Movement 1: Kyrie
Movement 2: Gloria
Movement 3: Credo
Movement 4: Sanctus
Movement 5: Agnus Dei
Why keep such a masterpiece hidden? The answer to this question lies in the strong Christian faith to which Martin adhered throughout his life. He was born into a fervently Christian family – his father was a Calvinist minister – and religious themes form the basis of much of his music, both choral and instrumental. Such an all-pervasive faith convinced him that the public airing of an aesthetic work expressing the very essence of Christianity was tantamount to blasphemy. As he wrote at the time of the Mass’s premiere: ‘I did not want it to be performed … I considered it … as being a matter between God and myself. I felt then that an expression of religious feelings should remain secret and removed from public opinion.’
There was a further reason for Martin’s reluctance to have the Mass performed. When he was ten he had heard a performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, an occasion which had so profoundly affected him that he decided there and then to devote his life to music. But if Bach was the catalyst to set Martin on the composing road, Bach was also the barrier which held Martin back from submitting his music to the public gaze. Beside the genius of Bach, Martin was convinced his own efforts would seem merely presumptuous – a belief he never fully shook off.
Coming from a Calvinist background Martin was not imbued with the Catholic tradition of the Mass with its associated plainchant melodies. There is no plainchant in Martin’s Mass, although its influence is obvious in the sinuous alto melody at the start of the Kyrie. Free-flowing, interweaving melodies, often sung antiphonally (as in the opening bars), create a vivid sense of streams of supplication in this movement while the calm, gentle opening to the Gloria, with the voices piling up in a sensation of awestruck wonder, leads into a movement in which frequent changes of time signature and syncopated cross-rhythms testify to the fascination with rhythm which led Martin to study and later teach rhythmic theory at the Jacques-Dalcroze Institute. Martin declared that the music for the words ‘et incarnatus est’ in the Credo was ‘very dear’ to him. The Credo, central to the Christian faith, displays Martin’s wonderful conciseness of word-setting; a conciseness which results in all five movements of the Mass being of roughly equal musical length. There is some subtle word-painting, with a gloriously luminous climax on ‘lumen de lumine’, and some truly ecstatic canonic writing for ‘Et resurrexit’ where the essentially intimate nature of the Mass is highlighted by this glorious moment being marked both dolce and piano. Above a gentle swaying cushion of harmony from the tenors and basses the sopranos intone with ever-increasing urgency the word ‘Sanctus’. After a sensuous, almost erotic, setting of the ‘Benedictus’ this movement concludes with one of the work’s few passages to be marked fortissimo.
And that is where Martin concluded his 1922 Mass. However, in 1926 he took the work out and added a deeply moving Agnus Dei in which the two choirs are used essentially as separate entities, the second maintaining a steady, regular movement while the first, largely in unison, moves with the kind of quasi-plainchant free-rhythmic flow heard in the Kyrie. Only with the final invocation of peace do both choirs join as one in a rich and moving conclusion to a work of unalloyed beauty.
from notes by Marc Rochester © 1998