La Mystere de la Nativite

Friday and Saturday evenings in Sanders Theatre

Only rarely does a new work of major pretensions receive a better performance than it deserves. But Friday evening, in their joint Christmas concert, the Harvard Glee Club, the Radcliffe Choral Society, and the Harvard - Radcliffe Orchestra, with nine soloists, gave the North American premiere of a work that did not merit the talent and effort they expended on it. As the evening passed, Frank Martin's La Mystere de la Nativite, though occasionally--rarely--illuminated by flashes of beauty, unrolled as a tedious exercise in stylistic combinations and permutations.

In spite of an American-looking name, Frank Martin was born in 1890 in Switzerland. After winning the usual quota of academic musical prizes, around 1925 he began to experiment with the rhythms of new music, and five years later made contact with Schoenberg's 12-tone techniques. It was an elastic collision: "I may say that, while I came under Schoenberg's influence, I opposed him with all my musical sensibility." Thus, in Le Vin Herbe, a dramatic oratorio on the Tristram legend first performed in 1942, he combined 12-tone series with chordal sequences, and in his passion oratorio Golgotha, he decomposed a basic 12-note series into harmonically related, sequential sections.

Martin has used and over-used all these devices for building harmony into 12-note techniques in La Mystere de la Nativite, his most recent major work. This composition is a setting of selections from the Prologue and First Day of a medieval passion play by Arnoul Greban. On his choice of a medieval text for La Mystere, he comments, "It is important to preserve in this work the atmosphere of the close of the Middle Ages..."

Though it is entirely legitimate for the composer to return to the past for his inspiration--as other contemporary composers have done--he, like they, must satisfy today's criteria of what is musically interesting. Here Martin fails. The music of La Mystere de la Nativite consists of perhaps half a dozen simple motives and devices which are repeated one at a time and without significant alteration for nearly two hours. It was as if he had drained Orff's Carmina Burana of all its excitement and retained only the simple-mindedness, or took all the musical lines from Stravinsky's Agon, and instead of playing them concurrently, had them played one at a time.

These are serious accusations, but they are easy to document. Martin states the chromatic theme (presumably a tone-row or a mutation of one) at the very beginning in bare outline, and goes on to restate it endlessly with only unimaginative variations. In Limbo, Adam and Eve sing above the theme, which appears in the oboe and strings. On Earth, the Virgin Mary sings the theme against a pedal tone in the celli, and again above a solo violin. At the end of Part I, the inital treatment of the theme returns in the parts of Elizabeth and the large choir. The theme dogs the listener for the remaining two parts, along with other simpler, but equally tiresome, motives. For example, Martin delights in mock marches: everywhere there are alternating augmented fifths and repeated sequences, pizzicato, in the basses. Tone pyramids pile up at the end of Part I, at the entrance of the angels in Bethlehem, Part II, in the fields in Part II, and elsewhere.

In addition, Martin does not use the musical resources he calls for. Most of the time, the large chorus and the small chorus are sitting on the stage doing nothing. In the frequent and long sections of recitative, only small parts of the orchestra are required for the very modest accompaniment.

Happily, a few islands rise above the morass of tedium. At the close of the Prologue near the beginning, An Actor strikingly initiates the change from major to minor; the orchestra follows. The hamming of Satan, Lucifer, and Astaroth in the Inferno and in Hell provides a pleasant relief, and the Virgin Mary has a delightful lyric song in Bethlehem in Part II ("My God, my sweet King").

The nine vocal soloists filled their parts with all the life they could hold, and these soloists accounted for what success there was to the evening. (Unfortunately, the English translation by George Barker lay very poorly with the vocal line, in spite of numerous small amendments; the accents on "simplicity," for example, fell so that the word sounded like "simple city.") Eve (Mary Judd) was not in the least forced even in high passages, and performed the best lyrics of the work. The devils, sung by Howard Fried, David Griffith (an undergraduate in the College), William Shores, and John Fiorito, made the most of the dramatic opportunities of their parts; doubling as angels in Part II, they were a smooth and delicate quartet. Particularly impressive was Arnold Voketaitis, bass, who sang God the Father and Simeon the Prophet. Throughout, he carefully controlled and phrased the rich tone of his voice.

Of the orchestra and choruses, who made the biggest investment in manhours, the most one can say is that they were not particularly noticeable or notable. The percussion, with the best parts (for the satanic revelry), made the best of them. After the colossal effort that must have been involved in producing this performance, one wishes there were more to say than that the orchestra was there and was not obviously incompetent; but really, there isn't.

Swoboda had obviously been careful to make his players alert to the shadings of the music. But one wonders why all the effort went into this particular piece, and in particular how well advised the decision was to take it to Carnegie Hall. On the basis of the HRO's previous concert, Swoboda and his musicians deserve the trip, but what they played Friday and Saturday nights does not.