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Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)

Chamber Works

Matthew Schellhorn (piano), Soloists of the Philharmonia Orchestra
Download only
Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: February 2008
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by Rachel Smith
Engineered by Peter Newble
Release date: July 2008
Total duration: 66 minutes 10 seconds

British pianist Matthew Schellhorn is joined by the Soloists of the Philharmonia Orchestra in this recording of Olivier Messiaen's chamber works, including the eight-movement masterpiece Quatuor pour la fin du Temps, written while the composer was a prisoner of war and premiered in 1941 at the Stalag VIIIA camp in Silesia.

Marking one hundred years since the birth of the composer, the album also includes the newly published Fantaisie for violin and piano (discovered after the composer's death) and the world première recording of a beautiful miniature for solo piano.


'A worthwhile and distinctive release' (Gramophone)

'Admirers of Messiaen’s music will simply have to have this record, for it contains the world premiere recording of a solo piano piece, Morceau de lecture à vue composed in 1934 for the sight-reading examination at the École Normale de Musique … the record merits a strong recommendation for the performances of the other, more well-known music here. The result is an excellent issue, dominated as it is by the masterly Quartet for the end of time which still, after seventy years, packs a considerable punch in terms of emotional expression—especially in such a fine performance as it undoubtedly receives in this instance' (International Record Review)» More

‘ 'A heart-stoppingly beautiful performance … listeners who love Quatuor pour la fin du Temps owe it to themselves to hear this stellar version' (AllMusic, USA)

The general perception of Messiaen is of a composer who lived in some rarefied atmosphere of his own, floating far above the mundane, material world. Given his preoccupation with esoteric rhythms, sound-colours, theology and birdsong, this is perhaps a reasonable judgment and, to some extent, true: he admitted that he had never liked living in Paris and would much prefer to be on some desert island without traffic or a telephone. All the same, he did hold down a demanding teaching post at the Paris Conservatoire for over 40 years and was organist at the Church of the Sainte-Trinité in Paris for over 60. Four of the five chamber works recorded here duly testify to his close practical involvement with what we like to call the ‘real world’.

In June 1932, at the age of 23, Messiaen married the violinist Claire Delbos, who had studied at the Schola Cantorum, the teaching institution founded and directed by Vincent d’Indy. Messiaen had just been appointed to La Trinité and was beginning to make a name for himself, especially with his orchestral piece Les Offrandes oubliées, premiered in February 1931. Later reminiscences by fellow pupils record that he was quiet, self-contained, always turned up at class with mountains of work (not guaranteed to ensure popularity!) and was recognised as a young man likely to succeed. But any view of Messiaen as vague or indecisive in his opinions needs to be set against the truth—for all his pacific demeanour (and, in later years, anyway, enormous charm) he was quite capable of describing Stravinsky’s Apollon musagète in a published interview as ‘Lully with wrong bass notes’ and damning the slow of movement of Ravel’s immensely popular G major Concerto as turning ‘a phrase reminiscent of Fauré on a bad day into Massenet’.

The Fantaisie for violin and piano, dating from 1933, was the second of the two works Messiaen wrote for Claire and himself to play, following the Thème et Variations of 1932. It was not published until 2007, having been disinterred by Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen (whom the composer married after Claire’s death in 1959) from the mass of materials left behind at his death. The opening paragraph, for loud piano octaves, is decisiveness itself, even if the fluctuating time signatures (13/8, 10/8, 11/8 etc.) proclaim his early interest in rhythms that were at the opposite extremes from the pounding regularities of the dance floor. (We can speculate that this stirring melody’s later use in ‘Alléuias sereins d’une âme qui désire le ciel’, the second movement of L’Ascension of 1932–3, was one of the reasons the Fantaisie was not published during the composer’s lifetime.) The overall shape of this paragraph, which contains much of the material for the whole work, recalls plainsong, but a plainsong expanded to include chromatic intervals, as in much of his later music. Perhaps the most noticeable ingredients in the piece are the common chords that regularly provide resting places for the discourse, whether unadorned or decorated with elegantly dissonant tracery. The basic key of G major, touched on from time to time, is at last emphatically announced as the final goal.

Before the Second World War Messiaen taught for a time at the École Normale de Musique and in 1934 he wrote a Morceau de lecture à vue—a sight-reading piece—for the piano exams there. Even if he had pity on the students’ rhythmic capabilities (the piece is in 6/8 throughout), there are plenty of accidentals to sort out, often through his use of what he rather cumbersomely called his ‘second mode of limited transposition’, a scale of alternating tones and semitones. The opening five-note motif would later be developed into the ‘Theme of Love’ in the Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus of 1944 (a further instance of the composer recycling material); the whole piece radiates the sort of lushness that was to upset so many critics after the war.

Looking back now over the whole of Messiaen’s composing life, we can see that one of the most profound changes he brought about in Western European music, more radical even than his discoveries in the fields of harmony and colour, was in the perception of time. At the age of seventeen, in 1926, he wrote the organ piece Le Banquet céleste, which was the first of many extremely slow movements in which the very notion of pulse comes under threat. During the 1930s, other works such as Apparition de l’église éternelle continued in a similar vein, but it is fair to say that he made no new breakthrough on this front until the Quatuor pour la fin du Temps (‘Quartet for the end of Time’).

