08 November 2016

Anonymous Frank Martin


A poster has appeared in the lobby of Yong Siew Toh Conservatory.  There are always plenty of posters during term-time advertising concerts in the coming week reflecting the extraordinarily active musical life which exists here.  But this poster is a little different from the others.

In the normal course of events posters adopt the corporate design of YST-organised events – it used to be bland white, but since a rebranding exercise last month, they are now a most distinguished black and orange - but around this stage of the semester, a crop of more colourful and varied posters appears as students promote their own end-of-semester recitals.  This latest poster is one of those and the student has obviously done a good job in creating an eye-catching poster.  The only trouble is, the poster does not tell us who the student is.  What is the name of the performer whose recital we are being urged to attend?  It may be female – the picture is female, although for all we know that could be a stock image taken from a flute website – but there is no other clue as to who will be playing.

But our anonymous student has done something in her (or his) poster which ensures I shall move heaven and earth to be at the recital.   She (or he) has told us what she (or he) is going to play.  The prime function of a performer is to interpret and communicate a musical work to an audience, and we do need to know what that musical work is before we commit ourselves to attending the performance itself.  So here’s a poster which, by listing the works, has ensured an audience of at least one.

(You do not necessarily need a poster to bring in an audience.  Australian cellist Oliver Scott did a lunchtime recital yesterday in the graveyard slot which is labelled “Sound Bites” and traditionally welcomes an audience of three old men, myself included.  Oliver’s audience staggeringly went into double figures.  He confessed that he had gone out into the university and pressed his friends to attend.  Well done Oliver!  You not only got yourself a sizeable audience, but an appreciable one as well following your excellent interpretation of the Brahms Second Sonata!)

I first became involved in Singapore’s music scene in the mid-1980s.  A few years before that I had submitted my doctoral thesis on the concertante works of Frank Martin.  This followed on from my Master’s thesis on Martin’s oratorio Golgotha, and this post-graduate obsession with a little known Swiss composer of the 20th century had been prompted by my tutor who had, when I was accepted to do post-graduate study, advised me to choose a subject about which nobody knew anything and which would have an anniversary coming up shortly after completing my work.  The former idea was that, since nobody knew more about the subject than me, I could sail through the post-thesis viva voce comfortable in the knowledge that none of my inquisitors could challenge me on its contents.  The latter was to ensure that I was well placed to get something published in the usual upsurge of interest which accompanies any anniversary.

Having, as an undergraduate, attended a concert in the Royal Festival Hall where Frank Martin’s Petite Symphonie Concertante for piano, harpsichord, harp and double string orchestra had been performed, and having liked the work so much that I had gone and bought an LP of it, I noticed, as I was thinking over my tutor’s words, that his centenary was to fall in 1990 – about a decade after I intended to submit my thesis, and allowing me plenty of time to get the books and record sleeves written.  In the event, Martin remains virtually unknown and his centenary passed almost without notice.  I did receive a request from MacMillan’s to re-write my PhD thesis as the basis of a book on Martin, but I turned the offer down: having spent seven years of my life on a composer whose music I admired but felt I had studied to exhaustion and beyond, I had no wish to commit myself to a further period going back over the same old ground but this time with even more words.  The only commercial benefit I got from my thesis was a request some years later from Hyperion to write the notes for a CD recording of Martin’s Mass; luckily the CD turned out to be a prize-winner and my notes earned several accolades which brought me no money but a lot of personal pride.

In all that time I have never heard a note of Martin’s music performed in Singapore.  So to see his Ballade for flute programmed at this anonymous recital was a real thrill.  Martin wrote a series of Ballades for various solo instruments and orchestra/piano; in fact after Chopin, who invented the genre, Martin is the most prolific composer of instrumental ballades.

The ballades were considered extensively in my doctoral thesis, and I worked exhaustively on Martin’s use of the minor third interval in them, which I opined represented his deep religious faith and signified the centrality of Christ’s crucifixion in his compositional ethos.  As with all academic writing, I look back on it now with horror, appalled at the dry, technical writing which studies the detail of the score and makes no attempt to scratch under the artistic and emotional message of the music.  Were I afforded the chance to write my PhD thesis again, or, better still, get a renewed offer from MacMillan’s, I would devote many thousand words to what the ballads behind the Ballades really were.  They tell a story – Martin was a great wordsmith who believed in the power of music to express literary ideas – but what that story is, I have never bothered to find out.  Perhaps our anonymous flautist has done this and will provide revelatory interpretations of the work.  Whatever she (or he) does, it will be a revelation to hear, at long last, Martin’s music in Singapore.

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