Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Some Reflections on Messiaen, Part 2

I know that my titling is going to be idiosyncratic for this series on the composer Olivier Messiaen, but try and bear with me. Also, for the first time, we will have some guest posts from someone I will introduce later.

Today will be a bit of a miscellanea of thoughts about Messiaen that I hope will help to introduce him to you. One book that is proving useful is The Messiaen Companion, issued just a couple of years after he passed away, so the first to be able to give a perspective on Messiaen's whole life and career.

Much of the music of the 20th century is challenging in various ways. All too often it seems to smack of sterile experimentation, or descend into the expression of agony and despair (not too surprising, considering 20th century history), or simply bully the listener. It is very rare indeed to listen to 20th century music with the kind of unalloyed pleasure that we find in the music of Haydn or Mozart. Every time I put on a piece by Haydn I catch myself breaking into a smile! I was surprised to find myself doing the same listening to Messiaen. Peter Hill, in the book I linked above, referred to Messiaen as an optimist and so he seems to be. Despite his bold approach to composition, he possessed many very traditional virtues, which included his firm Catholic faith and his innate curiosity. The shelves of his study contained volumes of Shakespeare (translated by his father Pierre), works of theology, books on birds, and musical scores.

It might seem anomalous that someone whose life was essentially simple, with the lucidity of a medieval craftsman, would also be a hugely influential teacher in the post-World War II musical avant-garde--impervious to dogma in a particularly dogmatic era! At a time when abstraction in music reigned supreme, he believed in music's power to describe and symbolize as a moment's glance at almost any of his scores reveals.

I empathize with Messiaen's fascination with and love of birdsong: in my early youth we moved to a homestead in the Canadian north and I spent many hours wandering in the woods trying to imitate the calls of the birds. It was a kind of ear-training. For Messiaen it was much more, of course, as he regarded birdsong as a kind of music and incorporated symbolic birdsong in a host of compositions, most of all the very large collection of piano pieces I included in my post on Sunday, the Catalogue d'oiseaux.

He also found stained glass inspiring which might offer a clue as to his striking and bold orchestrations which dazzle the listener.

Messiaen was a brilliant analyst, able to sort out the, at the time, esoteric compositions of Stravinsky, Berg and Schoenberg and explain them to a new generation of young composers that included Pierre Boulez. This was a kind of bound or turning point for Messiaen for the sessions of ideological disputation he ultimately found unsatisfying and he turned away from musical abstraction and spent a decade in which he became intensely engaged with birdsong in his composition. The first of these was a piece written as a test piece for flutists at the Conservatoire titled Le merle noir ("The Blackbird") composed in 1952. This gives us a good envoi for today. Here are Kenneth Smith, flute and Matthew Schellhorn, piano:


25 comments:

Rickard Dahl said...

Messiaen is an interesting composer indeed and "The Blackbird" is a nice piece.

Marc Puckett said...

As you may recall, since I know I commented on it here, probably as a tangent to whatever your post was actually interested in, ahem, Le merle noir was featured on the program of a student recital at the University, in April perhaps-- the first time I'd heard any Messiaen performed outside of church. Lovely, and I don't think I knew it was written as a test piece. But am not too interested in too much of the solo flute-- others find it unfailingly fascinating or beautiful, don't they.

Christine Lacroix said...

First thing I do when I get up is check your blog to see what new music I'm going to discover. That was lovely. Thanks!

Bryan Townsend said...

I am delighted that there is such a warm reception for my new series of posts on Olivier Messiaen!

Marc, do you know Syrinx by Debussy?

Thanks, Christine. That is such a nice comment that I would like to put it up as a quote. May I?

Marc Puckett said...

No, have never heard it so far as I know; two and half minutes of flute, I see, and often recorded. Will listen when I get to work....

Marc Puckett said...

The Debussy Syrinx is lovely-- now I must re-listen to Le merle noire; it is entirely possible that I was not so much not over-enthused by the Messiaen as by the flutist?

Bryan Townsend said...

The other famous piece for solo flute is by Edgar Varèse, titled "Density 21.5" and it is worth listening to.

Marc Puckett said...

Thanks! Will listen this evening.

Rickard Dahl said...

Edgar Varese's flute piece is pretty terrible imo (listened to it live once, somewhat unbearable). An amazing piece that includes the flute is Mozart's Flute Concerto.

