Hyperion Records

Der Sturm
begun in 1952; composition completed in December 1954, orchestration in July 1955; first performed by Vienna State Opera on 17 June 1956
author of text
translator of text
abridged by Frank Martin

'Martin: Der Sturm' (CDA67821/3)
Martin: Der Sturm
Buy by post £26.00 CDA67821/3  3CDs  
Akt 1 Overture: Adagio molto tranquillo
Akt 1 Szene 1: In einem Schiff auf der See
Akt 1 Szene 2: Die bezauberte Insel, vor Prosperos Zelle
Akt 1 Szene 3: Die bezauberte Insel, vor Prosperos Zelle
Akt 2 Szene 1: Eine andere Gegend der Insel
Akt 2 Szene 2: Eine andere Gegend der Insel
Akt 2 Szene 3: Vor Prosperos Zelle
Akt 2 Szene 4: Eine andere Gegend der Insel
Akt 2 Szene 5: Eine andere Gegend der Insel
Akt 3 Szene 1: Vor Prosperos Zelle
Akt 3 Szene 2: Vor Prosperos Zelle
Akt 3 Szene 3: Epilog

Der Sturm
Some composers have a destiny similar to that of Prospero, the central character of Shakespeare’s Tempest: they develop their art slowly and cast their spells only at an advanced age. Such was the case with Frank Martin. This Swiss artist, born in Geneva in 1890, became conscious in childhood of his visceral attachment to music, but he needed a long period of inner maturation to achieve full possession of his creative resources.

It was only in the early 1940s, as he turned fifty, that Martin acquired the conviction that he had at last found himself as a composer. The fact dawned on him after he wrote his oratorio Le vin herbé, ‘the first important work in which I spoke my own language’, as he was to observe in retrospect. By synthesizing his taste for expressive music (showing the influence of French composers like Debussy and Ravel) and his need for rigorous abstract structures (which he found in the dodecaphony of Schoenberg), Martin forged a genuinely personal style. He was then able to produce the series of masterpieces that made his international reputation. Le vin herbé was followed by the song cycles Sechs Monologe aus Jedermann and Der Cornet, the celebrated Petite symphonie concertante, the modern Passion Golgotha, and the Concerto for seven wind instruments, timpani and orchestra.

By the end of this fruitful decade, the commissions were pouring in. Among his notable compositions of 1950, written for the Nederlands Kamerkoor which premiered it on 7 March 1953, was the Five Songs of Ariel, settings of the texts sung by the one of the most singular characters in Shakespeare’s Tempest. Here the composer recreated the subtle a cappella textures he had first tried out in a youthful work, the fine Mass for double choir of 1922, and at the same time revealed his passion for a play which had haunted him for many years.

He had been dreaming of a new form which would closely combine words and music: ‘One might well imagine a spoken play in which the music would be something quite different from a mere sonic décor, a sort of backcloth; a play of which music would be an integral part, where the two elements would be so closely intertwined that no one would ever think of separating them.’ The Tempest seemed to him the ideal play on which to attempt this experiment. But, conscious of the difficulties inherent in such an undertaking in the theatres of his time, he decided, more simply, to turn the work into an opera. Martin embarked on the adventure in 1952, without waiting for a commission. In Bergen, the Dutch resort where he spent his family holidays, the presence of the sea helped him to find the calm rocking motion of the overture, a piece that is ‘tout ariélisante’, as he wrote to the conductor Ernest Ansermet, in that it reuses the thematic material of the second of the Songs of Ariel, ‘inspired by the movement of limpid waters’. That autumn, he began writing the opening scenes and realized that the composition of this work, which was on a larger scale than anything he had hitherto attempted, would take several years.

A number of institutions took an interest in the work in progress: although there was initially talk of the Holland Festival, it was finally the Vienna State Opera that scheduled the premiere. Martin finished the composition in December 1954 and completed the orchestration in July 1955. Right from the start, the work had been conceived in German, using the famous translation by August Wilhelm von Schlegel, because Martin felt more at ease in the language of Goethe than in that of Shakespeare. ‘And’, he added, ‘because this translation, while remaining perfectly faithful to the original text, even down to its metre, is a monument of German literature in its own right.’

