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This album of chamber music by Olivier Messiaen, recorded by the internationally acclaimed Hebrides Ensemble, celebrates the centenary of the innovative composer and includes the Quartet for the end of Time and a premiere recording of Fantaisie.
In July 1940, Messiaen, Akoka and Pasquier were transported to Stalag VIII-A, a Prisoner of War camp near Görlitz, about 70 miles east of Dresden. Two movements of what was to become the Quatuor had earlier incarnations: the ‘Louange’ for cello reused music from the Fête des belles eaux (written in 1937 for an ensemble of six Ondes Martenot), and the final violin ‘Louange’ as the second part of the Diptyque for organ (1930). The ‘Intermède’ was the first movement to be written in Stalag VIII-A, and it was rehearsed by Akoka, Pasquier and the violinist Jean Le Boulaire in the camp’s washrooms in September 1940. Once the authorities found a piano for Messiaen, he got down in earnest to composing the rest of the Quatuor, using manuscript paper provided by one of the guards: Hauptmann Karl-Erich Brüll.
The instruments available to Messiaen presented a challenge in terms of blend and balance, and his solution was to present them in different combinations: solo (clarinet), in duos (cello and piano, violin and piano), and trios (clarinet and strings). After the extraordinary opening movement, the whole ensemble next plays together in the sixth movement, but in vehement unison and octaves; it’s only in the seventh movement that the full power of the ensemble is unleashed. Messiaen recalled how he wrote the Quatuor in an interview with Antoine Goléa:
In the Stalag with me were a violinist, a clarinettist and the cellist Etienne Pasquier. I wrote an unpretentious little trio for them which they played to me in the washrooms, because the clarinettist had kept his instrument and someone had given the cellist a cello with three strings. Emboldened by this first experiment, called ‘Intermède’, I gradually added the seven movements which surround it, and it is thus that my Quatuor pour la fin du Temps has a total of eight sections. … An upright piano was brought into the camp, very out of tune, the keys of which seemed to stick at random. On this piano I played my Quatuor pour la fin du Temps, in front of an audience of five thousand people – the most diverse mixture of all classes in society – farmworkers, labourers, intellectuals, career soldiers, doctors and priests. Never have I been listened to with such attention and such understanding.
This stirring account needs to be treated with a little caution. Two important details were corrected by the cellist Etienne Pasquier, (interviewed by Hannelore Lauerwald), about the size of the audience and the state of his cello:
[The first performance of the Quatuor took place] in the hut that we used as the theatre … All the seats were taken, about four hundred in all, and people listened raptly, their thoughts turning inward, even those who may have been listening to chamber music for the first time. The concert took place on Wednesday, 15 January 1941, at six in the evening. It was bitterly cold outside the hut, and there was snow on the ground and on the rooftops … Messiaen repeatedly claimed that there were only three strings on my cello, but in fact I played on four strings.
A review appeared in Lumignon, the French-language camp newspaper, on 1 April 1941. Under the headline ‘Première at the Camp’, this gives a fascinating description of the audience reaction, and recognizes that something special had taken place:
It was our good fortune to have witnessed in this camp the first performance of a masterpiece. And what’s strange is that in a prison barracks we felt just the same tumultuous and partisan atmosphere of some premières: latent as much with passionate acclaim as with angry denunciation. And while there was fervent enthusiasm on some rows, it was impossible not to sense the irritation on others. Reminiscences of the time speak of a reaction like this when one evening in 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Le Sacre du printemps was first performed. It’s often a mark of a work’s greatness that it has provoked conflict on the occasion of its birth … The last note was followed by a moment of silence which established the sovereign mastery of the music.
Messiaen wrote his Theme and Variations in 1932 as a wedding present for his new bride, Claire (Louise) Delbos – a talented musician in her own right. They married in June 1932 and moved into a new home at 77, rue des Plantes, on the southern fringes of the city. It was there that Messiaen composed the Theme and Variations, finishing it just in time for the première, given by Delbos and Messiaen, at a concert of the Cercle Musical de Paris on 22 November 1932 (which was also Claire’s birthday). The review in Le Ménestrel described the new piece as “aspiring continuously to a spiritual world – there is great nobility here, but writing this kind of music is not without risks.” Another early review in the same journal praised Messiaen’s craftsmanship, describing the work as “solidly constructed by a musician who has studied counterpoint thoroughly and who knows how to find interesting musical ideas.”
