In the Wings

Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera


Nov 5, 2014 4:24:00 PM
By BLO Staff

This Season’s Opera Annex production of The Love Potion marks the work’s fully-staged Boston premiere. It also marks another important date, honoring the 40th anniversary of composer Frank Martin's death, on November 21, 1974, in Naarden, Holland. This spring, BLO General & Artistic Director, Esther Nelson, traveled to the Frank Martin House to research the piece and to meet with Martin’s widow, Maria Martin, and learn more about his work and life. Here, she shares some of the history of the opera, the legend behind it, and moments with Martin’s family.

Maria Martin (center), Frank Martin’s widow, and their daughter, Teresa (right), share memories of the composer with BLO General & Artistic Director, Esther Nelson (left). The three met in the Martin house in Naarden, Holland, during Mrs. Martin’s 99th birthday week, in the spring of 2014.

The best-known opera on the subject of Tristan and Isolde is by the German 19th-century composer Richard Wagner, written for a large orchestra and large voices. Frank Martin considered his version, Le Vin Herbé, to be the opposite of Wagner's 19th-century grand opera spectacle. Musically, it is completely different since it was composed for an intimate 12-person madrigal choir, where soloists blend in and out of a choral fabric. Martin has his own definitive, almost hypnotic and atmospheric musical language, which is polyphonic and harmonically dense with an air of the sacred and medieval. Le Vin Herbé is based on chapters of Le Roman de Tristan et Iseut, written ca. 1900, by the French medievalist Joseph Bédier. Bédier traced 12th-century French sources of the Celtic myth, which are earlier than the 13th-century poem by Gottfried von Strassburg, on which Wagner's opera is based.

In 1938, Martin immersed himself in the Tristan myth, particularly in Bédier's Le Roman de Tristan et Iseut, and the 1936 novel, Sparkenbroke by the English writer Charles Morgan, which is a contemporary version of the Tristan motive of love and death. It was at that time that Martin was approached by Robert Blum, Director of the Zurich Madrigal Choir, to write a piece for his choir of 12 soloists. While Martin worked on the initial version of Le Vin Herbé, a 30-minute tableaux on the "Love Potion" chapter of Bédier's book, two events profoundly overshadowed his life: Germany invaded Poland, reawakening Martin's horror from his days as a soldier during WWI, and his beloved young wife, Irene, suddenly became ill and died.

His second wife and widow, Maria Martin, describes this scene in her autobiography, Treasured Moments – My Life with Frank Martin, as he completed Le Vin Herbé, following the death of his first wife: "It was at night, in stifling hot weather, that Frank wrote those nostalgic last bars that incarnate the total surrender to fate, to the unknown aspects of his life, to love."

The original piano and the desk where Frank Martin composed Le Vin Herbé, while living in Switzerland. Pictured in the Martin home in Naarden, Holland.

Following the immediately-enthusiastic audience response at the premiere in 1940, Martin did not relinquish his fascination with the piece and expanded it to include two more chapters: "The Forest of Morois," and "Tristan's Death." The eagerly-anticipated premiere of the full version in 1942 was greeted with an equally enthusiastic reaction from the audience. The premiere featured internationally-celebrated Swiss tenor Ernst Haefliger, then an unknown young singer with the choir, as Tristan. Interestingly, Ernst was later a guest at the Boston premiere concert performance by the John Oliver Chorale.

Insights from BLO staff:
“I have included The Love Potion because it is beautiful music and fascinating theater,” notes Esther Nelson, BLO’s General & Artistic Director. “Frank Martin's opera is a truly timeless work, which is modern and old at the same time. It is music that is unfamiliar but quickly gets under your skin. It's not really an opera, nor an oratorio. It's neither atonal nor tonal. It's an intimate chamber work with a powerful sound. The soloists act and sing their roles while also blending in like a Greek chorus. It tells the story of ideal love that is pure but it is also deadly.”

Conductor David Angus observes, “This is the opposite extreme from Wagner’s extravagantly rich score—just 12 singers and eight instrumentalists—but it is still very powerful and atmospheric, and very much faster moving! In theory, it is complex and atonal, but in reality, it is much closer to the string quartets of Debussy and Ravel in instrumental sound, with beautiful songs for soloists or chorus and piano superimposed. The music has great beauty and drama, on an intimate scale in which every detail is very telling.”

Le Vin Herbé original score, Maria Martin's personal copy.

Boston Lyric Opera is very grateful to the Martin family for sharing its time, memories, and photos with us as we celebrate Frank Martin’s incredible work. To learn more, please visit us at

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