A lost Suite from a pageant by Frank Martin is melodic and rhythmically incisive.
FRANK MARTIN: Music for Winds—Concerto pour les instruments a vent et le piano—Concert Suite from Ein Totentanz zu Basel im Jahre 1943—Zwischen Rhone Und Rhein—Massachusetts Chamber Players/Matthew Westgate—MSR Classics, MS1602, 53:28, ****:
In 2016 I reviewed a recording of Swiss composer Frank Martin’s (1890-1974) complete play Ein Totentanz zu Basel im Jahre 1943 (CPO 777 997-2). This is a performance of the concert suite along with his Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (Concerto pour les instruments a vent et le piano) and the march (Zwischen Rhone und Rhein). At the suggestion of the composer’s wife Maria, the suite (probably written by the composer) was published in 2004.
In the middle of the horrors of World War II (1943) Swiss mime artist Mariette von Meyenburg, asked her uncle Frank Martin to compose music for a theatrical performance that would portray death in a new way. The work’s purpose was to see death “as a positive happenstance and …to express in music that kind of peace with death,” as stated in the program notes for the performance. Martin liked this characterization, which comes from the central European image of death as a compassionate and caring skeleton who dances with the person who is to die.
The original scenario included a dancer (Death) and a dozen mime artists, a boy choir, a small string orchestra, Basel side drums, and a pseudo-jazz big band. It has been produced in totality only twice, in 1943 and 1992. The scenario consists of eight musical scenes where death (the dancer) meets people who may or may not die. If they are to die, an angel (a boy choir and/or a string orchestra) escorts them into the Doors to Heaven. The music of the Dances of Death is performed by a jazz band, with the addition of Basel Side Drums, which linked the work to the town of Basel and its Fasnacht celebration, the place and time of the original presentation in 1943.
The biggest difference between the complete work and the Suite is the addition of the boy chorus and/or strings in four of the eight scenes. In “Death and the Mother with her and Child,” the struggle between Death and Mother and Child is well characterized in both versions, but the addition of the boy chorus (“musique spiritual”) and strings as Death accompanies both to the Stair of Angels, adds a transcendent quality to the emotion of that scene. While the complete performance on Capriccio gives a total picture of the pageant, there is much to recommend the suite as a lost, enjoyable and even significant example of Martin’s music from his middle period.
The music here has a harmonic clarity and melodic invention that reveals the drama, pathos and humor to the scenario. There’s a rhythmic verve and jaunty Parisian bounce to the wind instrumentation that makes the music almost joyous, despite its subject of death. It’s this ability of Martin to simultaneously depict contrasting emotions that makes his music subtle and continually revealing upon multiple encounters. The tart harmonies offer a contrast to the abundant melodic material that make for a balanced musical meal.
The Concerto pour les instruments a vente le piano was composed by Martin in 1924 for a Parisian puppet theater, Les Petits Comediens de Bois that used many artists from Diaghilev’s Ballets Russe. The arrangement recorded here is for 13 winds, percussion and piano. There are two sections: a breezy, energetic Entr’acte and a slower Mouvement des Blues. Both are tartly neo-Classical in style. Zwischen Rhone und Rhein is the official march that Martin composed for 1939 Swiss national exhibition that celebrated national identity and culture. Although a march, its purpose is similar to Sibelius’ Finlandia (without the call to arms to achieve independence): to celebrate everything that defines Swiss national character. In that light it is appropriately forceful and straightforward.
The performances of these scores by the Massachusetts Chamber Players and conductor Matthew Westgate are dramatic, incisive and passionate and are very well recorded. For Martin fans, this is a necessary purchase. Others will find a score full of delights.