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Frank MARTIN (1890-1974)
Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke (1942/43)
Okka von der Damerau (contralto)
Philharmonia Zurich / Fabio Luisi
rec. live, 18 December 2016, Zurich Opera House, Zurich
Texts not included

Having lived in Switzerland for ten years, I have been exposed to more Swiss composers and their music than I would have otherwise. Arthur Honegger and Frank Martin are the two twentieth-century composers that bubble up to the surface most frequently, although you do encounter others, such as Willy Burkhard (1900-1955) in the Zurich area. Overall public awareness, however, is undoubtedly highest for Honegger as his picture was on the Swiss twenty franc banknote from 1996 to 2017. I doubt many Swiss could name even one of his works, let alone hum a bar or two of his music. Martin shares much the same fate.

He, like Honegger, lived much of his life outside Switzerland. In 1946, Martin moved to the Netherlands in order to find the time and space he needed to compose, which the many demands on his time apparently made difficult in his native land. In the 1950s he taught in Cologne where Karlheinz Stockhausen was one of his students. He retired from teaching in 1957 to concentrate on composing, performing and conducting his own works.

Bach was his model, but Martin was particularly adept at absorbing a wide variety of musical styles. There was an innate duality in his musical leanings, as he had both German and French teachers. Travels throughout Europe introduced him to jazz and the works of Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky. In the 1930s he began experimenting with serial techniques, but his music remained fundamentally rooted in tonality. The logic and structure of serialism appealed to him, but not the harsh dissonances that could result from the strict adherence to its principles. He also favored lean, clear textures, which set him apart from many of his contemporaries.

Martin was hesitant to set Rainer Marie Rilke’s Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke (The Story of the Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke) to music. His reluctance was due in part to the fact that it was in German, which was not his first language, and also because it was well known that Rilke disliked having his poems set to music. (He only freely granted permission to Ernst Krenek to use three of his them in his Lacrimosa, Op.48.) Martin was not the first to find inspiration in the tale and hardly the last. In 1919, Kurt Weill composed a tone poem based on it and at least half a dozen other composers adapted it in one form or another.

Rilke (1875-1926) was twenty-three-years old when he discovered that a long-forgotten forebear, a young soldier named Christoph Rilke, had died during the Turkish wars of the 1660s. In a single night he penned the saga of a lad tromping across Eastern Europe as the flag bearer for his unit. He was always bemused that Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christophe Rilke was so popular. Partly this was a question of timing; although it was a surprise runaway success when published in 1912, it appealed to many with the advent of First World War. When Martin set the text in 1942, war again raged around the globe.

It is a coming-of-age tale, in which an eighteen-year-old boy gets a taste of manhood and dies. Christoph observes with a certain awe an elegant young French marquis, with whom he strikes up a nodding acquaintance. A night in a castle brings untold luxuries and much welcomed comforts, as well as being beckoned to lie with the lady of the manor. Initiated into the mysteries of sex, he rues that he has never known love. He never will. The next morning he rushes heedlessly into battle without his helmet, and is sliced to ribbons by Turkish swords. His uniform, which was burned, contained a rose petal given to him by the marquis and a note that he penned to his mother with a plea that she pray for him.

This recording preserves a performance of Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets conducted by Fabio Luisi and Philharmonia Zurich with contralto Okka von der Damerau at the Zurich Opera House on 18 December 2016. Luisi is the general music director of the Zurich Opera and principal conductor of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra. I am accustomed to hearing Luisi in more standard repertoire, but that is just one facet of his musical personality. In Zurich alone, he has conducted Franz Schmidt’s monumental oratorio, Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln with the Philharmonia Zurich, and in November 2018 will be on the podium for Zurich Opera’s new production of Kurt Weill’s Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny.
Luisi and his orchestra masterfully capture Martin’s vivid musical depiction of the Cornet’s innermost thoughts and experiences. The beat of the drum and the fife’s shrill whistle intermingle with lush, colorful orchestrations and jarring outbursts of dissonance. Each musical phrase is perfectly placed, whether accompanying the narrative, setting the mood, or seamlessly segueing from one scene to another.

Von der Damerau is a regular at the Bayerische Staatsoper and appears in opera and concert in Europe and America. I have never heard her live, but what struck me in this recording was the evenness of her voice across its entire range. The low notes are full and rich, but she approaches them effortlessly and without sacrificing either the timbre or color of her beautiful middle range, where much of the vocal line sits. In what is essentially a long narrative, von der Damerau displays an exquisite sensitivity to the text, leaving the listener spellbound by the young Cornet’s story.

The accompanying booklet contains biographical details about Luisi and von der Damerau, information about the orchestra, as well as a fine introductory essay by Fabio Dietsche, the Zurich Opera’s dramaturgist. Unfortunately, the text is not provided. An excellent English translation of Rilke’s entire prose poem by Stephen Mitchell can be found here. (Martin did not set all 27 of the stanzas, so you have to be on your toes when using the full prose poem as a source.)

Commentators bemoan the neglect of Martin’s Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets. It was new to me, but I join the chorus in urging people to take an hour and listen to this extraordinary work. And if you happen to love the marriage of text and music as I do, you will kick yourself for not having discovered it sooner.

Rick Perdian



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