Frank Martin’s Petite symphonie concertante

Notes by TŌN harpist Taylor Ann Fleshman

The Composer
Born in 1890, Frank Martin was one of the leading Swiss composers of his time. He not only composed his music, but also performed many of his own works while on tour as a pianist and harpsichordist. His compositional style resembles that of Johann Sebastian Bach with a twist of early-20th-century French composers. He wrote many sacred vocal works, which may be due to the fact that his father was a priest, but he also composed on secular subjects. Though Martin’s output on vocal works is prominent, he was very prolific in instrumental compositions that are now staples in the international concert repertoire. His Petite symphonie concertante is by far his most widely respected work.

The Origin of the Work
The Petite symphonie concertante was composed in 1945 from a request made by Paul Sacher. Sacher did not micromanage how the piece was to be composed, but his one specific request was that plucked basso continuo instruments were to be employed along with standard string instruments. From here, Martin decided to use instruments that are still common today, which included harp, piano, and harpsichord. These three instruments are the soloists of the work while the remaining strings are split into two equally important groups.

The Music
Martin composed a second version of this piece that did not include solo instruments and was for full symphony orchestra. He believed that this work would not be performed often due to its uncommon orchestration; however, Martin’s belief turned out to be erroneous. The original version that you will be hearing today is the more frequently performed of the two versions. I find that its unusual combination of instruments makes this piece all the more intriguing. In addition to the exquisite pacing and shape, the atmosphere Martin sets in each section draws you into his world for the full 21 minutes. The opening resembles a concerto with the three solo instruments accompanying each other while the remaining strings are supporting them. In the next section, the music moves in a slow, improvisatory style, then turns into a spirited march ending the piece. While I enjoy the entire work, my favorite moment is around the 14-minute mark, after a slow chordal introduction in the harpsichord. Listen closely and you will hear why.