Messiaen Centennial - Music for All Time

Appel interstellaire from Des Canyons aux Étoiles
Born December 10, 1908, Avignon
Died April 28, 1992, Paris

In 1970 the American patron of the arts Alice Tully approached Olivier Messiaen with a specific proposal: she wanted him to write a piece for the American bicentennial. Messiaen was not interested in American history, but he was interested in America as a place, and-after consulting numerous guide-books-he chose the national parks of southern Utah as the location where he might find inspiration. When Messiaen and his wife Yvonne Loriod visited Bryce, Cedar Breaks, and Zion in May 1972, the composer was astonished by the colors of the rock formations: "Red-violet, a red-orange, rose, dark red carmine, scarlet red, all possible varieties of red, an extraordinary beauty." And-as a lifelong birdwatcher-he was amazed by the birds. After a walk through a forest in Zion, he noted in his diary: "Suddenly there was a fortissimo chorus of Nutcrackers, very noisy and very excited, calling to each other from the mountain tops! A symphony of whirling sounds, with crescendos and diminuendos with the entry of the chorus fff! A truly joyous commotion as each bird wanted to add its own chattering to join in this unbelievable symphony, so loud that the mountains seemed to shake."

Messiaen returned to France and over the next two years composed Des Canyons aux Étoiles ("From the Canyons to the Stars"). The première took place in Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center on November 20, 1974, with Frederic Waldman conducting the Musica Aeterna orchestra. (A touching sidelight: officials in Utah were so moved by Messiaen's response to their state that they renamed one of the mountains in Cedar Breaks-it is now Mt. Messiaen.)

Des Canyons aux Étoiles may have been inspired by the canyons of Utah, but this music-like every note Messiaen wrote-was composed as an affirmation of his devout Roman Catholic faith. For Messiaen, the physical beauty of those canyons and the silent stars above them existed only as a manifestation of the presence and divinity of God. The progression of this music is from the canyons of Utah upwards toward the heavens above them-Messiaen described it: "one progresses from the bowels of the earth and ascends towards the stars." The movements of Des Canyons aux Étoiles mirror this progression: the opening movement is titled The Desert, the twelfth and final movement Zion Park and the Celestial City.

Des Canyons aux Étoiles is a huge work: its twelve movements span nearly 100 minutes, and they are inspired by specific places, specific birdsongs, and specific stars. Because the stage at Alice Tully Hall had limited space, Messiaen was restricted to a chamber orchestra, and he deployed his 44 players in quite specific ways: there is an important role for solo piano (a part written for Yvonne Loriod), 23 wind instruments, 7 percussionists, and only 13 stringed instruments. Of the twelve movements, three are for solo instruments: the fourth and ninth are for solo piano, while the sixth movement, Appel Interstellaire, is for solo French horn.

Appel Interstellaire was the first part of Des Canyons aux Étoiles to be written, and it was originally composed for an entirely different purpose. In March 1971 the young French composer Jean-Pierre Guézec died, and his composer-friends contributed a collection of short pieces for solo instruments in his memory. For that collection, Messiaen wrote a brief movement for solo horn. He liked the piece well enough that when he began work on Des Canyons aux Étoiles, he adapted it for inclusion in the larger piece. The title translates "Interstellar Call," as if this music were a horn call that reaches across the vast span of outer space. The music is extraordinarily difficult for the performer, who must master a range of techniques: flutter-tonguing, closed notes, glissandos, and faintly-sounded oscillations produced with the keys half-closed. Appel Interstellaire begins with a strident call that might reach out across the universe, and between the various calls and extended techniques (and several long silences), the horn sings two lyric passages. Along the way we hear the calls of two birds-the Chinese Thrush and the Canyon Wren-and at the end the music fades into silence on a recall of the faint oscillations.

