Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Two Centennials: Celebrating Olivier Messiaen & Elliott Carter

How ironic is it that two of the leading composers of the 20th Century were born a day apart in the same year and that they both are celebrating their Centennials this year? How special is it to have one of them not only still alive but still actively composing!?! That in itself is amazing!

The following is not intended to be exhaustive, by any means, more a list of parallel highlights in two extraordinarily creative lives.

Olivier Messiaen was born in Avignon, France, on December 10th, 1908. When his father, a poet and translator of Shakespeare, enlisted in the army at the start of World War I, the family moved to Grenoble where Messiaen would later return to build his own house and write most of his music there. When he was 10 or so, a piano teacher gave him a score to Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande” which struck him “like a thunderbolt” and proved a major influence on him. At the age of 11, he entered the Paris Conservatoire where he quickly moved to the top of his class, earning 2nd Prize in Harmony when he was 15 and 1st Prize in Counterpoint two years later. His improvisatory skills at the piano led him to study organ with Marcel Dupré, winning 1st prize in Organ & Improvisation at the age of 20. He began studying composition with Charles Marie Widor, another famous organist and composer, when he was 17 and then took orchestration with Paul Dukas, most famous today for having written “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” In 1930, he won 1st Prize in Composition.

Elliott Carter was born in New York City on December 11th, 1908. His father was a businessman, making his fortune from importing lace from France. In a recent interview, he mentioned remembering when the United States entered World War I – actually, he got in trouble for knocking over a goldfish bowl, but it happened the same day. He became interested in writing music after hearing Pierre Monteux conduct Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” at Carnegie Hall in New York when he was 15 or 16 - "half the people walked out," he said, "but I liked it, partly for that reason." It would become a major influence on his life: this was his thunderbolt. He was also encouraged by his family’s insurance agent, a fellow named Charles Ives who also happened to be one of the most original of all American composers, though little-known and rarely played at the time. Whatever music Carter may have been composing at the time, it was enough to inspire Ives to write a letter of recommendation for him to study at Harvard (which is amazing in itself, considering Ives was a Yale Man). Carter found the music department a bit stodgy – geared primarily to organists “and that wasn’t my style,” he said – when a teacher gave the class a tune to harmonize, he said he harmonized it like Schoenberg and everybody laughed. That’s when he decided English might be a safer degree program. He’d chosen Harvard mainly because of the proximity of the Boston Symphony whose conductor, Serge Koussevitsky, programmed a lot of new music. In the early-‘30s, he went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger.

In 1931, Olivier Messiaen, supported by Widor and Dupré, was appointed the organist at Église de la Sainte-Trinité, the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, where he remained for some 60 years. In 1932, Messiaen married Claire Delbos, a composer and violinist. They had one son, Pascal, born in 1937. The previous year, Serge Koussevitsky had performed Messiaen’s Les Offrandes oubliées with the Boston Symphony, the first performance of his music in the United States. In 1939, Hitler invaded Poland and World War II began – and Messiaen enlisted in the army’s medical corps. Shortly after the German invasion, he was taken prisoner by the Nazis. In the prisoner-of-war camp, he composed his most famous work, the “Quartet for the End of Time” (you can read my earlier post prior to a recent performance of the quartet by Antares with Market Square Concerts here in Harrisburg). After the war, he began to teach in Paris, where his students would include composers like Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen and the pianist Yvonne Loriod for whom he began writing several piano pieces. In the midst of composing his Turangalila Symphony, a vast mystical work about love commissioned by the Boston Symphony (to honor the memory of Koussevitsky’s wife), Messiaen’s wife was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Though she survived the operation, it destroyed her memory and she spent the rest of her life in a nursing home. She died in 1959 and in 1961, Messiaen married his former student, Yvonne Loriod, who would continue as one of the foremost performers and advocates of his music.

In 1935, Carter earned his doctorate from l’Ecole normale in Paris and returned to the United States where he began working with Ballet Caravan for whom he composed his first large-scale work, the ballet Pocahontas, in 1939, the same year he married Helen Frost-Jones, a sculptor. They moved into an apartment in Greenwich Village where he still lives. They had one son, David. She died in 2003 after 64 years of marriage. When World War II started, Carter tried to enlist in the army but was rejected for health reasons (“allergies,” he complained) and instead worked for the Office of War Information. He also taught math, physics and Greek as well as music at St. John’s College, in Annapolis MD.

