Wind music by Swiss composer Frank Martin embodies the pacifist nation’s virile national identity.
MARTIN: Music for Winds = Concerto for Winds Instruments and Piano (1924); Concert Suite from “A Dance of Death in Basel in the Year 1943”; Official March of the Swiss National Exhibition – Massachusetts Chamber Players/ Nadine Shank, piano – MSR Classics MS 1602, 53:28 (10/1/17) [Distr. by Albany] ****:
Conductor Matthew Westgate organized the Massachusetts Chamber Players in the fall of 2016 specifically for this recording project (rec. 4-5 November 2016) of music by Swiss composer Frank Martin (1890-1974). The ensemble consists primarily of woodwind, brass and percussion faculty member musicians from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and artist teachers from the Five-College Consortium of Western Massachusetts. Several UMass alumni and student musicians, western Massachusetts freelancer musicians and guest players complete the instrumentation. The Department of Music and Dance of UMass Amherst represents one of the largest music programs in New England, providing more than 250 performance and concert opportunities each year across seventeen instrumental ensembles, six vocal groups and numerous solo and ensemble recital series. Noted leaders in the fields of performance, pedagogy and scholarship, the UMass faculty create a community at UMass that promotes individual growth through artistic and intellectual discovery.
Frank Martin became involved Les Petits Comediens, a Parisien puppet-theater group, which in 1924 engaged artists from Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. As manager of the small theater orchestra, Martin would arrange scores by Lully and Scarlatti as well as create original compositions, such as the Concerto for 13 Winds and Piano, which will surely encourage comparison with the work by Igor Stravinsky. In two movements—En’tracte and Mouvement de Blues—the work resonates with sonorous echoes of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat. The militant, bluesy aspects of the opening tune almost resemble “Give My Regards to Broadway,” as cross-fertilized by Milhaud’s La Creation du Monde. The Blues Movement gives us a slinky fox-trot in which the trombone, trumpet, and piano have much to say. The soft-shoe approach works much charm in the latter part of the movement: we Samuel Becket fans might see a dance for Vladimir and Estragon in this suave score.
Composed as a dance and mime show at the height of the Second World War, but never published during the composer’s lifetime, Frank Martin’s Totentanz derives from a series of 15th-century murals that once adorned the walls of a Dominican monastery in Basel. In the paintings, Death appears as a benign figure, a gentle mediator between the worlds of the living and the dead, and the nine scenes in Martin’s work depict his encounters with ordinary people who may or not be about to die, but whom Death guides to the afterlife if they are. A solo dancer realizes the role of Death, with mimes playing the characters he meets. The musical forces include a boys’ choir, a group of baritones, wind band, string orchestra and solo piano, as well as three Basel drums, a large, military side-drum.
The score partly comes from Martin’s earlier works and makes prominent use of a 16th-century soldier’s hymn. Brittle marches and uptempo chorales are interspersed with choral numbers; there are echoes of Stravinsky (The Soldier’s Tale) and Kurt Weill, even Gershwin. The ungainly logistics of mounting this rare score led to its having been produced but twice: in 1943 and 1992, both Basel productions. In 2011, Bastiaan Blomhert resurrected the nine movements in the chamber edition with the cooperation of Maria Martin. Edith Habraken composed the Introduction and closing Basel Drum solo contained in Dance of Death with the Beautiful Lady. The longest movement, Dance of Death with the Mother and Her Child, offers a sectionalized dirge whose intensity allegorizes the struggle we see embodied in such films as The Book Thief and Alone in Berlin. Dance of Death with the Athlete might take its opening cue from Wagner’s A Siegfried Idyll before its transfiguration into a pompous march rife with raucous fanfares. The mockery in Death with the Rich Man nods to the Samuel Goldenberg section in Mussorgsky. Dance of Death Alone and its segue, Dance of Death with the Young Girl, provide the most lyrical aspects of the score, a masterly sense of what a modern melodist can do even within the restrictions of a jazz-ballet. The percussive elements rival anything we know from marching-band competitions. Such a rare, melancholy, and occasionally touching score has found a careful and respectful reading that deserves note.
The Swiss in 1939 organized the “Landi,” a national exhibition held—roughly every 25 years—on the shores of Lake Zurich in order “to define the national character… specifically Swiss.” Martin’s assertive “Swiss Rhone and Rhine” serves as the official march of the festival. In embolden tones, the music expresses “a nation with a strong national culture, a strongly developed national industry, and a strong national tradition.”