String Quartet in G Minor
Born August 22, 1862, Saint Germain-en-Laye
Died March 25, 1918, Paris

Early in 1893, Debussy met the famed Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaÿe. Debussy was at this time almost unknown (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun was still a year in the future), but he and Ysaÿe instantly became friends-though Ysaÿe was only four years older than Debussy, he treated the diminutive Frenchman like "his little brother." That summer, Debussy composed a string quartet for Ysaÿe's quartet, which gave the first performance in Paris on December 29, 1893. Debussy was already notorious with his teachers for his refusal to follow musical custom, and so it comes as a surprise to find him choosing to write in this most demanding of classical forms. Early audiences were baffled. Reviewers used words like "fantastic" and "oriental," and Debussy's friend Ernest Chausson confessed mystification. Debussy must have felt the sting of these reactions, for he promised Chausson: "Well, I'll write another for you . . . and I'll try to bring more dignity to the form."

But Debussy did not write another string quartet, and his Quartet in G Minor has become one of the cornerstones of the quartet literature. The entire quartet grows directly out of its first theme, presented at the very opening, and this sharply rhythmic figure reappears in various shapes in all four movements, taking on a different character, a different color, and a different harmony on each reappearance. What struck early audiences as "fantastic" now seems an utterly original conception of what a string quartet might be. Here is a combination of energy, drama, thematic imagination, and attention to color never heard before in a string quartet. Debussy may have felt pushed to apologize for a lack of "dignity" in this music, but we value it today just for that failure.

Those who think of Debussy as the composer of misty impressionism are in for a shock with his quartet, for it has the most slashing, powerful opening Debussy ever wrote: his marking for the beginning is "Animated and very resolute." This first theme, with its characteristic triplet spring, is the backbone of the entire quartet: the singing second theme grows directly out of this opening (though the third introduces new material). The development is marked by powerful accents, long crescendos, and shimmering colors as this movement drives to an unrelenting close in G minor.

The Scherzo may well be the quartet's most impressive movement. Against powerful pizzicato chords, Debussy sets the viola's bowed theme, a transformation of the quartet's opening figure; soon this is leaping between all four voices. The recapitulation of this movement, in 15/8 and played entirely pizzicato, bristles with rhythmic energy, and the music then fades away to a beautifully understated close. Debussy marks the third movement "Gently expressive," and this quiet music is so effective that it is sometimes used as an encore piece. It is in ABA form: the opening section is muted, while the more animated middle is played without mutes-the quartet's opening theme reappears subtly in this middle section. Debussy marks the ending, again played with mutes, "As quiet as possible."

The finale begins slowly but gradually accelerates to the main tempo, "Very lively and with passion." As this music proceeds, the quartet's opening theme begins to appear in a variety of forms: first in a misty, distant statement marked "soft and expressive," then gradually louder and louder until it returns in all its fiery energy, stamped out in double-stops by the entire quartet. A propulsive coda drives to the close, where the first violin flashes upward across three octaves to strike the powerful G major chord that concludes this most undignified-and most wonderful-piece of music.

Quatuor pour la fin du temps
(Quartet for the End of Time)

Called up during World War II, Olivier Messiaen was serving as a medical auxiliary when the Germans overran France in the spring of 1940. He was taken prisoner and sent to a POW camp east of Dresden, where he discovered among his fellow prisoners a violinist, a clarinetist, and a cellist. A sympathetic German camp commander supplied Messiaen with manuscript paper and arranged to have an upright piano-old and out of tune-brought in for his use. That fall, Messiaen wrote an extended work called Quartet for the End of Time for the four musicians, who gave the première performance at that prison camp-Stalag VIII A-on January 15, 1941. Their audience consisted of 5000 fellow POWs, who sat outside in sub-freezing temperatures to hear the performance. "Never have I been listened to with such attention and understanding," said Messiaen of that occasion.

It would be incorrect, however, to assume that the Quartet for the End of Time was written in response to the seemingly-endless existence of prisoners of war. Rather, Messiaen-a devout Christian-took his inspiration from the Revelation of St. John the Divine in the Apocrypha, specifically from the tenth chapter: "I saw a mighty angel, descending from heaven, clothed in a cloud, having a rainbow on his head. His face was as the sun, his feet as columns of fire. He placed his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the earth, and, supporting himself on the sea and on the earth, he raised his hand towards Heaven and swore by Him who lives forever and ever, saying: There will be no more Time; but on the day of the trumpet of the seventh angel, the mystery of God will be completed."

