Berwick Chorus review: Dynamic tension

Oregon Bach Festival performance of Frank Martin's 20th century classic reflects composer's spiritual conflict


I am surprised by the number of musical settings of the Catholic Mass that have been written by twentieth-century composers who have reason to be apostate: Igor Stravinsky with his long-suffering wife back in Russia and his life-long mistress at his side, Benjamin Britten and Lou Harrison with their devoted same-sex relationships, Leonard Bernstein’s life of pop fame and decadence.

I am neither Catholic nor Christian. But I can see (and hear) the tidal influence that this faith can have on artists: piety and devotion at one time, decadent behavior, or “anti-Christian” lifestyle at another. Perhaps that psychological dissonance is what drove these artists to excel, to push themselves to great achievement: a dynamic tension that arises from simultaneously attempting to transcend and to dissolve into a Faith.

Frank Martin, a devout Christian and son of a Calvinist minister, wrote his Mass for Unaccompanied Double Choir between the years 1922 and 1926; the last movement was not finished till four years after the first four were composed. Martin was loath to have the work performed and it did not have its premier until 40 years later. The composer explained that it was “a matter entirely between God and myself.” This suggests the best behavior of Tolstoy’s beloved Father Sergius, who strived to live for God without living for the praise of others. The tidal pull of Martin’s faith against the good graces of his audience must have played a part in both the suppression of the piece and its great beauty.

Matthew Halls led the Berwick Chorus at the Oregon Bach Festival. Photo: Monica Sellers.

Matthew Halls led the Berwick Chorus at the Oregon Bach Festival. Photo: Monica Sellers.

However, since its premier, the Swiss composer’s work—performed in Portland earlier this year and at the Oregon Bach Festival last month—has achieved great success and critical acclaim. I wonder how that settled with Martin. Did he struggle with the same doubts that Father Sergius did, when the poor hermit realized that, indeed, he “lived for men on the pretext of living for God.” I think that Martin did. I think that he struggled with the beauty he unleashed with his piece (its torn-paper sonic climaxes), wondering whether the beauty served the aesthetic needs of his audience or the ascetic purpose of worship. After leaving the Agnus Dei unfinished for several years, he chose to end the mass with a self-effacing, humbling study in the coming together of estranged elements. 

The whole of Martin’s setting of the world-weary Catholic liturgical text is a multilayered, suspension-rich work that erupts with passionate emotion. In the Berwick Chorus’ performance on July 7th (under the direction of Matthew Halls as part of Oregon Bach Festival), some of the passion was evident in an intense early climax in the Kyrie. The Berwick Chorus pushed the acoustic envelope in Eugene Central Lutheran Church’s sanctuary toward thrilling distortion. The Kyrie was a moving, swapping back and forth of melismatic (one syllable many notes) and syllabic (roughly one note per syllable) delivery between male and female sections that gradually settled, after the stirring early climax, to a low register, humble cadence on the n of Eleison.

The close harmonies of the Gloria’s introduction lead into a largely syllabic chorale section whose inner suspensions fill the harmony with vitality. In this movement of Martin’s Mass, the bass pedal point is introduced during a section featuring the choirs’ bass voices. This technique features prominently in both the Mass and the Sonata da Chiesa discussed below. In the final contrapuntal section, the technical prowess of the Berwick Chorus was humbled a bit with the soprano sections smearing into unison entrances that dulled the brilliance of the movement’s exquisite peaks.

Matthew Halls leads performances at the Oregon Bach Festival.

Matthew Halls conducted the Martin mass at the Oregon Bach Festival.

Chorus conductor and Bach Festival artistic director Matthew Halls’ choice to alternate movements of Martin’s celebrated Mass with the movements of his Sonata da Chiesa for Flute and Organ was an ingenious one (it was also a bold choice as the Sonata was meant to be performed continuously with no pauses). The first piece is a very personal, pious statement, while the second is a work on the brink of change, change in the composer’s style (from impressionistic harmony to the then-trending twelve-tone method) and dramatic change in Europe on the eve of World War II. The two works bookmark nicely the beginning and end of a key developmental period in the composer’s life.