Messiaen’s musical style, rhythmically complex, was influenced by studies of ancient Greek rhythms and eventually the rhythms of Indian music as well. He developed his own system of scales and rhythmic structures which he described in his book, “My Musical Language.” In the ‘40s, though he never really adopted serial methods, he explored expanding Schoenberg’s systematic approach to pitches to other parameters of music like rhythm and register, writing what was called (incorrectly) the first “total serial” piece in which every aspect of the music was determined by serial principals. In 1952, he became absorbed by bird-song and traveled around the world annotating the songs of hundreds of birds which he them employed in his music though in far more complex ways that simple imitation. His mystical approach to faith, never far from much of his music, was most profoundly part of his only opera, St. Francis of Assisi which he composed between 1975 and 1983. His last works included another vast orchestral work for the New York Philharmonic, Éclairs sur l'au-delà… and he left unfinished a concerto for four musicians (including Yvonne Loriod and Mstislav Rostropovich) which was later completed and orchestrated by his widow. Messiaen died on April 27, 1992, at the age of 83.

Carter’s musical style, also very complex, began however in a more populist vein influenced by Copland, Roy Harris and Charles Ives. After World War II, his style took on more Neoclassical textures associated with Stravinsky at the same time. Curiously, when Stravinsky was getting ready to leave neoclassicism behind in favor of serialism, Elliott Carter was beginning to feel dissatisfaction with his own musical voice, and so he went off to the desert outside Tucson, AZ, and in 1951 wrote what would become the first major work in his “new” style, the String Quartet No. 1. His music became atonal but never serial, and rhythmically complex but in a way adapted from jazz which he used to love listening to in New York City, especially the flexibility of its rhythms and often playing against the beat, the improvisatory way in which very often strands would go off in various directions as if in no relation whatsoever to the original established tempo the others would be playing. In his String Quartet No. 3, he separates the quartet into two duos, one of which plays six movements and the other, four, very often with contrapuntal tempos written out in complex ratios. He catalogued his harmonic language in what he calls his Harmony Book, even though it’s not so much about how he composes or uses these chords, rather a reference collection of all possible chord combinations from 2 to 12 pitches. Writing large-scale concerts and orchestral works in the ‘60s and ‘70s – originally dispirited by the poor (or inadequate) performances they received until he realized that, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, no matter how badly it’s performed, you still have this masterpiece called Hamlet – he wrote primarily chamber music or works for chamber orchestra. For his 90th birthday year, he composed his first opera, What Next?

The following decade has proven to be one of the most fertile in Carter’s career but as someone suggested, “by now, he’s got it down.” I was joking that if people were calling the music he wrote in the ‘80s his Late Style, they would now have to call his most recent music his Post-Late Style. On his 100th birthday, he will attend the performance of “Interventions,” a 15-minute concerto-like work for piano and orchestra written specifically for his Centennial Birthday for pianist Daniel Barenboim and conductor James Levine, two of his leading advocates today: the work was premiered last week in Boston and will be given its first New York performance Thursday, the actual 100th birthday of its composer. You can read my previous post about it here (with links to a few interviews and reviews).

Carter will also be present for another all-Carter program on Saturday as the official Centennial Celebration really begins (this past year has presumably just been the warm-up) when members of the New York Philharmonic will perform his recent Clarinet Quintet – I heard the world-premiere of it at Juilliard in April: you can read that post here – with yet another world premiere, the recently completed Songs of Louis Zukovsky for soprano and clarinet, the first premiere of the New Century of Music! As busy as he has been between performances and interviews, it's amazing the man has had time to compose at all. He just finished this past week a setting of poems by Ezra Pound, the Pisan Cantos, for voice and an ensemble “with five percussion instruments, a horn, a couple strings, clarinet, just a few pitched instruments,” as he described it in a recent interview.

And so, one can only ask, “What next?”

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