Frank Martin – Ballade pour alto, orchestre à vent, clavecin et harpe
Ballad for viola, wind orchestra, harpsichord and harp (1972)
(b. Geneva, 15 September 1890; d. Naarden, Netherlands, 21 November 1974)
Preface (only English version available)
Frank Martin and Arthur Honegger are the towering figures among Swiss composers of the twentieth century. Both hailed from Francophone Switzerland, both espoused a seriousness of purposes rooted in their Calvinist surroundings, and both excelled in large-scale works for chorus and orchestra that owed much to the example of Bach. At a time when Schoenberg’s dodecaphonic method was known only to a few close disciples and initiates, Martin undertook a deep study of the technique in the early 1930s and adapted it to his own compositional needs. The results were triumphantly presented in his oratorio Le Vin herbé on the Tristan legend (1938-41), the work which first brought him to international attention. If his fame today mainly resides in this and other large-scale vocal works, especially the oratorio Golgotha (1945-8), he nevertheless brought forth a large body of superior instrumental music, of which the Petite symphonie concertante (1945), a work commissioned and premièred by Paul Sacher that has become perhaps his best-known piece altogether, may serve as a supreme example.
Until the end of the Second World War, Martin was an extraordinarily active figure in Geneva’s musical scene, teaching rhythmic theory at the Jaques-Dalcroze Institute and composition at the Conservatory, heading his own private music school (Technicum Moderne de Musique), serving as president of the Swiss Association of Musicians (1942-6), and performing regularly as a pianist and a harpsichordist. Perhaps sensing a threat to his artistic integrity, he severed these ties in 1946 and moved with his Dutch wife to the Netherlands, which became his permanent home, first in Amsterdam and later, from 1956, in the nearby small town of Naarden. Thereafter, apart from a teaching engagement at the Cologne Musikhochschule (1950-57), he devoted himself entirely to the composition and, occasionally, the performance of his own music.
At the end of his long career Martin was commissioned by the Salzburg Mozarteum to write a Ballade for viola. This gave him a welcome opportunity to continue his series of instrumental ballades and to showcase this particular instrument. His thoughts on the work are succinctly summarized in a set of liner notes for the Pathé-Marconi recording:
“I had long wanted to devote a ballade to that beautiful instrument, the viola, as I had already done for the saxophone, the flute, the piano, the trombone, and the cello. To my mind the title ‘ballade’ entails not only an entirely free musical form but also an element of poetry – more precisely, epic poetry – although with no intention of tying its narrative character to a literary theme. Rather, what in poetry would be called a story or a dramatic narrative is transported into the realm of pure music.
“To accompany the viola and to respond to it, I was obliged to avoid a confrontation with the orchestral violins. I therefore chose an instrumental ensemble that differs in kind from the viola and includes no bowed instruments at all: it consists of wind instruments with the addition of timpani and two plucked instruments, the harp and the harpsichord. In this way I hope to make the solo viola completely independent of its partners and thus to grant it the possibility of displaying to best advantage the timbral and expressive features that set it apart from every other instrument – features that I had never had a chance fully to exploit, despite the fond affection I have always felt for this instrument.”
The Ballade for Viola received its première in Salzburg on 20 January 1973, with Helmut Eder conducting and Roland Golan as soloist.
Bradford Robinson, 2005
For performance material please contact Universal Edition, Vienna. Reprint of a copy from Universal Edition, Vienna.
German preface not available …