The young Messiaen wrote to his friend and former classmate Jean Langlais before the concert, inviting him to come along to “make lots of enthusiastic noise and try to get the piece encored, as it is one of my best.” Over the next few years, Delbos and Messiaen played the piece a number of times, and it was published in 1934. In terms of structure, this is one of Messiaen’s more straightforward works: the theme is stated quietly and is followed by four increasingly animated variations, leading to a fifth which is a rapturous restatement of the opening, with the violin playing the theme an octave higher. But though the form may be quite traditional, the sound world of this early work is entirely Messiaen’s own. The Theme and Variations was Messiaen’s first piece of instrumental chamber music. Unusually, its dedication was expressed in musical notation: his pet-name for Claire was ‘Mi’ and the first edition of the score prints this as the note ‘E’ (‘Mi’ in French), the highest open string on a violin.
In 1933, Messiaen wrote another piece for violin and piano to play in concerts with Claire. The Fantaisie was long thought to have been lost, but it was rediscovered by Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen among the composer’s papers, and published early in 2007 by Durand. The first known performance – listed as the ‘1re audition’ in the Guide du Concert – took place at the Schola Cantorum in Paris on 18 March 1935, played by Delbos and Messiaen. Composed at the same time as L’Ascension, it is a freer work than the Theme and VariationsFantaisie develops and repeats these three ideas, ending with a passionate restatement of the arching theme, and a quick coda which ends the piece with robust and traditional G major chords.
During the early 1940s Claire’s mental health and her increasing emotional instability were causes for grave concern, and Messiaen was occasionally obliged to work at the homes of friends in order to compose in comparative peace and quiet. Claire’s story has a tragic and poignant end. In 1949 she lost her memory after a hospital operation and a few years later was moved into a nursing home for specialist care. Messiaen visited her devotedly every Sunday, taking her small gifts such as painting equipment; but she gradually declined further and died in April 1959.
Le merle noir – The Blackbird – was composed in March 1952 as the test piece for the flute class at the Paris Conservatoire. Messiaen took the opportunity to make an important stylistic departure in this work: it the first of his pieces to attempt a detailed depiction of a specific named bird. The first performances – in June 1952 – were given at the flute concours by the most promising members of Gaston Crunelle’s flute class that year. One of them was the British flautist Alexander Murray, who recently shared his memories of the piece in with the present writer:
We saw it for the first time four weeks before the concours and then dissected it four times a week with Gaston Crunelle. There were four morning classes – normally we each went to two, but as the concourants were the only students remaining after the preliminary (accessit) exam we had the benefit of the week’s quota of lessons. Noël Lee, a pupil of Nadia Boulanger, was our accompanist, and was present daily for the last week. He had analysed the last section and demonstrated the rhythmic permutations – which did not make life easier – however, his utter reliability made memorising less of a problem. We all played from memory … I was awarded a premier prix (I think the first British student to be so lucky) … Messiaen was present in class at least once, as I remember, and of course at the concours.
Alfred Schlee (1901-1999) was a legend in the world of music publishing – one of the leading lights of Universal Edition in Vienna, and a loyal supporter of Messiaen’s music. Messiaen and Yvonne Loriod gave house concerts at Universal Edition’s offices in 1946 and 1947, and in the 1950s, Universal Edition published two important pieces by Messiaen: Cantéyodjayâ and Oiseaux exotiques – both thanks to Dr Schlee’s enthusiasm. When Dr Schlee celebrated his ninetieth birthday with a concert in Vienna on 18 November 1991, twenty distinguished composers wrote pieces for a concert. Messiaen, in the last year of his life, was too frail to attend; but he was one of the distinguished composers – along with Boulez, Berio, Kurtág and others – who wrote a work celebrating the occasion. The result was the Pièce for piano and string quartet, in which jagged chords and more lyrical phrases alternate with the rapid song of one of Messiaen’s favourite birds, the Garden Warbler.
Nigel Simeone © 2008