Concerto for cello and orchestra (1965-6)

By Peter Laki

Written for the concert Swiss Accounts, performed on May 21, 2006 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Frank Martin was truly Swiss in the way he fused French and German musical sensitivities. One of the first French-speaking composers to respond to Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique, he used it in a very un-Schoenbergian way; Pelléas et Mélisande (not Schoenberg’s but Debussy’s) looms as large as any Viennese model in his beautiful oratorio Le vin herbé (1938-41). From his experience with dodecaphony he distilled a highly personal way of using the twelve tones, combining chromaticism with both pentatonic (black-keys-only) and diatonic (white-keys-only) patterns.

Martin was first and foremost a lyricist—especially in his works that use melody instruments in a solo role. Commissioned by his old friend Paul Sacher (to whom we owe Martin’s best-known work, the Petite symphonie concertante of 1945) and inspired by the artistry of Pierre Fournier, Martin wrote a Cello Concerto that was premiered by the Basel Chamber Orchestra under Sacher, with Fournier as soloist, on January 26, 1967.

By the time this work was written, the septuagenarian Martin was long past outside influences, but that, interestingly, doesn’t mean he did not have to struggle to find the right style for the work. He himself confessed as much in a program note for the Concerto:

“In 1959, after having finished my Mystère de la Nativité, I saw myself confronted with a very delicate problem of style: in the Mystère, I had used a very bare and entirely diatonic musical language for the celestial world. Under the constant influence of this kind of music, the chromatics had somehow become foreign to me, and I was not capable anymore to come back to my normal language. Then, in 1960, when Pierre Fournier asked me to write a concerto for his instrument, I thought of a musical phrase that was entirely modal, and of such simplicity that, at that time, I was unable to continue in that direction. I therefore was compelled to put the composition aside and, to free myself from this “complex of purity,” I fled into the comic and wrote Monsieur Pourceaugnac (comedy by Molière). This gave me the freedom to make fun of my chromatic writing as well as my more academic method. This did me a lot of good and I forgot my dangerous struggle for extreme purity.”

In fact, the Concerto strikes a highly original balance between simplicity and complexity, or diatonicism and chromaticism. In a sense, it could almost be understood as a (friendly) tug-of-war between those two worlds. The work opens directly with the modal phrase Martin spoke about, played by the soloist unaccompanied in a slow tempo and in a lyrical romantic vein. A little later, the tempo speeds up, and the orchestra introduces a distinctly chromatic, contrasting new theme, and the two kinds of material alternate throughout the movement. Yet there are connections—bridges, one might say—between the two; Martin subtly “sneaks” chromatic half-steps into his modal melody and minor triads into passages that make use of all twelve tones. At the height of an exciting development, the opening melody returns in the orchestra, followed by a closing meditation for solo cello that corresponds to the passage with which the Concerto began.

The second-movement Adagietto begins with an orchestral introduction that evokes the rhythm of the sarabande, with heavily chromaticized harmonies. The soloist enters with a fervent arioso that evolves into a passacaglia (variations over an unchanging melody in the bass). These Baroque echoes are fused with Martin’s individual use of chromaticism, with tonal centers constantly shifting. The movement ends with a melodic phrase that recalls the Concerto’s opening cello melody.

In the last movement— “wild and harsh,” according to the tempo instruction— Martin’s complex chromaticism definitely gets the upper hand, impacting even the lyrical meno mosso passage for solo cello in the middle. The “wild” orchestral material is recapitulated in full, followed by a cadenza (once again recalling the modal melody, the “germ” of the entire piece) and an exuberant conclusion.