The tenth and last child of a Calvinist pastor, Frank Martin was born in Geneva on 15 September 1890, and studied there under Josef Rheinberger and Joseph Lauber, a pupil of Massenet. Thus a mixture of French and Germanic influences shaped his early development; but his friendship with Ernest Ansermet stimulated his interest in more advanced styles, such as those of Ravel and Stravinsky. Nevertheless he cited a performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion which he heard at the age of 12 as the crucial event which determined him to become a composer, and Bach remained his ultimate model.
After World War One Martin travelled widely, continuing his studies in Zurich, Rome and Paris and pursuing parallel interests in physics and mathematics. He returned to Geneva in 1926 and worked as a pianist and harpsichordist; he also joined the staff of the Institut Jaques-Dalcroze, an experience which confirmed his interest in dance and eurhythmics.
After the Second World War he settled in Holland, and also taught for a time at the Cologne Hochschule fur Musik. (His pupils included Karlheinz Stockhausen.) He retired from teaching in 1957 and concentrated for the rest of his life on composition, which he pursued up to a few days before his death in Naarden, Holland, on 21 November 1974.
A prolific composer who essayed works for most conventional forces, and several for unconventional combinations as well, Martin wrote several religious works, while his biggest achievements are probably his opera after Shakespeare’s Tempest (1955), the Monologues from Hofmannsthal’s version of the medieval morality play Everyman (1949), the oratorios In terra pax (1944) and Golgotha (1945-8), and a cantata upon the Tristan and Isolde legend, Le vin herbé (1938-42). But it is his shorter concert works which have become more widely known, notably the Petite symphonie concertante (1945) for harp, harpsichord, piano and double string orchestra.
Martin’s mature idiom is marked by a concern for clarity of form and instrumental colour; a discreet but pervasive mastery of counterpoint; and lively, pointed rhythms owing something to jazz but more to Baroque dance-measures such as chaconne and gigue. To that extent, his music might be characterised as ‘neo-Classical’; but in contrast to some of his French contemporaries Martin could never be accused of the flippancy or superficiality which that term so often implies.
Though his fast movements are frequently witty or mordant, his predominant tone is one of sober lyricism that can accumulate a dark, sometimes ominous intensity, with occasional visionary illumination expressed through an urbanity of technique that recalls late Fauré. One of the keys to his musical character is the fact that as early as 1932 he began to explore Schoenberg’s method of serial composition. What most appealed to Martin was the logic and self-consistency of the serial idiom, rather than its capacity for extreme dissonance and formalism; and he tended to adapt certain features of the method intuitively rather than apply it rigorously.
Profile © Calum MacDonald