Frank Martin

23 May 2004 at :00 am

Frank Martin's Mass: A three-fold movement of love
A Sermon preached by The Reverend Chris Chivers, Minor Canon and Precentor,
at the Sung Eucharist on 23 May 2004, Seventh Sunday after Easter, Westminster Abbey

Gospel Reading: John 17: 20-26

Music, so an old saying goes, unites where sermons divide. But whether or not we think that’s the case, undoubtedly, one of the great joys of worship in a place like Westminster Abbey is the way in which the Gospel is preached as much through the music as through anything else, music performed to the highest standards and of a quite dazzling range and quality. And of course each piece that the choir sings tells its own story. On Thursday when we were celebrating the feast of the Ascension, the setting of the Mass was by the Hungarian composer, Zoltan Kodaly. Written in a bunker in 1942, as bombs were raining down on the city streets above, it was first performed three years later in 1945 in a similarly desolate setting – the ruined concert hall where the Kodalys, two of Europe’s many post-war refugees, had subsequently taken shelter. How fitting then that music, written and first performed in such circumstances, should have been sung as we acclaimed the ultimate victory of Christ over darkness, death and evil, and at this time of darkness and confusion in the life of our world. For somehow the radiant hopefulness of the music – especially of the Agnus Dei, with its heartfelt cries for mercy and peace – seemed to encapsulate both our concerns and our aspirations. It told a story we needed to hear, one in which our own victory over the darkness of sin, death and evil was – so the musical narrative proclaimed – not merely a pipe-dream. It could indeed be made a reality.

This morning, the choir are singing a setting of the Mass by the Swiss composer Frank Martin, a piece considered by many to be one of the greatest of twentieth century religious works. And the circumstances of its composition are equally remarkable. Largely self-taught, Martin was clearly a rather diffident thirty-two year old when he wrote the work. A thirty-two year old wrestling, like all young composers, to define his own style. So far, we have heard just the Gloria, but from this one movement we can certainly discern the influences on him. The Renaissance polyphonists – Palestrina and his school – are there in the counterpoint. Bach is there in the harmony – especially the Bach of the chorales. César Franck in the orchestral sweep of his melodies. Debussy in the shimmering, impressionistic effects, and Ravel in the gracefulness of the musical lines. It’s not for nothing that one critic cited Martin as the twentieth century composer in whose work could be heard the achievements of four centuries of European musical history. But beyond the influences on him, and the mastery of technique, there is a distinctiveness, an assuredness of style, a subtlety of approach which marks Martin off as a figure in his own right. Perhaps, most significantly of all, the musical approach to the text reveals an immense regard for theological concerns – a desire to bring out the underlying implication of what is being said. The Gloria clearly articulates, for instance, the contours of the earthly and heavenly in the text. And the musical narrative is constructed in such a way as to show us what it means for them to come together, for earth and heaven to meet in the person of Jesus Christ. And as it does so, we hear and feel for ourselves what such a meeting of the divine and the human might mean in our own lives. Later in the service this will be made even more explicit in the Agnus Dei. One choir will chant an ostinato, a repeated pattern which constantly transforms itself. The other choir will sing a melody – sometimes with, sometimes against this. And this contrast will produce a tension between the sinful, earthly world, crying out for mercy, longing for transformation, and the heavenly world of the Lamb of God, who is the source of such mercy and forgiveness. A tension which will only be resolved as the two choirs, the earthly and heavenly, come together for the very first time, softly to plead ‘Dona nobis pacem’, ‘Give us peace’.

Of course the nature of music, its contrasting keys and rhythms, themes and textures, its sense of departure and return, of conflict and resolution – its narrative quality – makes it uniquely well placed, among all the arts, to explore this central Christian mystery of incarnation, the coming together of the human and the divine. And Martin’s Mass certainly enables us to gain an intuition, to feel and to experience what such unity could be like. But the composer himself was not at all sure that this was in fact the case. For though he completed the Mass in 1922 – and referred to it openly in his writings – it remained in the top drawer of his desk unseen and unheard for 41 years. It was only in fact in 1963 that he allowed it to be performed, and then, just once, before he again returned it to the drawer for a further nine years, when, in 1972, a full 50 years after it was written, it was at last published.

Now there are many composers who obsessively revise their music. Martin’s French contemporary Maurice Duruflé is a notable example. But I can’t think of another composer who has deliberately kept a work hidden, effectively for fifty years, a work, not a note of which he changed after it was first written.

Asked why he had withheld it for so long, Martin gave a number of reasons. For one thing, he said, the work was so difficult, and the standard of most Swiss choirs for much of his life so poor, that he simply didn’t want it to suffer a bad performance. For another, as a deeply self-critical composer and committed Christian – his father was a Calvanist minister – he felt that he had to be sure that among all his works, this one example of music specifically designed for use in worship, was of the very highest aesthetic and spiritual quality. Could his setting of words so sacred – words which meant so much to him – express and promote that sense of unity and cohesion he saw to be the purpose of all music, and the goal of human existence? Could it fulfil his high expectations of the composer’s responsibility to Church and Society? Could it speak into the political chaos – the confusion of the war-ravaged century within which he lived – and the disintegration, as he saw it, of a moral consensus or common vision around which all could unite? It took him years even to concede that the musical narrative of the Mass, let alone its underlying theology, was indeed cohesive enough for him to release it. For the work was such a personal expression of faith, it should remain, he felt, purely a matter between himself and God. But, in the end, he had it performed and published because he did come to see that what he had shared of himself so intimately with God – in a loving act of mutual creativity and artistry – was indeed worthy of offering to others. It could stand alongside comparable musical works on aesthetic grounds. Most important of all, it could, he believed, enhance and transform the worship, the life of the community in the widest sense, modelling and expressing the common journey of the whole of humanity towards reconciliation with God.

And this morning the story of Martin and his Mass offers a wonderful echo and insight into our Gospel reading. For a work which began as an intimate expression of a composer’s love for his creator, a work which set out to express the coming together, the enfolding of the whole of creation within the love of God, was eventually made public, and finally enabled to do its work on the widest possible stage.

And this three-fold mission and movement of love is, so John, the writer of our Gospel reading tells us, precisely the way in which God interacts with the world, and the way in which human beings are to relate to him and to one another. The starting place is the love of the Father for the Son. Everything is dependent on this. Such love is next tested in the context of an inner circle. The worthiness of Martin’s Mass had to be recognised by his fellow musicians. At least, he had to believe that they would recognise it. The love of the Father and the Son has to embrace and be embraced by a band of loyal followers, by the first disciples. But to do its work in an ultimate sense, this love must be shared with everyone. A great work of art like Martin’s Mass, isn’t meant to be kept in a drawer, or even to belong to an inner circle of those in the know. Its beauty is a transforming gift for all. Love and generosity have, in the end, to spill over into the whole community if true peace and reconciliation are to flourish.

It took of course pretty much fifty years for Martin to see that, to have the inner confidence to release the gift of love God had entrusted him, so that it could do its work in promoting healing and hope amid the misery and pain of the world. But that journey, long though it was, needed a first step.

Today we turn from the God of the Ascension, the God whom we acknowledge as King over all things, to the God of Pentecost, who comes as the unique gift of love kindled within each one of us. Let us pray then, that however long the whole journey takes, we may – in the knowledge and intimacy of God’s love for us – have the faith to take that first step, the confidence to receive his gift, and the artistry to use it to proclaim and promote a common story – the coming together, the unity of all things in Christ. Amen.

© 2017 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Website design - Design by Structure