Text, Harmony, and Transformation in Frank Martin's Sechs Monologe aus Jedermann
Frank Martin (1890-1974) was one of the eminent Swiss composers of the twentieth century, lauded by audiences and critics alike for works including the Petite Symphonie Concertante (commissioned by Paul Sacher), Mass for double choir, and his set of Ballades for solo instrument and orchestra. Martin's mature compositional language belonged to no "school" and freely synthesized disparate influences including French Impressionistic and late-19th-century chromatic harmonies, neo-Classical rhythmic gestures, Medieval polyphony, and techniques adapted from Schoenbergian twelve-tone serialism. Perhaps due in part to this stylistic hybridization (as common post-tonal analytical methodologies generally struggle with highly variegated harmonic landscapes), Martin's music has not received much attention from contemporary Anglophone music theorists. There are exceptions, including Cooke (1990 and 1993), Louer (2008), and Tupper (1964) but even these sources tend to be general in their analytical comments or are honestly a bit dated (cf. Billeter 1970 and 1999; Martin 1984; Martin and Piguet 1967). Therefore, this essay will examine Frank Martin's vocal work Sechs Monologe aus Jedermann focusing on how its harmony, tonal motion, and text fuse to create a large-scale transformative dramatic structure. (See Massenkeil 1993 for an excellent German-language essay on Sechs Monologe and Bruhn 2011 for a detailed multi-disciplinary exploration of allegory, musical materials, and spiritual development in this work and other death-related compositions in Martin's oeuvre.)
Frank Martin's father was a Calvinist minister and grew up in a musically literate and religious household – two points of biographical data that would affect the course of Martin's life. By the age of eight, he was composing simple songs at the piano and, despite never formally studying composition, had some early successes on the concert stage in his first few decades writing basically in a turn-of-the-century French style with affinities for Bachian counterpoint. Among these are the Piano Quintet and Rhythmes for orchestra. By the 1930s, Martin began to reconsider his compositional voice and surveyed the contemporary music scene. Throughout this decade, he decided that the two primary compositional currents he sought to entwine were those of Debussy and the Expressionist/twelve-tone works by Schoenberg. This aesthetic reconfiguration culminated in the secular cantata Le Vin Herbe of 1939, the first of Martin's large-scale compositions to effectively integrate a French Impressionist sound world with Second Viennese technical influences. Written shortly thereafter and in the middle of World War II, the Jedermann song cycle is of special significance since it was the first explicitly religious and philosophical composition by the devout Martin since the solidification of his mature style.
The texts of Martin's Sechs Monologe come from the morality play Jedermann ("Everyman") by the Austrian poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal. (Hofmannsthal is also known for providing the libretti for several of Richard Strauss's operas.) Martin initially considered turning the play into a full opera, but ultimately decided against the idea in favor of selecting a handful of critical scenes and casting them as solos for the eponymous protagonist. The overall narrative arc of Sechs Monologe, like the source material from which it is drawn, tells of Everyman's fear of Death, how he seeks consolation from worldly possessions, then finds his deliverance through good deeds and the power of Christ. In Figure 1, I present the titles of the six monologues and the general themes of each song – one can clearly discern a development from denial to bargaining to anguish to the realization that salvation is achievable though not likely and finally to acceptance/redemption.
