Double Chorus Mass – Frank Martin (1890-1974)

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:

  1. That very first read-through, when we all got to hear it for the first time.
    And
  2. 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

One thought on “Double Chorus Mass – Frank Martin (1890-1974)

  1. The cathedral at Albi on the Tarn River is named for Ste. Cecile, the matron saint of Music. It was built of red brick in the southern Gothic style of the Toulouse region in reply to the 12th century Albigensian Heresy, named of course for Albi, and thus it is massive and military looking meant to frighten the heretics and show the power of the Roman Church. You have to go on the web to see what the inside looks like too. I can’t describe it well, with its carvings and floor to tower paintings and reliquaries. So very impressionante, geniale! It is an important place for me loaded with memories of PME and other special persons. I will visit it again next month for the fourth time…and I shall picture Lynne and all of my dear friends singing this wonderful piece for the fortunate townspeople who live in the shadow of Ste Cecile. BTW, the Presbytere has been made into the Toulouse Lautrec Museum and houses almost all of the artist’s early works and reproductions of the later Parisian posters and paintings. Ste Cecile was his “parish church” as he grew up on his father’s comptal estates.

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