The Quartet is an expression of faith in the resurrection from temporal existence, a faith expressed in many ways. For example, the work is in eight movements because while seven is "the perfect number" (the number of days of the creation), the music here "extends into eternity and becomes the eighth, of unfailing light, of immutable peace." The notion of the dissolution of time is further reflected in the metrical notation of the music itself. Messiaen sometimes uses traditional meters and bar lines, but the actual metric flow of the music often has nothing to do with the prescribed measures; at other points he dispenses with an established meter altogether. The instrumentation varies (only in certain movements do all four instruments play simultaneously), and the Quartet also marks the first appearance of birdsong in Messiaen's music--he was fascinated by the songs of individual birds, carefully notated these songs, and used them as an important thematic feature of his music from this point on.

Messiaen himself prepared a detailed and colorful description of the eight movements, worth quoting at length:
Liturgy of Crystal: Between the hours of three and four in the morning, the awakening of the birds: a thrush or a nightingale soloist improvises, amid notes of shining sound and a halo of trills that lose themselves high in the trees. Transpose this to the religious plane: you will have the harmonious silence of heaven.

Vocalise, for the angel who announces the end of time: The first and third parts (very short) evoke the power of that mighty angel, his hair a rainbow and his clothing mist, who places one foot on the sea and one foot on the earth. Between these sections are the ineffable harmonies of heaven. From the piano, soft cascades of blue-orange chords, encircling with their distant carillon the plainchant-like recitativo of the violin and cello.

Abyss of the birds-Clarinet solo: The abyss is Time, with its sadnesses and tedium. The birds are the opposite of Time; they are the desire for light, for stars, for rainbows and for jubilant outpourings of song!

Intermezzo-Scherzo: Of a more outgoing character than the other movements but related to them, nonetheless, by various melodic references.

Praise to the Eternity of Jesus: Jesus is here considered as one with the Word. A long phrase, infinitely slow, by the cello expatiates with love and reverence on the everlastingness of the Word, mighty and dulcet, "which the years can in no way exhaust." Majestically the melody unfolds itself at a distance both intimate and awesome. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

Dance of fury for the seven trumpets: Rhythmically the most idiosyncratic movement of the set. The four instruments in unison give the effect of gongs and trumpets (the first six trumpets of the Apocalypse attend various catastrophes, the trumpet of the seventh angel announces the consummation of the mystery of God). Use of extended note values, augmented or diminished rhythmic patterns, non-retrogradable rhythms-a systematic use of values which, read from left to right or from right to left, remain the same. Music of stone, formidable sonority; movement as irresistible as steel, as huge blocks of livid fury, of ice-like frenzy. Listen particularly to the terrifying fortissimo of the theme in augmentation and with change of register of its different notes, toward the end of the piece.

Clusters of rainbows, for the angel who announces the end of time: Here certain passages from the second movement return. The mighty angel appears, and in particular the rainbow that envelops him (the rainbow, symbol of peace, of wisdom, of every quiver of luminosity and sound). In my dreamings I hear and see ordered melodies and chords, familiar hues and forms; then, following the transitory stage, I pass into the unreal and submit ecstatically to a vortex, a dizzying interpenetration of superhuman sounds and colors. These fiery swords, these rivers of blue-orange lava, these sudden stars: Behold the cluster, behold the rainbows!

Praise to the Immortality of Jesus: Expansive violin solo balancing the cello solo of the fifth movement. Why this second glorification? It addresses itself more specifically to the second aspect of Jesus-to Jesus the man, to the Word made flesh, raised up immortal from the dead so as to communicate His life to us. It is total love. Its slow rising to a supreme point is the ascension of man toward his God, of the Son of God toward his Father, of the mortal newly made divine toward paradise -And I repeat anew what I said above: All this is mere striving and childish stammering if one compares it to the overwhelming grandeur of the subject!

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