Frank Martin, Trio on Irish Folk Tunes

Frank Martin, 1890-1974

Trio sur des mélodies populaires irlandaises (Trio on Irish Folk Tunes), 1925

Frank MartinThe 20th century Swiss composer Frank Martin is not even mentioned in standard “listener’s guides” to Classical music, chamber music or otherwise. A descendant of French Huguenots (devout Calvinists who fled persecution in France and resettled in various places including Geneva), Martin would turn to composing deeply religious choral and instrumental music in his final years producing some of the most highly regarded sacred vocal works of the 20th century. But his instrumental music is equally marvelous. Martin’s most widely known work is the novel Petite symphonie concertante featuring piano, harpsichord, harp and two small string orchestras. Martin played piano and harpsichord and throughout all of his music he displays a great sensitivity to timbre and its combinations in dazzling ensemble textures. Even in a symphonic concerto, he displays a masterful chamber music sensibility.

When Frank Martin was born in 1890, Brahms was about to compose his clarinet quintet. When Martin died in 1974, Shostakovich had just completed his 15th and last string quartet. The span of musical history and change encompassed by Martin’s life is reflected in his own musical style that, while uniquely his, evades any simple categorization. This is apt to be a reason for Martin’s rare appearances on concert programs: he is not so easily marketed. With an insatiable curiosity, his own largely autodidactic education and his fortuitous sojourns to Italy, Paris and the Netherlands (where he lived his final decades), Martin absorbed the Germanic canon including, significantly, Bach, the French Impressionists, various exotic folk musics and eventually Schoenberg and the 12-tone school. During the 20s, when he composed the Trio on Irish Folk Songs, Martin also became quite active in the innovative pedagogy of compatriot Émile Jacques-Dalcroze studying intricate rhythms using the body as a medium. A core signature of Martin’s music is a startling rhythmic vitality with a penchant for cross and polyrhythms.

The Trio sur des mélodies populaires irlandaises of 1925 is Martin’s other widely known work, certainly to chamber music lovers. A truly scintillating jewel from his earlier period, the piece was apparently commissioned by an American amateur musician requesting something based on Irish folk music. Based on a preview of the work in progress, the American withdrew the commission for reasons that are unclear but suggest that he did not appreciate Martin’s style and failed to find much that was recognizably Irish. Appropriately, he remains anonymous. Martin, the scholar, teacher, conductor, performer and musicologist took to studying collections of Irish folksongs at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and used at least ten authentic tunes to weave the fabric of his three-movement Irish “fantasia.” At first, one might understand the American’s dismay with Martin’s modern mash up: the decade preceding the commission saw a profound shift from the echoes of the late Romantic Era to the brash and daring music of Stravinsky, Poulenc, Bartók and Schulhoff. The trio fits beautifully along side these modern works that were apt to shock and befuddle a conservative ear. With our contemporary advantage and perhaps less familiarity with the traditional Irish canon, the trio shines: tonal, tuneful and positively lilting with colorful dance, it is saturated with a delightfully unmistakable Irish character.

The trio comprises three movements. The first begins atmospherically and obliquely, but instantly, it evokes the impression of a Celtic country peasant dance with its accents, modal tune, the suggestion of pipe and drone. The music is a gradual expansion of tempo, color and weight with many thematic variations across numerous rhythmic changes until the dance seems to ring throughout the charged air. The slow movement takes a mournful cast with a tune in the cello that has a simple falling motif, like a nursery rhyme, a slow ostinato in something like a French chaconne. When the piano joins in, one can really hear Martin’s love of intricate multiplicity as two quite different tunes combine, fitting together while remaining distinct, particularly for the crystal clear textures. This tendency for complex “simultaneity” runs throughout all three movements. The finale is easily the most stereotypically Irish from the onset: a sprightly Jig (Gigue) in 6/8 time whistling a medley of tunes you will be swear you have heard before. Between the lively fiddle, the bristling rhythms, both modern and folk, the brilliant colors and Martin’s shifting collages of sound, one breathlessly wonders if the American ever got this far in his preview, marveling at what he failed to discover.

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