This article relies largely or entirely on a single source. (March 2010)
Born into a Huguenot family in the Eaux-Vives quarter of Geneva, the youngest of the ten children of a Calvinist pastor named Charles Martin, Frank Martin started to improvise on the piano prior to his formal schooling. At the age of nine he had already written a few songs without external musical instruction. At 12, he attended a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach's St. Matthew Passion and was deeply affected by it.
Respecting his parents' wishes, he studied mathematics and physics for two years at Geneva University, but at the same time was also studying piano, composition and harmony with his first music teacher Joseph Lauber (1864-1953), a Geneva composer and by that time a leading figure of the city's musical scene. In the 1920s, Martin worked closely with Émile Jaques-Dalcroze from whom he learned much about rhythm and musical theory. Between 1918 and 1926 Martin lived in Zurich, Rome and Paris. Compositions of this time show him searching for an authentic musical voice of his own.
In 1926 he established the Chamber Music Society of Geneva which, for the next ten years he conducted, as well as contributing on the clavichord and piano. During this period he was also teaching musical theory and improvisation at the Jaques-Dalcroze Institute, and chamber music at the Geneva Conservatory.
The Petite Symphonie Concertante of 1944/45 made Martin's international reputation, and is the best known of his orchestral works, as the early Mass is the best known of his choral compositions, and the Jedermann monologues for baritone and piano or orchestra the best known of his works for solo voice. Other Martin pieces include a full-scale symphony (1936-1937), two piano concertos, a harpsichord concerto, a violin concerto, a cello concerto, a concerto for seven wind instruments, and a series of six one-movement works he called "ballades" for various solo instruments with piano or orchestra.
Among a dozen major scores for the theater are operatic settings of Shakespeare (Der Sturm [ The Tempest ], in August Wilhelm Schlegel's German version [1952-1955]) and Molière (Monsieur de Pourceaugnac [1960-1962]), and the satirical fairy tale La Nique à Satan (Thumbing Your Nose at Satan [1928 - 1931]). His works on sacred texts and subjects, which include another large-scale theater piece, Le Mystère de la Nativité (The Mystery of the Nativity) 1957/1959, are widely considered to rank among the finest religious compositions of the 20th century. Fellow Swiss musician Ernest Ansermet, a champion of his music from 1918 on, conducted recordings of many of Martin's works, such as the oratorio for soloists, double chorus & orchestra In Terra Pax (1944), with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande.
Martin developed his mature style based on his personal variant of Arnold Schoenberg's twelve tone technique, starting using it around 1932, although he didn't abandon tonality. His preference for lean textures and his habitual rhythmic vehemence make his style different from the one of Schoenberg. Some of Martin's most inspired music comes from his last decade. He worked on his last cantata, Et la vie l'emporta, until ten days before his death. He died in Naarden, the Netherlands, and was buried in Geneva at the Cimetière des Rois.