Frank Martin, one of the leading Swiss composers of the twentieth century, had an interest in Rudolf Steiner's system of Eurhythmics (involving rhythmic physical exercise, therapy, and musical training). The Etudes for String Orchestra are a legacy of this interest, as evidenced by their taut and well-developed rhythmic sense and inventive patterns. (Most commentators agree that it is the Eurhythmic connection, rather than musical influences such as that of Stravinsky, that are the basis for Martin's rhythmic sense.)
The Etudes were commissioned by Paul Sacher, physician and inspiration for dozens of major works for string orchestra; Sacher premiered it with his Basel (Switzerland) Chamber Orchestra on November 23, 1956. The work was very well received, despite the ascendancy of the twelve-tone system in European music at the time. (Martin was interested in twelve-tone theory and used aspects of it in his compositional technique, but never entirely gave up tonality or embraced the system in its totality.)
This 19-minute work is a series of concert etudes preceded by an introductory movement called "Overture." The concert etude is essentially the invention of Frédéric Chopin, who took the venerable idea of an etude (or study piece, designed for the practice studio to work out an issue of the interpreter's technique) and added musical interest to make it suitable for the concert hall. Thus a "concert etude" is a relatively brief piece concerned with a narrow issue (or issues) in compositional or interpretive technique or style.
The overture, beginning with strict, dotted rhythms but later becoming smoother in articulation, serves as a curtain-raiser. The first etude (Étude pour l'enchainement des traits -- Study on the connection of links) takes contrapuntal lines in relatively thin textures and moves them rapidly from one group of string players to the other. The idea is to articulate a line as one continuous melody even as it leaps from violas to basses to violins, and so forth.
The next etude (Étude pour le pizzicato -- Study in pizzicato) employs every variety of plucked string sonority, including snap pizzicati and glissandi on a plucked note. Martin's use of these glides and his rhythms momentarily suggest jazz.
The Étude pour l'expression et les sostenuto -- Study for expression and sustained lines -- uses only the violas and cellos and explores the effect of legato lines, some in a high register, on these warm, intimate instruments. This movement is the lyrical heart of the Etudes.
The final Étude pour le jeu fugué or Study on Fugal Playing begins as an intriguing fugue before a transition to a chorale-like section before returning to the fugue in conclusion.