The circumstances of the work’s composition are striking enough for them to have made a niche for themselves in twentieth-century musical history. Composers frequently complain that, what with promotional appearances, committees and the like, they have a job to find enough uninterrupted time for composition. In a prisoner-of-war camp such distractions are absent—as they were in 1940 for Messiaen in a German camp in Silesia. Locked in a wash-house with manuscript paper, pencils and dry bread, he proceeded to write, for himself and the three other more-than-capable instrumentalists available, one of the twentieth century’s most extraordinary masterpieces.

For any prisoner anywhere, it is only to be expected that the experience of time should be altered. But for a prisoner of war, with no set term to his imprisonment, that experience must be further distorted by the process of waiting and, for most such prisoners, by anxiety. For Messiaen, though, anxiety was a foreign country—his profound Roman Catholic faith allowed him to leave the future in the hands of God, and no listener to the Quatuor can mistake the positive, life-affirming spirit of each and every bar. Reminiscences of fellow-prisoners testify both to Messiaen’s equanimity and spiritual strength in captivity and to the impact the first performance of this work had on the 400 prisoners in Hut 27B on 15 January 1941; as the composer himself said, ‘I was never listened to with such attention and understanding.’

If faith expels anxiety, it permits hope. The ‘end of time’ of the title might reasonably be taken to refer partly to the hoped-for end of Messiaen’s incarceration, even if the explicit reference is to the Angel of the Apocalypse ‘who raises a hand to the heavens, saying, “There shall be no more time”’. However, Messiaen made it clear that a specific, local application was not what lay behind the score, but rather an ‘end’ on the much larger scale envisaged by the Angel—‘the abolition of time itself, something infinitely mysterious and incomprehensible to most of the philosophers of time, from Plato to Bergson’. In detail, the songs of birds in the score help destroy the traditional symmetry of phrases and paragraphs, as do the sporadic permutations of rhythmic patterns: the first movement, for example, stops at what to many listeners will seem to be a wholly arbitrary point, whatever purely mathematical justification can be provided by the analyst. Elsewhere Messiaen’s technique of adding small, irregular rhythmic values to longer ones disrupts any end directed pulse (for example, at the beginning of the ‘vigorous, granite-like’ sixth movement, in which the harmonic spectrum contracts arrestingly into naked single notes and octaves, the first two bars contain 17 and 13 semiquavers respectively, arranged as 2+2+2+1+2+2+4 and 2+2+1+2+1+1+4, with the underlined value being the disruptive element).

The work’s symbolism is too rich to be done full justice in a programme note. But perhaps the most important point about it, implicated in the lack of any anxiety or hurry, is that Messiaen here turns his back more resolutely than in any of his previous works on the Austro-German tradition of development, of striving and working for an end, as he lays a gentle yet authoritative hand on our brow and invites us to contemplate the mystery of the life to come. In the seventh movement, he even draws on his colourful prison dreams, induced by cold and hunger, to give body to the cluster of rainbows that appears on the Angel’s head. And of course, as is well known, rainbows too have no end.

The long accompanied solos for cello and violin that form the fifth and eighth movements are, one might say, rewards for our attention in numbers 1-4 and 6-7; or, rather, they are musical expressions of the feelings those more eventful and colourful movements have stirred within us. This is all the more remarkable given that these two movements are in fact transcriptions, presumably from memory, of movements already written before the war: number 5 comes from a section of Fête des belles eaux, composed for the Paris International Exhibition in 1937 for six Ondes Martenot, and number 8 from the second part of the Diptyque for organ of 1930. If we accept the above interpretation, then Messiaen here effectively had to compose backwards, inventing causes for pre-existent effects. There are no birds in these two movements, no complicated rhythms, no trumpets or rainbows; instead, we are invited to share in two complementary, ecstatic meditations on Jesus as the Word and as the Word made flesh; and, in the final slow climb of the violin to its high, ethereal E harmonic, on ‘the ascent of man towards his God, of the child of God to his Father’.

Le Merle noir (‘The Blackbird’), like the Morceau for piano, was written for students, this time for those taking the final flute exam at the Conservatoire in 1952. It was commissioned by the director, Claude Delvincourt, in line with his policy of bringing some fresh air into the institution’s stuffy classrooms by introducing avant-garde musical ideas, from which French musical life under the Nazi Occupation had been almost completely isolated. The piece is in three sections, the second a slightly extended variation of the first, followed by a coda. Each of the main sections is divided into six subsections—piano atmosphere; bird cadenza; combined song; expanded octaves; chords plus silent bar; ‘ un peu vif’ with trills. The coda exhibits one of Messiaen’s earliest, and rare, experiments with 12-note serialism, with rows being transposed up a semitone each time they occur. Even if listeners can’t be expected to follow this in detail, the increasing excitement is palpable.

Finally, Messiaen wrote the Pièce pour piano et quatuor à cordes (‘Piece for piano and string quartet’) not for any particular performers, but for the 90th birthday of Alfred Schlee, head for 40 years of Universal Edition, which had published Cantéyodjayâ and Oiseaux exotiques. As with much of the composer’s later music, the structure is audibly sectional and follows his favourite pattern of a palindrome operating around a unique centre. Five sections (four notes on unison strings; piano chords; tutti chords; three bars of string canon; piano tune) lead to a fast, central piano solo representing the song of Messiaen’s favourite Garden Warbler; then the five sections recur in reverse order and slightly varied. Such simplicity is perhaps recommended only for geniuses with a long creative life behind them.

Roger Nichols © 2008

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