Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Messiaen’s Chamber Music on Warner Classics: Sparse but Significant

There is less than two hours of chamber music included in Warner Classics’ 25-CD collection Olivier Messiaen edition. This is not so much a matter of neglect on the part of those who compiled this collection as it is a recognition of how little chamber music Messiaen wrote. Ironically, within this small division of the entire box set, one encounters of the works for which Messiaen is best known, his “Quatuor pour la fin du temps” (quartet for the end of time), an eight-movement chamber composition scored for violin, clarinet, cello, and piano. Fortunately, this is included among those first eighteen CDs of the “authorized” recordings that Messiaen himself supervised.

This piece was written while Messiaen was interned at Stalag VIII-A, a prisoner-of-war camp in Görlitz in Germany (which is now the city of Zgorzelec in Poland). When transported to the camp after his capture in France, Messiaen met the clarinetist Henri Akoka. He wrote a solo for him, which would become the first sketch of his quartet. The idea of the quartet emerged after he arrived at the camp, where he met violinist Jean le Boulaire and cellist Étienne Pasquier. With his sparse resources of pencil and paper, he wrote a trio for violin, cello, and clarinet, which became his second sketch. As he continued with his work, Messiaen added himself to the ensemble; and there are two movements in which the piano accompanies the cello and the violin, respectively. The remaining four movements were written for the full quartet.

Since Messiaen was captured by the Germans in June of 1940, the entire quartet was probably written between then at the end of that year. Curiously, the prison guards allowed the work to be performed. The premiere performance took place on January 15, 1941; and there was even a program sheet (of sorts) for the occasion:

from Wikimedia Commons (contributed by Badinguet 42, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

The concert took place outdoors and in the rain. There was an audience of about 400 including both prisoners and guards. The Wikipedia page for this piece includes the following Messiaen quote:
Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension.
When this music was published, Messiaen included a Preface attributing the title he selected to verses from the tenth chapter of the Book of Revelation. That same Wikipedia page provides the King James translation of those verses:
And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire ... and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth .... And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever ... that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished ...
However, a little bit of research reveals that this may be the most famous piece of music to be based on a mistranslation. When one consults other translations, it appears that “there should be time no longer” took some liberties with the source, suggesting that Messiaen’s French translation had the same problem of placing the dramatically poetic above fidelity to the text. In the Revised Standard Version, the phrase is translated as “there should be no more delay;” and the Jerusalem Bible translates it as “the time of waiting is over.” In other words the time has come for all of those apocalyptic visions to be fulfilled.

Nevertheless, the fact that the visions that Messiaen translated to music are based on a misreading of Scripture does not make them any the less visionary. On that same Wikipedia page one can read descriptions of each of the movements, through which one can enjoy how those visions were translated into music. Once again, there are the expected references to birdsong, including those in that very first clarinet solo that Messiaen wrote for Akoka. There are also some extraordinary unison passages for the entire ensemble associated with the trumpets that announce the Apocalypse.

In other words all eight movements are delivered with both clarity and expressiveness in this collection, all under Messiaen’s supervision. The pianist was, of course, Messiaen’s wife, Yvonne Loriod. The other parts were taken by violinist Christoph Poppen, clarinetist Wolfgang Meyer, and cellist Manuel Fischer-Dieskau. Furthermore, one of the movements involves a reference to an unpublished composition that is also included among the recordings that Messiaen supervised.

That unpublished piece is “Fête des belles eaux,” written to accompany a display of fountains (“belles eaux”) at the 1937 Paris Exposition. The eight movements of this piece depict alternations between rockets (“fusées”) and the patterns of the water (“L’eau”) in the fountains, concluding with a burst of fireworks in the eighth movement. One more thing: Messiaen’s score was written for six ondes Martenot, the electronic instrument invented in 1928 by Maurice Martenot.

The music that Messiaen wrote for the duet for cello and piano in “Quatuor pour la fin du temps” drew upon his representation of the waters in “Fête des belles eaux.” Thus, not only does this collection provide the attentive listener with more exposure to the ondes Martenot than (s)he could have anticipated; but also it discloses one of the sources behind Messiaen’s quartet. Note, also, that the recording of “Fête de belles eaux,” made in 1961, was a performance by a sextet led by one of the foremost authorities on the ondes Martenot, Messiaen’s sister-in-law, Jeanne Loriod.

The only other Messiaen-supervised recording is of his 1932 set of variations on a theme for violin and piano, recorded by Poppen and Yvonne Loriod at the same session at which “Quatuor pour la fin du temps” was recorded. Among the “landmark” interpretations, there are only two selections. These include “La mort du nombre” (the death of numbers), another very early composition that dates from the same time as his organ “Diptyque,” and “Le Merle noir,” a depiction of blackbird song for flute (Emmanuel Pahud) and piano (Éric le Sage). These are relatively modest offerings, but they contribute to fleshing out a general idea of Messiaen’s limited approach to chamber music.

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