Tag Archives: Messiaen

A Definitive “Quartet for the End of Time” at BIMF

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Studzinski Recital Hall
July 11, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” is not generally considered a vehicle for virtuoso display, but its sublime beauty can be revealed only by those with extraordinary musical ability.
Such was the case Wednesday night at Studzinski Recital Hall, when Amir Eldan, cello, Derek Bermel, clarinet, Pei-Shan Lee, piano, and Ayano Ninomiya, violin, gave a definitive reading of this seminal work.

The players are faculty members of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, taking place now through the beginning August, but they might have been playing the quartet together for years, judging by the ensemble supporting three outstanding solo performances.
Lee held it all together and assisted as ably as the composer directing from the piano.

I never tire of hearing this work, which is said to have had a lifelong effect on those who first heard it performed in a German prison camp. Too often, however, it is played as a curiosity, as a memorial to the victims of World War II, or even as evidence of Messiaen’s quaint beliefs. It stands alone, without historical trappings, as a musical masterpiece, and so it was treated on Wednesday night

It began characteristically with nightingale and blackbird opening the “Liturgie de crystal” for the full quartet, followed by a “Vocalize, pour l’Ange qui announce la fin due Temps.”

The first of the major solos is by the clarinet, played very slowly, with huge fermatas and sustained notes that test the lungs of any performer. It is called “Abîme des oiseaux.” The abyss is time, in all its sadness, according to the composer, while the birds, also imitated by the clarinet, represent freedom and joy. Bermel painted the picture perfectly, testing the limits of his instrument.

After a brief interlude without piano, it was the turn of the cello, also playing very slowly and “ecstatically,” in the “Louange (praise) à l’Éternité de Jésus.” The melody, often repeated, evokes Genesis: “In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

The most rhythmic, verging on jazzy, movement is the “Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trumpets.” announcing the apocalypse. It is also more terrifying than any other composer’s Dies Irae, and includes some impossibly loud tutti, which must have reached the far rows of its original 5000-man audience.

The “rainbow tangles” of the seventh movement give the composer a chance to play with his favorite blue-orange chords, during which Lee brought out some striking inner voices

In the final movement, “Louange à L’Immortalité de Jésus,” the violin speaks, like the cello before it, but this time of Christ’s life on earth—a long limbed melody that dies away into the almost imperceptible reaches of the upper register. The large audience, which included many festival students, stayed entranced for several moments before giving it a loud standing ovation.

The gods, which do not permit human perfection, smuggled in cellphones, not once but twice during this solo, the first a piano ringtone and the second a beep. Please people, I beg of you, leave that electronic junk at home. You can never be sure that it is silenced.

The Quartet obscured a lively and brilliant rendition of a work never intended to be profound, the Hayden Piano Trio in C Major (Hob. XV:27), played by Julian Martin, piano, Robin Scott, violin, and Julia Lichten, cello. Thanks to Martin for pointing out the Janissary Band references, which predate Mozart’s famous Turkish March.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Oliver Sacks’ “Musicophilia”

Upon learning of the death last week of neurologist and best-selling author, Oliver Sacks, I returned to his book “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.”

When it first came out, I found it slow going for a volume that had been on the New York Times best-seller list for many weeks.

As usual with Sacks, who is best known for “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” and “Awakenings,” the book is well written, full of fascinating anecdotes and understandable accounts of the latest research on how the brain processes and generates music. But it is not the kind of story you can’t put down. I tired after a chapter or so in spite of the subject, which is obviously one of my primary interests.

I was left wondering why? Part of it is superstition– the idea that if you talk about or analyze something too much, it will go away. His chapter on amusica –the inability to experience music emotionally– was distressing, in spite of the author’s obvious empathy with his patients. (Sacks was Professor of Clinical Neurology and Psychiatry at Columbia University.)

Another drawback, to me anyway, was the heavy use of footnotes. One feels obliged to read them, (in small print) and they contain some interesting material, but they also interrupt the flow of the narrative. They should be in the back of the book, with the bibliography, for those who want chapter and verse authentication. I’m willing to give Sacks the benefit of the doubt when it comes to veracity.

What really kept me at arm’s length from “Musicophilia,” however, was the specter of reductionism. Sacks takes great pains to eliminate the “nothing but” syndrome and never comes down on either side of the mind-brain question. Nevertheless, music somehow seems diminished when investigated clinically, even though it remains a mystery.

The chapter, “Keeping Time: Rhythm and Movement,” was especially interesting, soon after hearing Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” at Bates College. Without a time signature on the score (4/4, 2/4, 3/16 to a measure, and so on), the musicians were still able to play rapid, precise and sometimes ferocious rhythms together.

This ability seems to stem from the mind’s desire to impose order upon chaos, like finding a complex rhythm in refrigerator noise or the sound of iron wheels on a railroad rack. It also has to do with the ability of music to inspire collective action. Think rock concerts or marching troops.

Unlike Messiaen, Sacks believed that “keeping time physically and mentally, depends…on interactions between the auditory and the dorsal premotor cortex–and it is only in the human brain that a functional connection between these two cortical areas exists. Crucially, these sensory and motor activations are precisely integrated with each other.”

Messiaen would respond that time itself is an abyss, but I take issue with the phrase “only in the human brain.” Sacks must at least must have read about dancing whales, birds, mice, horses, bears and foxes, to name a few. Having done some riding to music, I can attest that a horse, at least, will respond physically to a musical beat, even without subliminal cues from its rider.

The stories of the healing power of music are the most inspiring in the book, sometimes approaching the miraculous. As a musician, however, I like best the passages about the deleterious effects of too much practice. Glen Gould used to proclaim that it was unnecessary, and Sacks’ book, to some extent, supports his theory. Listening, or merely a mental run-thorugh, can sometimes work as well as hours at the keyboard, without the danger of the physical and mental cramps called “musician’s dystonia,” which have ended many careers. “If at first you don’t succeed, give up,” is often good advice about some difficult note patterns.

Most intriguing of all is Sacks’ answer to Tolstoy’s question about music: “What good is it?” Well, it seems likely that civilization could not have occurred without it, since, like poetry, it facilitated the retention and transmission of huge bodies of knowledge, thousands of years before the advent of writing.