Frank Martin (1890-1974) was the youngest of ten children born to a Calvinist pastor’s family in Geneva, Switzerland. When he was 12 years old, he attended a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (the lesser passion, I like to call it; Bach’s St. John Passion is superior) and, from that point, had Bach as his unofficial composition teacher. Of course, when the 1930s rolled around, he dabbled in Schoenberg’s serialism, but he escaped with his tonality intact.
Among his works are many settings of biblical texts: The Cantata for Christmas Time, Golgotha (biblical texts plus some texts of Augustine), Mystery of the Nativity (a Christmas oratorio), Three Christmas Songs. Looking at his works list, there is also a cantata called, Genevan Psalms. I have not heard this work, but it appears he borrowed from the Marot/Bourgeois/Goudimel Genevan Psalter. After a quick search, it doesn’t seem that there is a recording of this work available.
Here’s the question, though: Why did the son of a Calvinist pastor living in Geneva also do a number of settings of the Roman Catholic Latin texts? There is the Requiem for soloists, choir, organ, and orchestra. There is the Maria-Triptychon (settings of the Ave Maria, Magnificat, and Stabat Mater). There is also the Mass for Double Choir A Cappella (more on this later). So, did Frank abandon entirely the faith of his father (if faith was alive there at all) and become an enlightened artiste, opting to see those sacred texts in a merely aesthetic light? Or did he retrograde to Rome? Or was he a genuine Calvinist who set a few Latin texts?
So, I emailed his widow, asking about his faith in Christ and his Calvinistic heritage. And, amazingly, I got a response from Maria Martin, though perhaps not a full answer to the thrust of my questions. Her encouraging note:
Dear Mr. Dionne,
Frank Martin’s faith was first of all based on Christ who has showed true love on earth. His easter oratorio, Golgotha, was inspired by the Rembrandt’s etching The three crosses and based on the tekst of Calvin’s French bible and St. Augustine’s Meditations. Golgotha ends with a hymn to the victory of light over darkness through Christ. This was the basis of Frank Martin’s faith.
He has composed a Mass on the Roman Catholic Latin tekst as well as a Requiem on the tekst of the Catholic Mass for the death. He was before everything a Christian.
I hope this text provides you with an anwer to your question.
With best wishes and kind regards,
I responded with some follow-up questions, and should I get another email from Mrs. Martin, I will update this post.
UPDATE: I did get a response to my follow-up questions…
Dear Mr. Dionne,
Mrs. Martin has asked me to let you know that her husband remained a protestant all his life.
Keeper Frank Martin House
The real reason I wanted to write this post, after all of that, was only to share with you a remarkable work of his–another of his Latin pieces. The Mass for Double Choir A Cappella is extraordinarily beautiful and has long been one of my favorite choral pieces. Visit this link to hear and see my favorite movement, the Agnus Dei.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis. Dona nobis pacem.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. Grant us peace.