Der Sturm was the first contemporary work to be programmed by the Vienna State Opera after its reopening in 1955. To give the work its baptism, the august institution called on the leading artists of the day: Karl Böhm was to conduct Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Prospero and Irmgard Seefried as Miranda. But a few months before the premiere the line-up changed radically. Böhm withdrew, making way for Ansermet. Then Julius Patzak, who was to create the role of Ferdinand, gave up his part (he was replaced by Anton Dermota), as did Irmgard Seefried, whose place was taken by the young Christa Ludwig. Three weeks before the premiere came a further coup de théâtre: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau had to cancel for health reasons. It was the Viennese baritone Eberhard Wächter who came to the rescue. He learnt the gruelling role of Prospero in less than a fortnight, and poured all his energies into the rehearsals. The premiere on 17 June 1956 was greeted with warm applause. Although the press was divided, the public flocked to see the work: it played to full houses, to the point where Martin himself could only attend the final performance from the radio studio.

Der Sturm was subsequently given in concert by the BBC (in English) under the direction of Ansermet. The same conductor was the instigator of a new staging at the Grand Théâtre of Geneva in April 1967 in a French translation by Pauline Martin (Frank’s sister); the cast included Ramon Vinay (Prospero), Eric Tappy (Ferdinand), and José Van Dam (Sebastian). Since then, Martin’s work has been unjustly neglected by the opera companies which prefer to programme Le vin herbé, a work actually conceived for the concert hall.

Shakespeare’s Tempest, probably written in 1610–11, belongs to the dramatist’s series of ‘late romances’, and has gradually come to be seen as one of his supreme masterpieces. Its central character is Prospero, the Duke of Milan, who was deposed by his brother Antonio and cast adrift at sea. But the faithful counsellor Gonzalo gave Prospero and his daughter Miranda supplies which enabled them to survive. They found refuge on an island of which Prospero made himself master thanks to the magic learnt from his books, taking the monster Caliban and the ‘airy spirit’ Ariel into his service. Twelve years have gone by since then. Learning that his usurping brother and his accomplice, the King of Naples, are at sea not far from his cell, Prospero unleashes a storm that will wreck their ship. His plan is a complete success: the Duke of Milan, the king of Naples, the latter’s brother Sebastian (who also intends to try his hand at usurpation), Gonzalo, and other courtiers take refuge on the island and soon find themselves face to face with Prospero—who forgives them. In the meantime, many events have taken place: the son of the King of Naples, Ferdinand, has been separated from his father and fallen in love with Miranda, while Stephano and Trinculo, two drunkards who have also survived the storm, meet Caliban and dream with him of overthrowing Prospero, but their conspiracy is a lamentable failure. At the end of the play, Prospero is on the point of returning to Milan. Before leaving his island, he buries his magician’s staff, putting an end to his spells.

Listeners who enter Martin’s opera find themselves in the situation of the shipwreck victims landing on Prospero’s island: they discover a dense, mysterious work whose charm will slowly become apparent.

First of all, the text is extremely musical. Not only does Shakespeare’s play possess an inimitable poetic sonority, it also depicts a place steeped in music. Ariel’s songs, the bibulous refrains of the clowns, the mysterious music conjured up by Prospero to mislead his enemies, and the mythological ‘mask’ he offers the lovers all produce their own sounds, making the island a true auditory world. Caliban evokes this, not without emotion:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices …

This little patch of land lost amid the vast sea thus appears as a microcosm, a world in miniature where all these musics illustrate the diversity of the creatures who meet there, a melting pot the richness of which did not escape Martin’s attention: ‘What drew me to Shakespeare’s Tempest, in addition to its poetic charm which must attract any musician, was the infinite psychological richness of the various characters.’ This diversity allowed him to deploy a broad range of registers—‘edgy music to embody the evil spirit Caliban, ethereal music for Ariel, simplistic, almost folk-like music for the drunkards’.

For his ‘edgy music’, Martin uses dodecaphonic series assigned to the solo saxophone, then to the deep bass voice he chose for Caliban—a way of incorporating Schoenberg’s technique into a style that is never strictly serial. These pungent sounds are at the opposite pole from the rough-hewn songs for Trinculo and Stephano, who often resort to speech, as if their prosaic natures made it difficult for them to accede to song. The scenes for the noble Italians multiply stylistic references in an environment dominated by jazzy syncopations and a great many quotations (from the chimes of Big Ben to Mendelssohn’s wedding march), as if these intruders embodied the irruption of anachronistic modernity onto a islet situated outside time. This makes all the more arresting the grandeur of the passages for Prospero, coloured by the chromaticism typical of Frank Martin, notably the narrative of Wagnerian proportions in the first act and the monologues in which he renounces his powers.

