Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Music for the End of Time

With Election Day now being counted down in single digits, I’m not writing about the end of an interminable campaign or the fact the 2012 Presidential campaign is already heating up (will it never end...?).

I’m not writing about what many on both sides assume the out-come of that election will be if their candidate doesn’t win.

I’m not writing about all the wars (not just the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan), the scientific evidence of something called “Global Warming,” the crisis on Wall Street or its impact on an already damaged world much less other issues, political and moral, that many call “a sign of the times.”

I’m writing about a simple piece of music.

Not that it’s really all that simple. You can hear it for yourself this weekend here in Central Pennsylvania when the ensemble Antares comes to Harrisburg to perform it on a program at Market Square Church, Saturday evening at 8pm as Market Square Concerts’ season continues. Eric Riley, the organist at the church, will also perform Dieu parmi nous (God Among Us) from La Nativité du Seigneur. Also on the program will be a suite from Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat and the Piano Trio by Maurice Ravel.

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You would think a composer planning a work inspired by an apocalyptic theme – nothing less than the End of the World as we know it – would write it for a vast orchestra with a huge brass section (with at least seven trumpets), probably numerous choruses and several vocal soloists to give proper weight and power to the terrifying words of the last book of the Bible.

At the time of the premiere of this work, Olivier Messiaen (photographed here in 1946) was a prisoner-of-war which had something to do with the fact such a piece of music – complete with a “Dance for the Seven Trumpets” – was composed for only four instrumentalists.

The first people to perform and to hear this amazing music were not sitting in a famous concert hall in Paris but in a Nazi prison-camp on a cold day in January, 1941. Scored only for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, it was called “Quartet for the End of Time.”

December marks the 100th Anniversary of the birth of Olivier Messiaen who, recognized as one of the greatest composers in the world when he died in 1992, was at the forefront of New Music at often as he was an outsider. His style changed as he evolved – as did Stravinsky’s or Beethoven’s – and he introduced concepts from the wider world into his own musical vocabulary – as did Debussy or Bartok – that creates an innately unmistakable voice. At heart, a “Catholic Mystic” who brought a bit of the Medieval Past into the 20th Century Present long before the pop world became fascinated by Gregorian Chant, he also absorbed serial techniques and applied them to aspects of music other than just the notes. He built vast structures out of smaller building blocks borrowed from Indian music. He collected the songs of birds from around the world and quoted them in his music as other composers collected and quoted folk-songs. Time, in many of his works, stands utterly still whether it’s in the static meditations of his opera, St. Francis of Assisi or the ecstatic whoops in some of the wilder moments of his Turangalila Symphony. The Quartet is certainly his most famous single work and probably the most frequently performed: every time it is, it’s an event to experience.

Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” is a long work in eight movements that alternates between despair, terror and hope. With its emotional sweep, this is a work that must be as emotionally draining to play as it is difficult technically to perform. One of the biggest challenges, after all that, is for the clarinetist and the cellist to sit absolutely still during the final movement so as not to distract from the violinist and the pianist!

The clarinet’s solo movement, “The Abyss of the Birds,” covers an enormous dynamic range between the low-register despair of the abyss itself and the contrasting innocent-sounding bird-song which is the element of hope: beginning almost imperceptibly, the sound grows sometimes to a roar, sometimes to a wail, without ever distorting its core. The two serene movements, the meditations on Jesus’ eternity and on His immortality, are almost motionless but with an intensity that underscores the simplicity of the music to bring out its interior ecstasy, supported just with simple steady chords, the pulse behind the music but also the world-force that rises at the climaxes to drive the music into another sphere of awareness.

There are, considering the subject with many of the movements’ titles taken from The Book of Revelation, more violent moments as well – the Dance of Fury for the Seven Trumpets where everyone plays in unison or octaves throughout (no harmony) and the next-to-last movement depicting the angel who announces the End of Time – that in some performances sounded more apocalyptic to me than I thought possible with only four players and more fearsome than I remembered them in the several live performances and recordings I’ve had the chance to experience since I first heard the work when I was a student at Susquehanna University in the early-70s.