The third song in the cycle is a parenthetical episode in which the narrator imagines (perhaps hallucinates) hearing his mother’s voice call out to him from the beyond and Everyman pleads that this not be so. The monologue takes the guise of a brief Expressionist lullaby and, with its emphasis on the rocking perfect-fourth F/B-flat and B-natural/D-natural dyads, makes no small allusion to Marie’s cradle song in Berg’s Wozzeck. During this poem, the narrator wonders if indeed his mother has abandoned him; interestingly, the opening orchestral accompaniment to song #3 may answer this question before it’s asked. Throughout the entire seventeen-minute-long Jedermann cycle, Martin eschews simple repetition and explicit quotation except for one instance. Toward the onset of the first song, “Ist alls zu End das Freudenmahl,” a three-measure chromatically descending triplet motive precedes the lines “is there nothing to help me/ am I quite lost/ and alone in the world?” I will refer to this passage as the “Lonliness" motive. We do not hear this material again until its unique quotation, albeit a semitone higher, in the opening measures of the song #3 lullaby (Bruhn 2011 also analyzes the importance of this singular quotation). By utilizing a rare instance of internal recollection at this moment in the overall narrative of his song cycle, Martin calls attention to a textual link and answers Everyman’s question: “Has my mother left me alone?” The preordained orchestral judgment is “Yes.”
The terror experienced by Everyman due to his imminent demise reaches a psychological snapping point by the fourth song, a poem consisting of feverish exclamations as the narrator finally internalizes the command to "lie down and die... this is thy day!" The monologue concludes with a doleful sustained C-minor triad that echoes the final C sung by the vocalist, while three Mahlerian hammerblows sound the death toll. Emerging from this moment of utter hopelessness, the initial sonority of song #5 is a root-position F#-major triad coinciding with the affirmative word “Ja!”. This particular simultaneity is worthy of discussion for two reasons: (1) since unadulterated major triads have seldom been present in the first five songs of Jedermann, the phenomenological “sound of the sound itself” is stirring, especially after the pause between movements and (2) not only has there been a shift in triadic quality from the end of song #4 to the beginning of song #5, but the tritone tonal distance from C minor to F# major also lends a sense of foreignness, intrusion, enlightenment. All of these factors considered, the orchestral F# major triad is an aural cue to the listener that something significant in the narrative has shifted or is about to shift; this intuition is correct because it is in this song that the protagonist finally comes to believe in the possibility of eternal salvation and that his soul may yet be secured through positive actions and devout piety.
Despite Everyman’s epiphany that salvation is possible through both a life of good deeds and the redemptive crucifixion of Christ in the first two stanzas of song #5, the tone darkens in the third and last stanza because our fallen hero believes that he is unworthy of this reward and will never realize it: “I have burdened myself/ with such a mountain of sins/ that God, the most righteous/ could never grant me mercy.” As a result, the final bars of song #5 contain a polychordal rub of E# major over a C# pedal, then slipping parsimoniously to settle on a cadential C# minor triad. Redemption has been recognized but not attained. The optimistic shift to F# major at the onset of this song (see above) has in process been subverted.
We now turn to Martin's setting of the sixth and final monologue wherein the narrator offers a plaintive, heartfelt request for grace and divine intercession, ultimately observing that union with God is only possible because of Christ's passion. During the death-tormented prayer proper starting in the second stanza ("O mein Erlöser..."), the harmonic landscape is consistent with what has come before: freely atonal chromaticism, dissonant simultaneities, triadic structures habitually destabilized by additional tension-inducing pitches. As mentioned previously, unadorned major triads have been conspicuously infrequent – practically absent – throughout the entire Jedermann cycle, a notable exception being the onset of song #5. However, emerging from the Expressionist discords and coinciding with the phrase "sit at His right hand" ("Rechten"), the harmonic profile breaks open with a pure A# major triad.
Moments later as the narrator continues to fantasize about unification with God, a second uncontaminated major triad built on the root of G complements the word "Glorie." As the assurance of life everlasting becomes more real and Everyman is humbled, the sung phrases and accompaniment push toward two more major triads: one constructed on E then in due course on C# as the narrator articulates the meaning of his prayer ("Gebet"). Martin thus completes a set of major triads whose successive roots equally divide the octave by descending minor thirds at the climactic point of the song cycle's entire narrative – Everyman has prostrated himself before God and consequently rejoined Him. (I also hear the C# major triad climax moment as forming a long-range Picardy tonal motion association with the salient C# minor tonal center that concluded song #5. From a textual standpoint, song #5 is when Everyman realizes the opportunity for redemption but depressingly assumes it is out of reach for his own soul. Here, salvation has been made manifest so the previous C# minor center has been replaced with a C# major culmination.)
