1930 photograph of Olivier Messiaen (by Studio Harcourt, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
Last night at Old First Presbyterian Church, the Old First Concerts series presented a program of the music of Olivier Messiaen. The program was prepared and executed by the members of the Vinifera Trio: violinist Rachel Patrick, clarinetist Matthew Boyles, and pianist Ian Scarfe. They were joined by guest artist James Jaffe on cello to perform Messiaen’s “Quatuor pour la fin du temps” (quartet for the end of time).
By now it is well known that Messiaen composed this piece during the Second World War while he was held by the Nazis as a prisoner of war at Stalag VIII-A in Görlitz (now in Poland and called Zgorzelec). A fellow prisoner was clarinetist Henri Akoka, and Messiaen began to sketch music for him to play. They were subsequently joined by violinist Jean le Boulaire and cellist Étienne Pasquier. Prison guard Carl-Albert Brüll supported the project, even providing Messiaen with a quiet place to work; and the resulting composition received its first performance (with Messiaen on piano) to an audience of prisoners and guards on January 15, 1941. (There is an interesting coincidence that, last night, this music was being played at the same time that the San Francisco Symphony was playing Kevin Puts’ “Silent Night Elegy,” an instrumental reflection on music from his opera about the 1914 Christmas Truce during the First World War.)
The music itself is an eight-movement reflection on Messiaen’s highly personal approach to Christian mysticism. Indeed, those reflections were so intense that, when the score was eventually published, it was accompanied by an extended preface, reproducing the text from the Book of Revelation that inspired the title and then discussing the narrative contribution of each movement to an overall interpretation of that text. Excerpts from that preface were provided in the program book, but Scarfe came up with the ingenious idea of projecting more extended passages on a screen above the performers. This allowed a synthesis of both musical and verbal thoughts that could be experienced without burying one’s head in the program sheet.
Scarfe is no stranger to Messiaen’s quartet. I first experienced his encounter with the piece in December of 2010, when he was one of four students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) that had prepared the piece for an end-of-term String and Piano Chamber Music (SFCM) student concert. The work subsequently found its way into the repertoire of Nonsemble 6, a sextet of SFCM students assembled to prepare a performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. Scarfe could not be better informed about playing Messiaen, and his command of background knowledge is equally proficient. Last night he was able to present both sides of that coin, and the result was a perceptive augmentation of a thoroughly disciplined and knowledgeable account of the music itself with insights into the composer’s often mystical visions behind that music.
Indeed, Scarfe used his projection equipment even more extensively. Before any music was played, he presented subtitled video clips of Messiaen discussing his own work. Particular attention was paid to his interest in birdsong. One could listen to Messiaen offer vocal imitations of the sounds of birds he had encountered, followed by his wife, Yvonne Loriod, demonstrating how Messiaen had translated his vocalizations into piano music. Because birds figure significantly in the quartet score, this amounted to yet another way for listeners to be better aware of what Messiaen was doing as he created this music.
Between the video introduction and the quartet itself, Scarfe played the first movement of a cycle of solo piano compositions that Messiaen entitled Vingt Regards sur l'enfant-Jésus (twenty contemplations on the infant Jesus). The title of the first movement is “Regard de Père” (contemplation of the Father); and it is based on a progression of five chords that constitutes the “God theme,” which pervades the entire cycle. This music was serenely meditative, preparing the attentive listener for the much richer encounter with the sonorities of the quartet that followed.
Messiaen’s “God theme” (transcribed by Gregory of nyssa, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)
One could not have come up with a better way to introduce Messiaen’s music to those encountering him for the first time while, at the same time, enriching the perspective of those more familiar with the repertoire.