The composition of the Petite symphonie concertante was begun in 1944, but it was held up for a long time by work on the oratorio In terra pax which was ordered by Radio Geneva for performance on Armistice Day. It was not until 1945 that I was able to resume and complete the Petite symphonie concertante. The work was requested by Paul Sacher, a man who possesses the art of suggesting ideas to a composer while leaving him free to handle them in his own way. Though Sacher provided neither the form nor the exact instrumentation, his idea favoured a modern work, in which, apart from the string ensemble, every stringed instrument found normally in a basso continuo would be used as well. I enlarged upon this programme and set myself the task of employing all the stringed instruments in use today – strings, piano, harp and harpsichord. It was this combination of instruments, therefore, which gave me the first incentive to my work. I decided to use the two keyboard instruments and the harp as solos, and the sort of music I was writing caused me to divide the string ensemble into two groups of equal importance.
I was led by this instrumental arrangement to choose the classical form for the Allegro, not with the specific intention of moulding my musical ideas into a pre-established pattern, but to see whether such musical material could thrive and develop in this form with two themes. Thus came into being the first part of the symphony with its Introduction and its Allegro. In the Allegro the second theme and the further development again take up the essential elements of the Introduction. This Allegro resembles a concerto, with its solo parts (the three solo instruments alternately accompanying each other) and the continually recurring orchestral part.
In the second part of the work I was inspired by the spontaneous movement of the music. The melodious main theme, introduced in a slow movement by the harp and taken up by the piano, suddenly develops into a lively march. In contrast to the first part and despite numerous episodic elements there is only one main theme. It rises to a climax and then concludes with a short cadence.
After writing this score and before hearing its first performance, I was convinced that this sonorous work, owing to its experimental nature and its unusual combination of instruments, would be restricted in its performance and played in this form only at its premiere by Collegium Musicum Zurich. I feared that it would remain an instrumental curiosity, and I therefore wrote a second version for a large orchestra without solo instruments. I thought this task, apart from having the interest of solving a complicated instrumental problem, would also allow the work to be more widely performed. Events have proved my supposition completely false. With the single exception of the Lucerne Festival in 1947, this work has been played everywhere in its original version which is published here.
Frank Martin, 1950