As a more theoretical aside, in Martin's mature style, progressions of major or minor triads based on equal divisions of the octave or that have hexatonic pole relationships are often employed to evoke the uncanny or ethereal.
For instance, consider the final scene of Martin's 1950s Shakespearean opera Der Sturm ("The Tempest"), wherein Prospero relinquishes his magical arts, becomes mere man once again, and humbly pleads for prayers of mercy and forgiveness from the audience. Martin harmonically reinforces the final lines of this epilogue with a cycle of major and minor triads whose roots form a 3-cycle of F#, A, C, and E-flat. This, too, is a parallel moment of otherworldly spiritual transfiguration, Prospero being a surrogate for our present study of Everyman.
Here we see a reduction of this song's final measures. As the narrator continues his transformative prayer, the major-triadic accompaniment begins to ascend in root motion by major third, leading the listener to hypothesize a second progression equally dividing the octave (mm. 28-31). This expectation is thwarted when the vocalist mentions Christ's death on the cross ("Kreuz bist gestorben"). As a result the harmony shifts downward to E-flat minor, stirring in its change of triadic quality and tonal distance from the preceding F major. Underscoring the stress of this moment, the vocalist continues to sing tones of the recent F major triad over the E-flat minor accompaniment creating a polychordal clash of six exclusive pitch classes. For the ensuing (and last) line of the cycle, "und hast all unsre Seelen erworben" ("and have redeemed our souls"), the ensemble interacts to create a harmonic chain modeled by David Lewin as a SLIDE operation wherein the third of a triad is preserved while the mode shifts. The vocalist leaps down from a tritone above the root (A over E-flat) then maintains the F# (enharmonically G-flat) third of E-flat minor while the accompanying stack of perfect fifths literally slide downward by semitone to newly form a resonant D-major triad. This process repeats twice more (the final melodic statement is taken up by the accompaniment) constantly realigning toward the parting C-major simultaneity. I read this passage as a theological credo by Martin during a time of war: despite lingering pessimism by Man, marked by the singer's dissonant tritone "escape tones" and persistent harmonic shifts to minor, an external force (perhaps God Himself) will perpetually adjust to offer hope and solace.
The reception of Frank Martin's music on this side of the Atlantic has been curiously flat, both during his lifetime and in the four decades since his death. In academia, mention of Martin in general music history or theory texts is slight or downright non-existent. There are exceptions, of course, not least of which is the continued advocacy by prominent contemporary American music critic Alex Ross and Siglind Bruhn's recent book Frank Martin's Musical Reflections on Death. A few authors have hypothesized reasons for the lack of attention afforded to Martin's music in the United States and other English-speaking countries, but my own thought is that, like many other composers throughout the twentieth century who haven't entered the canon to the same degree as certain contemporaries, Martin's ecumenicism and avoidance of dogma didn't generate the requisite controversy. He had no great succès de scandale to shock his way to stardom, nor is his music populist enough to be appropriated by Hollywood. At the risk of oversimplification, Martin's music is too thorny for conservatives and too tuneful for the avant-gardistes.
In the Sechs Monologe we encounter an earnest confession from a God-loving man who was neither French nor German, but wanted to be both – particularly at a time when reconciliation between those two nations seemed impossible. In this and other texted works written by Martin around the same time, audiences witness a composer meditating on death, redemption, ethics, and personal conscience while European civilization collapses around him. Fundamentally, Martin viewed himself as a citizen of mankind whose belief in the power of his art was trumped only by that of his God.
The Jedermann songs are the composer's testament to the possibilities of transformation, if only someone were there to hear it.
(The original form of this essay was presented as a talk at both the 2011 Rocky Mountain Society for Music Theory Conference and
the 2011 Music Theory Southeast/South Central Society for Music Theory Joint Conference.)
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