The first section of the Sonata da Chiesa, Andante-Lento, followed the Gloria. It is a sensuous, intimate, slow pas de deux. The organ part, largely monophonic, employed very distinct, spare voices that intertwined with the flute’s disjointed lyrical line. Midway through the section, the organ develops a dissonant hurdy-gurdy theme and the flute begins to climb away and soars out from the awkward duet into a freeform plaint. Eventually, the organ reprimands the flute with a crackling, shrill chord and a sinister deep bass pulse emerges. The pas de deux returns, this time marked with strange, out-of-place tonal cadences and the persistent bass intonations. I was moved throughout the piece by this visceral, abstract relationship, alternating as it did between the freedom of and oppression of the spirit. Flutist Martha Long and organist Gregory Zelek brought great sensitivity and technical subtlety to their portrayal of this relationship.

The Credo of the mass is the composer’s confession of faith in musical form. More reserved, penitential (with regard to the ecstatic sensuality of the Kyrie and Gloria), and subtle than the previous movements, it is filled with word painting that enlivens this text-filled section of the mass with its dutiful expression of the Christian faith.

In the following up-tempo, dance-form middle section of the Sonata (Allegretto alla Francese – Musette – Allegretto), Martin turns the organ into a calliope that strings along an awkward, gamboling tune that invokes foolish court teens at their ballroom lessons or goat kids traversing a pasture’s granite ledge. Throughout this section, the mechanics of the Brombaugh organ were audible and created an enchanting aleatoric percussive accompaniment.The flute joins in during a vaguely fugue-like section (think Bach Inventions for goatherd and beast) that reintroduces the stern, reprimanding sub-bass intonation, giving the movement a macabre air. Is that a phantom fog horn? Are the rocks the kids scramble across those of a murderous promontory? During an artfully contrapuntal musette (an ancient French dance form performed to the music of a musette), the flute again rises away from the partner organ to repeated high-register declamations that work to counter the fusty bass notes. But to no avail. The gamboling allegretto returns and the section comes to a subdued, low register close.

Frank Martin in 1928. Photo:

Frank Martin in 1928. Photo:

With the Sanctus, Martin gives in to the seduction of beauty and the risk of serving God falsely, an aural version of Father Sergius’s laying on of hands. With dense polyphony, exotic harmonic twists and sliding parallel intervals, the separate sections of the choirs exchange a theme that leads to a spine-tingling climax on Hosanna. This would have been the end of the Mass if the composer had stopped here in 1922. And what a crowd-pleasing conclusion it would have been. Perhaps the sensational quality of the Sanctus caused him distress, just as Father Sergius struggled with his inner voice that told him his laying on of hands, of serving people as a pretense of serving God, was a false purpose. It would take Martin four years to finish the piece.

The final adagio section of the Sonata da Chiesa returns to a slow dance form, more clearly homophonic (tune and accompaniment). Again, the bass pedal intonations appear and again the flute makes for the heavens, at one point bringing the organ up out of its doldrums toward the flute’s trajectory to freedom, enlightenment, grace. But the organ falls back to terra firma, producing the widest gap in register between reed and cross-blown flute. In a brilliant upending of the bass device, the flute calls a high-register, mournful, repeated-tone entreaty from the ethers, and the piece closes on an unsettling common tone.

In the late-arriving Agnus Dei, the most chant-inspired movement in Martin’s Mass, the composer humbles himself and writes music that, with its reserved expressions of devotion, serves his God more fully than his audience. The choirs are divided into the roles of ground (steady quarter-note-pulse statement of the text), and chant (touching on musical elements of the opening Kyrie). A brief climax arrives as the upper choir, itself, breaks in two (a trinity of choirs?) and a grand tutti wash of sound is achieved, moving but understated and brief. A subdued suspension-rich chorale follows that melts into unison chant and a humble, low register cessation with a repeated G major chord (can a major chord sound mournful?) on “dona nobis pacem.” The trinity united in the fundamental God.

Daniel Tapio Heila is a composer, video artist and flutist in Eugene.

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