Concerning the character of Ariel, Martin made a radical decision: ‘Ariel, the airy spirit who appears to Prospero sometimes in the form of a boy and sometimes in that of a water nymph, must be so nimble that only a male or female dancer could adequately give the illusion of a weightless being: “du, der Luft nur ist” (“thou, which art but air”), says Prospero to him. But Ariel also speaks, like the others. Right from the beginning, I had decided to give him a collective voice, the voice of Nature, and his text was sung by a mixed chorus offstage. A small ensemble of strings, flutes, trumpets, horns, harp and harpsichord accompanied the dances.’ At the point where Ariel sings his songs, Martin was able to take over almost unchanged his 1950 settings of the same texts for a cappella chorus, so faithful is Schlegel’s translation to the original English metre. Some years later, when preparing the Geneva production, he assigned Ariel’s lines to an actress-dancer after realizing that his text tended to get lost if it was heard from offstage.

Frank Martin acknowledged his debt to Shakespeare in several articles. With the exception of a few sporadic cuts, the composer retained the essence of the Jacobean text, replacing the five-act structure by a division into three acts. Has it been noticed that the sequence of scenes follows a symmetrical pattern, beginning with the storm of human disorder and ending as calm is restored with the final pardon? This arch-like form appears even more clearly in Der Sturm thanks to the presence of an overture that plays the role of prologue, justifying the presence of Prospero’s epilogue at the end of the evening. This overture depicting the immense expanses of the sea is followed by the violence of the storm. Here Martin deploys his chromatic lines in glissandi which dematerialize the sound and make the harmonic environment extremely ‘slippery’. The next scene provides a complete contrast, with Prospero’s narrative unfolding over long-held notes on solo instruments. Then the orchestral texture is gradually built up, as if a world were (re)born from the magician’s words.

There could be no better way of suggesting the Genesitic character of Shakespeare’s piece, which seems to play out the entire history of the world in the space of a theatrical performance. With an unusual unity of place and time, the work presents an action in real time in which we see characters awakening to love (Miranda and Fernando), a domesticated nature rebelling (Caliban), and fratricidal struggles repeating themselves. For The Tempest is also a work of perpetual recommencements: at the end of the performance, Prospero returns to his duchy. But the epilogue he addresses to the audience reveals a certain bitterness. Unlike the nineteenth century, which saw The Tempest as an entertaining extravaganza, the twentieth century gradually came to realize that this late Shakespeare play concentrated all the disappointed hopes of its times. Jan Kott went so far as to speak of ‘a great Renaissance tragedy of lost illusions’.

Seen in this light, the opera of Frank Martin emerges as one of his most inventive works. The composer has here synthesized all his experience in order to do full justice to the shimmering facets of the original play. One may legitimately view it as a summa, a compendium, and all the more so in that the opposition between Ariel the ethereal spirit and Caliban the earthbound demon strikes fruitful resonances with Martin’s fascination for the act of composition, which must reconcile the spiritual and material principles: ‘The least truly creative act is each time a sort of miracle; it is each time an incarnation within rebellious matter of an element of the spirit.’ With Der Sturm, Frank Martin was tackling an intimidating subject: a sublime play by Shakespeare which has inspired several settings of incidental music (by Purcell, Sullivan, Chausson, Sibelius and Bliss, among others) and a rather smaller number of operas (by Halévy, Fibich, and most recently Thomas Adès). The work born of this struggle with its subject runs the risk of an eclecticism that may seem astonishing after the impressive homogeneity shown by the masterpieces of the 1940s. But Martin succeeds in his venture thanks to his musical intelligence and the inimitable colours of his music, which deck Ariel’s interventions in unreality and Prospero’s monologues in melancholy. And if his dream of a theatre integrating music to perfection did not turn out as he had imagined it, his opera is nonetheless a broad, sweeping work which transports its audience to an unfamiliar universe inhabited by chimerical music. After listening to Der Sturm, one may well have the sensation of emerging from a dream and exclaiming, like Caliban, ‘when I waked, / I cried to dream again.’

from notes by Alain Perroux © 2011
English: Charles Johnston

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