In the 1990’s when I worked as a computer programmer in Oakland I would spend lunch hours in the excellent music section of the Oakland Public Main Library. Trolling around in there, discovering something interesting was always a possibility. This particular time I was looking for a larger work to conduct on a PME concert. I was the assistant and I wanted to conduct something that was new for me. I’d been aware of Swiss composer Frank Martin’s more thorny mid-century works, using Arnold Schoenberg’s techniques of composition. So, I was expecting something like that when I came across this “new” work: a double chorus mass, unaccompanied.
Those descriptors made me pick it up: double chorus meant more “meat” for the singers, unaccompanied meant it wouldn’t hurt the budget and I was curious about a sacred choral work by this composer.
When I started reading through it there in the library I was amazed to find an incredibly beautiful and intricate piece. Layers of melismatic lines intertwined with each other, while the meters shifted underneath the gorgeous harmonies.
When I got the piece home, I was even more rewarded by what I heard. Each movement had a different sound and feeling. Some research yielded a poignant fact:
“Martin wrote the Mass in 1922 when he was a young man. In the following years he moved away from his tonal compositional language to one more like Schoenberg’s. But he loved the Mass so much that he refused to publish the work until 1963, a time when it wouldn’t be criticized for being tonal.”
I find this music to be profoundly affecting, at a cellular level. When I hear it, it changes me.
The two best moments in our encounters with the Martin double chorus Mass may be:
- That very first read-through, when we all got to hear it for the first time.
- The enormous Albi Cathedral in southern France, where, in 1995, we sang the entire Mass as part of a Sunday service with 2,000 parishioners in attendance. I’ve rarely had such an enlivening conducting experience as THAT one.
Lynne Morrow, Artistic Director