Frank Martin was a Swiss composer, active in his native Switzerland and in the Netherlands during his lifetime. His musical style, which matured over a long period, is distinguished by an unorthodox eclecticism, shaped by the absorption of many types of music. A key influence was the music of J.S. Bach. He also experimented with Bulgarian and Indian rhythms, as well as ancient and folk music; other contemporary elements such as jazz and Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique he adapted for his own ends. Martin’s command of harmonic colour and instrumental timbre, combined with dynamic rhythms and a strong sense of drama, has made his music—particularly for orchestra—popular among performers. Among his works for large ensemble are several concertos and “ballades” (pieces for solo instrument and group accompaniment); his catalogue also contains music for the stage (incidental music, ballets, operas, oratorio), choir, solo voice, and chamber ensemble of various instrumental combinations.
Born in Geneva, Switzerland, on September 15, 1890, Martin began to compose when he was eight years old. He was given lessons in piano, harmony, and composition by Joseph Lauber, his sole music teacher. Despite being certain by age 16 that he wanted a career in music, Martin did not enter a conservatory for further studies; he opted instead to study physics and mathematics but did not finish the course. After the First World War, he lived in Zürich, Rome, and Paris, before moving back to Geneva in 1926. Upon his return, he became a student of Swiss composer Émile Jaques-Dalcroze and his method of rhythmic musical education (i.e., Dalcroze eurythmics, through which musical concepts are taught through movement). After two years, Martin became a teacher of rhythmic theory at the Institut Jaques-Dalcroze in Geneva.
Over the next decades, Martin pursued a range of professional activities, including as a performing pianist and harpsichordist, and taking on various teaching and administrative positions, such as a lecturer on chamber music at the conservatory, and director of the school Technicum Moderne de Musique. From 1943 to 1946, he was president of the Swiss Musicians’ Union. In 1946, Martin moved to the Netherlands, residing first in Amsterdam, and eventually settling in Naarden. From 1950 to 1957, he taught a composition class for the Cologne Hochschule für Music. Later, he travelled internationally to perform his works; his music became established in the concert repertories of choirs and orchestras, and he was the recipient of many awards and honours. Martin died in Naarden, on November 21, 1974.
By Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley