Frank Martin
(b. Geneva, 15 September 1890; d. Naarden, Netherlands, 21 November 1974)

Erasmi Monumentum ("Monument to Erasmus")
Three Pieces for Large Orchestra and Organ (1969)


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.

In the late 1960s Martin was commissioned to write a new work for the Rotterdam Foundation of Art (Kunststichting). The choice fell on the figure of Erasmus, the great Renaissance humanist whose thoughts and example stand at the fount of the European liberal movement that would eventually flower in the Enlightenment. Martin selected three aspects of Erasmus's writings and personality to form the basis of an orchestral triptych:

1) Homo pro se ("a man unto himself")
2) Stultitiae laus ("In Praise of Folly")
3) Querela Pacis ("A Plea for Peace")

The title of the first piece is taken from a quote by a contemporary observer who, asked in which camp Erasmus stood on a current polemical issue, replied that he is essentially unclassifiable and stands alone. Martin draws his portrait of Erasmus, the independent thinker, as a slow-moving contrapuntal essay on a 16-note ostinato figure, interspersed with meditative statements from the organ. It is a brooding, introspective movement that reaches an enormous harmonic intensity commensurate with seriousness of Erasmus's patristic exegeses or his open dispute with Luther.

The second piece turns to what is perhaps Erasmus's most famous piece of writing, his book Stultitiae laus ("In Praise of Folly"), or, to quote its alternative title (with its undisguised reference to Erasmus's English friend, Sir Thomas More), Moriae Encomium (1511). Here the music seems to hearken back to the inter-war gaiety of Les Six: the organ takes on the quality of a fairground calliope, and the underlying waltz meter is constantly undercut by cross-accents and irreverent outbursts from the winds and percussion. In the midst of the general levity we can even hear, forcefully reiterated in the brass, a quotation from the overture to Smetana's The Bartered Bride.

The third piece returns to the earnest mood of the first movement. Although Erasmus never accepted the tenets of Lutheran or Calvinist Protestantism, he abhorred the resultant wars of religion that defaced the early sixteenth century, believing that the doctrinal differences between the two churches were insignificant. The piece opens with a bleak war-torn landscape of drum rolls and stridently dissonant harmonies that gradually give way, the course of the movement, to conciliatory parallel triads. Toward the end, enshrouded in a dense orchestral texture, the organ strikes a stately, freely composed chorale melody that seems to symbolize an attainable but as yet unrealized peace.

Erasmi Monumentum received its première in Rotterdam on 24 November 1969, conducted by Jean Fournet.

Bradford Robinson, 2005

For performance material please contact Universal Edition, Vienna. Reprint     of a copy from Universal Edition, Vienna.