit alive, first and foremost Alfred Schlee who – to cite just one example – had the courage to offer a contract to the Jewish composer Rolf Liebermann – “for the time after”.
Schlee also played a major role in Frank Martin’s decision to join the UE stable of composers. He visited Martin in his house in Holland late in 1940 and expressed interest in his work. Martin was composing Le vin herbé at the time, and, at Schlee’s request, he played and sang extracts from the piece. Schlee was so impressed that he not only offered there and then to publish Le vin herbé, but also to take Martin under contract for whatever he was to produce in the years to come.
In the thirty-four years until his death in 1974, eighty-five of his compositions appeared under the UE label. Of course, there were not as many self-standing works, for some of Martin’s pieces exist in several versions, some prepared by himself, some arranged by others.
One example is the Sonata da chiesa pour viole d’amour et orgue of 1938. There emerged a version for flute and organ in 1941, one for oboe d’amore and organ in the same year and one for viola d’amore and string orchestra in 1952. In addition, there are two different versions for flute and string orchestra, one prepared by Victor Desarzens authorised by the composer (1958) and one made in 1993 by Gunnar Cohrs.
The 2. Ballade pour flûte et piano (1938) is another case in point, with arrangements for such unusual combinations as flute, string orchestra, piano, tympani and percussion. In fact, Martin composed quite a number of works under the title of Ballad, some of which are interrelated.
In joining UE in 1940, Frank Martin took some of his older works with him. He also gave the publisher his very last composition, written in the year of his death: Et la vie l’emporta, a cantata for alto, baritone, chamber chorus and chamber ensemble. It is no coincidence that he said farewell to life and composition with a vocal work: the human voice was his favoured medium.
The conductor Ernest Ansermet, a fervent advocate of Martin’s music from early days on, wrote:
“From the very first, he showed himself to be a lyricist rather than a symphonist; an epic lyricist to be exact, an artist whose music was above all song, broad vocal arches stretching horizontally as well as vertically.”
One of the first significant works that Martin composed after signing his contract with Universal Edition was another vocal composition: Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Rilke for alto solo and orchestra (1942/1943). It was premiered towards the end of World War II in Basle, in February 1945. Three months later, Martin welcomed the end of the war with the first performance of the oratorio breve In terra pax. He had composed it in 1944, in the hope of a swift ending of hostilities, once again for vocal forces: five soloists, two mixed choruses and orchestra.
The prominence of the human voice in Frank Martin’s oeuvre may well have been rooted in his family background: his father was a priest, and the composer grew up a believer. His output includes a range of religious pieces, such as Golgotha (1945/1948), Le Mystère de la Nativité (1957/1959) the Pseaumes de Genève (1958), the cantata Pilate (1964), Maria Tryptich (1967/1968),), Requiem (1971/1972) and others.
Furhtermore, he composed vocal music on secular subjects, such as the Six Monologues from Jedermann for baritone and piano (1943), arranged a few years later for baritone or alto solo and orchestra. There is also the aforementioned secular oratorio Le vin herbé (1938/1941), a concert work which has also been staged a number of times.
Frank Martin composed for the stage as well: The Tempest after Shakespeare (1952/1956) and the musical comedy after Molière, Monsieur de Pourceaugnac. The Suite from The Tempest, for baritone and orchestra, is a popular concert work. Interestingly, the a cappella chorus 5 Songs of Ariel was written in 1950, at a time when Martin had not yet made up his mind to turn Shakespeare’s play into a music theatre piece.
For all the prominence of vocal music in Martin’s work, he also produced a wide range for purely instrumental compositions which have become an integral part of the international concert repertoire. The Petite symphonie concertante (1945) for harp, harpsichord, piano and two string orchestras is one of his popular compositions, as is the Concerto for seven wind instruments, tympani, percussion and string orchestra (1949). His faith found expression in Polyptyque for violin and two small string orchestras (1973), as indicated by the subtitle “Six images de la Passion du Christ”.
It took Frank Martin some time before he was clear in his mind that he had found a musical idiom he could call his own. He may have been a late developer, but he did achieve the difficult feat of creating a musical world in between conservative and avant-garde trends, also between French and German cultural traditions.
In conclusion, here is another quotation from Ernest Ansermet:
“Frank Martin may have employed serial technique in his tonal complexes, in his search for new means of expression, but he never ventured as far as the radical novelty of atonality: he always subordinated the use of the row to what he called his “sense of tonality”. Why? Because that sense of tonality (on which he was reluctant to elaborate but which is part of his inner world and tells him which tonal relationships are possible and which ones are to be avoided) appears to define the very sense of his music. In other words: the impulse to write something ‘new’ is overridden by the need to compose something which makes sense for him, a clear sense which he can communicate through his music to others, a sense which transfers to the listener what he felt at the time of committing his music to paper.”