Frank Martin is a composer who quietly mesmerizes me every time I hear him. Swiss to a fault, he lived his life well off the stylistic superhighways of twentieth-century music. He brushed against a twelve-tone idiom, but he never renounced tonality, putting himself in an in-between category that pleased ideologues in neither camp. Nonetheless, he wrote much great music. I put the "Agnus Dei" from his Mass for Double Choir on a CD for a friend — a heavy-duty sacred mix that also included Bach's "Ich habe genug" sung by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, a psalm from Honegger's King David (another somber Swiss delight), John Sheppard's Laudem dicite deo, Ellington's "Come Sunday," and the roof-raising "Resurrection" from Messiaen's Livre du Saint Sacrament. The Martin Mass holds its own in that imposing company. It was written back in 1922, well before Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms made it fashionable for French-speaking composers to strike a monkish pose. It sounds like a Renaissance mass lost in time, aware nonetheless of long centuries passing and new horrors unfolding. The amazing thing is that for decades Martin refused to let this august work be published or performed, in the belief that he had written something unworthy of the Church. Genuine humility in an artist of genius is one of the rarest things on earth.
Some five decades later, Martin wrote his Poèmes de la Mort, in which vocal settings of François Villon are accompanied by two electric guitars and a bass. Considering that rock stars used to compare themselves to troubadours (do they anymore?), it's an inspired choice. Evidently it came about when one of Martin's young relatives turned him on to the Beatles. I'm no expert, but I'm guessing this is the finest-ever electric-guitar writing by a man born in 1890. Judge for yourself on Barnes and Noble's audio samples. Don't expect anything playful: it is, once more, music of humble spiritual power. What is now needed.
When I last wrote about Martin for the New Yorker, Mme Martin, the composer's widow, graciously answered some questions. I'm sure all American Martinistes wish her the warmest holiday greetings.