Frank Martin: Mass for Double Chorus

I first encountered Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Chorus in June, 1980.  I sang the Kyrie movement with an all-professional church choir here in Chicago, under an ambitious young conductor—and it flopped; fell apart in performance during the church service.  I was struck by the music’s beauty and dramatic power, but had no hopes at that time of conducting a choir that could handle it; the failure of these professionals to pull it off deterred further investigation.

Fourteen years later, the Mass appeared on the proposed repertoire list of the Robert Shaw Festival Singers, a group I sang with at the time.  Remembering my prior experience with the work, I thought, here is my chance to find out if the work is singable, and worth the effort we would put in to learning it.  More than worth it:  experience with this piece was one of the top revelations of the years I spent singing for Mr. Shaw.  At the end of the festival, following the recording sessions, singers lined up to greet and thank Mr. Shaw; my words were, “Thank you for doing this piece,” to which he responded with a nod, a handshake, and the words, “It is a worthy work, isn’t it.”

Frank Martin was born in Geneva in 1890, and lived until 1974. His ancestors were French Huguenots who left France in the 16th century; his father was a Calvinist minister. Primarily a pianist, he was largely self-taught as a composer, never attending conservatory.  After service in World War I, he lived first in Zurich and Rome, later in Paris, where he worked closely on rhythmic theory with Emil Jacques-Dalcroze. At the age of twelve, he was profoundly inspired by a performance of of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion; years later, he pointed to that concert as the defining musical experience of his life, the cornerstone of his musical foundation.  Franck, Ravel, and Debussy also figured prominently in his development.

The years immediately following World War I were a period f extreme ferment and unrest in Western music, and Martin’s own, unusually prolonged development was in fact a synthesis of the many techniques and strains of thought then current.  In the early Twenties he composed in a linear, consciously archaic style, reminiscent of fifteenth and sixteenth century sacred vocal music, restricted to modal melodies and perfect triads.  Later in the same decade he enriched his harmonic and rhythmic palette through experimentation with Indian and Bulgarian rhythms and folk music.  About 1930, he adopted 12-tone serialism as his dominant compositional device, and worked within that framework for the rest of his career.

Martin composed his Mass in 1922, with the exception of the Agnus Dei movement, which he added in 1926, and the work clearly demonstrates the compositional ideas with which he was then grappling.  Modeled after the liturgical masses of the Renaissance, with five movements corresponding to the five ordinary sections of the liturgy, it utilizes techniques typical of Josquin and his fifteenth century contemporaries (notice particularly the paired imitation in the Gloria at the words “et in terra pax hominibus,” where the words and melody of one segment of the choir are immediately echoed by another segment of the choir, building toward a grand tutti on the words “glorificamus te”). Large chunks of imitative, almost fugato-like writing, such as that at the very beginning of the Kyrie, suggest the sound and texture characteristic of late sixteenth century composers such as Palestrina and Victoria; the double-choir framework upon which the work is built, particularly in sections such as the Benedictus portion of the Sanctus, and the entire Agnus Dei, where the two choirs are clearly differentiated from and juxtaposed to one anther, hark back to the seventeenth century Venetian style exemplified in the works of Giovanni Gabrieli.

Along with these historically conscious elements, we hear rhythmic and harmonic passages reflecting his interest in more “primitive,” folk, and non-western music.  Note particularly, once again in the Benedictus, the percussive effect produced by the second choir, both through an incessant rhythmic pattern and through the use of non-triadic harmonies, particularly open fifths and tritones.  Martin demonstrates here his kinship with Stravinsky, whose Rite of Spring was first performed in Paris in 1913.

Traditionally, musical settings of the Mass ordinary were intended for use during worship; through their evolution as a large musical form, mass settings evolved into concert works, typified at their peak of development by such masterpieces as Bach’s Mass in B Minor, which were not suitable for liturgical use.  Martin, however, intended his work to function in neither arena; as he wrote in 1970, “I did not at all desire that the work be performed, believing that it would be judged entirely from an aesthetic point of view.  I saw it entirely as an affair between God and me…. the expression of religious sentiments, it seems to me, should remain secret and have nothing to do with public opinion.”  Martin expresses a Calvinist viewpoint:  whereas, for a Roman Catholic, connection with God is achieved through the sacraments, the mass among them, which must be “performed” (in effect, a public act witnessed by more than one person) by a priest (who, through his ordination, is chosen and qualified to intercede between God and humankind), Martin’s relationship with God is private, secret, personal, without intercessor or mediation.  A musical setting of the mass, therefore, occupies uneasy territory for Martin: unnecessary as a public liturgical act, its creation, nonetheless, as a product of his own imagination and religious fervor, is a vital act of communication between him and God.

Upon completing his Mass, Martin put it away, never intending that it be heard publicly.  He finally allowed it to be performed in 1963, almost forty years after its completion, at the urging of his students.  He is on record as considering it a youthful attempt on the way to his mature style; but modern audiences find it richly sonorous and emotionally satisfying. , and has become a standard work in the repertoires of major choral ensembles.