This is music Olivier Messiaen composed while being held as a prisoner-of-war in a Nazi prison camp in World War II. The music is inspired by lines from the Revelation of St. John (most of Messiaen’s music in based directly or indirectly on his strong Catholic faith). How do you write a piece like this, with its implication of the end-of-the-world, when you are a prisoner-of-war in a Nazi prison camp? If you’ve ever been distracted from something you really needed to focus on, perhaps by the radio in your co-worker’s cubicle, the every-day sounds of life coming from your neighbors, or the incessant jangling of the telephone, multiply that by the questions and privations of living (if one can call it that) in a prison camp! This was not a concentration camp – Messiaen was in the army and had been captured by the Germans following their invasion of northern France – but it was, still, a prison camp, and the composer, his performers and his audience were all prisoners. I can think of no other great musical work of art that came about under such circumstances.

The story Messiaen tells may be slightly different from the reality of the events themselves. The instruments were certainly not in the best shape: he said the piano was missing some keys and then there is the legendary cello with only three strings which may have been a partial fabrication of the composer’s memory (the cellist apparently chided Messiaen later for this little-white-lie, saying “I had four strings and you know it”). He and the cellist met the clarinetist, Henri Akoka, on the train while the prisoners were being transported to the prison. Akoka had his clarinet with him and the first performance of the solo clarinet movement of the Quartet, “The Abyss of the Birds” (or at least a draft of it), took place in an open field during their move from France to Stalag VIII-A in Silesia (now in Poland).

The idea of the entire work appears to have begun before Messiaen was captured: the “Abyss” may have been composed en route to the prison. What could be more of an abyss than being in a train herded across Europe to an unknown future? It is true that the commandant of the camp cut Messiaen some slack and German guards supplied him with manuscript paper and pencils so he could compose. It is also true, ultimately, that Messiaen, a recognized composer even before his incarceration, was released because of his status as an artist, and the other three musicians of that performance were released with him. Though the clarinetist, a Jew, would survive the war, his father would die in another Nazi prison camp, one that had become a concentration camp instead.

The musical language is Messiaen’s own, using Hindu rhythms to create great palindromic phrases that ebb and flow in units of time outside the standard Western Classical vocabulary, melodies that are built on scales of an equally exotic nature and harmonies that, on one hand, are based on “non-traditional” chords that have their own inner logic and tension but, on the other hand, can often be pure traditional triads, sometimes with added notes that remind one of popular songs from the ‘20s and ‘30s.

At one of those “talk-back” session at a recent performance I heard, one questioner asked about this language and remarked that, for a composer who had won a conservatory prize in counterpoint (the art of creating a harmonically integrated fabric out of recognizably independent musical lines: you might think of a round as its most innocent form, or a fugue as a more intellectual conception), there was almost no counterpoint in this piece.

True, in the more limited 18th Century sense of the word: but in the opening movement, for instance, Messiaen creates a sense of suspended time with each instrument playing an independent and virtually unchanging line without apparent reference to one another, a “temporal” counterpoint not too far removed from the opening of Schubert’s expansive C Major String Quintet, another work that manages to suspend a listener’s sense of time, with its interior line of long sustained chords moving slowly in between the cello in the bass and a bird-like line of the first violin.

This is just one element of the variety of textures Messiaen employs throughout his great musical arc: as it begins with time suspended in the liquid flow of all four instruments, it ends with the simple heart-beat-like pulsations of the piano’s supporting chords for one final meditation rising to the heavens and ultimately beyond the scope of our hearing and our earthly experience.

Alex Ross wrote of this music, in a 2004 article in the New Yorker magazine, “In the end, Messiaen’s apocalypse has little to do with history and catastrophe; instead, it records the rebirth of an ordinary soul in the grip of extraordinary emotion, which is why the Quartet is as overpowering now as it was on that frigid night in 1941.”

It is a long work, as I mentioned, but how long in most performances I’ve been lucky to hear, I couldn’t tell you: if the performers manage to translate Messiaen’s transcendence of time with the proper intensity, it becomes but the flash of a moment, one that may live long in your memory.

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Photo credit: an uncredited photograph posted at Wikipedia and used here under the terms of fair use.

While we celebrate the Messiaen Centennial this year, you can also read about another composer who will be on hand to celebrate his 100th Birthday in December: Elliott Carter.

And, on a lighter note or two, you can also read about another election (of sorts) between two unlikely candidates, including one who has a slightly different approach to the End of the World.

-- Dr. Dick

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