Marc Puckett said...

Am looking forward to listening to both the Varèse and the Mozart this evening. In that order, I think.

Bryan Townsend said...

It is kind of interesting to compare the Debussy with the Varèse, I think.

Marc Puckett said...

I've listened to Le merle noir, Syrinx, and Density 21.5 a few times now, and while I'm prepared to admit that the solo flute well played makes for a perfectly pleasant or at any rate interesting four minutes or so of music, am not willing to commit to anything beyond that, chiefly because I don't know enough about the intents and purposes and structure etc etc-- e.g. George Perle's 1990 book serves as the major source of the Wiki article on the Varèse and frankly I just got lost amidst the interval cycles and pitches versus pitch classes etc etc; I mean, I'm sure it's all clear to you, Bryan, and you others who know about these things but he loses me.

Varèse, Scriabin, the Schönberg circle "initiate the beginning of a new mainstream tradition in the" 20th c.-- well, that I've understood, sure, sure. I wonder how Debussy fits in the 'new tradition', and Messiaen, or if their composition techniques are distinguishable from this branch of the modern tree? Hmm.

Am listening to Hélène Grimaud play Chopin, Liszt, and Schumann for an hour.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think one of the reasons that Debussy and Varèse both wrote for solo flute is that it is a largely unexplored medium. Sometimes I think that the mathematically-oriented analyses of people like George Perle are intended to be difficult to understand. I wouldn't worry about it too much. If you like the piece, fine. If you don't, also fine. I don't think that this particular kind of analysis is going to change your mind.

One of the questions a friend of mine was asked as part of his oral examination for a doctorate in composition was "what is the influence of Debussy on 20th century music?" The answer can be pretty long and complex! Debussy in many ways is the beginning of a lot of the trends in 20th century music. His music rejects a lot of the aesthetic of Romanticism. Messiaen is another stage in the evolution of 20th century music, but, like Debussy, interesting for the music itself, irrespective of any historical considerations. Varèse is a more radical figure and one that I have not had a lot of interest in exploring up to now. In the future, who knows?

Marc Puckett said...

Am reading a historical fiction about Messiaen's experience in the Second World War called The Miracle of Stalag 8A-- Beauty Beyond the Horror, about all that and the Quatuor pour le fin du temps. It is filled with concrete details which while I haven't bothered to confirm every one I can't imagine that gentleman took any great liberties with etc etc (e.g. did M. actually have dysentery in July 1940 at the pre-Stalag 8A French internment camp?)-- anyway, the author is no Chateaubriand or Saint-Beuve but it's a quick read (240 pages in the printed edition, $3 via Kindle). Later today-- such is the plan, at any rate-- will move on to Robert Sherlaw Johnson's honest-to-goodness biography.

Marc Puckett said...

(How many composers have historical fictions written about them? In this case, I believe the Catholic angle is what prompted the effort.)

Bryan Townsend said...

How many composers wrote one of their most famous compositions--and had it premiered--in a prisoner-of-war camp? None!

I knew a great violinist who, since he was Jewish, spent some time in two different concentration camps. Here is my post on him:

http://themusicsalon.blogspot.mx/2011/12/in-memoriam-paul-kling.html

Bryan Townsend said...

None, that is, except Messiaen!

Marc Puckett said...

I skipped probably a full half if not more of that The Miracle of Stalag 8A, by the way, the fictional dialogues being fairly repetitive-- although the author McMullen gets points for his characterisations of the others (Akoka, Pasquier, Le Boulaire) who were not simply extras on the stage and were also not fervent 'Messiaenists', in terms of music or of religion. He did use Rebecca Rischin's book as a source for QET, reviewed more or less by Alex Ross here-- http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2004/03/22/revelations-2, which I had read although it's no longer on my shelves, alas.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think what makes me reluctant to read that book is the "fictional" part. But I will seek out the book by Rebecca Rishin. Thanks so much for the link to the essay by Alex Ross. You know, I think that is one of the best things I have read by him...

Many more posts on Messiaen in the works, but they will come in the fullness of time!

Alex Lobo said...

Although not comparable to Messiaen, there actually were some Czech-Jewish composers who wrote and played their music in Theresienstadt, where the nazis, for propaganda reasons, allowed some degree of cultural life. Here are a couple of compilations, one of them by Anne Sofie von Otter:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terez%C3%ADn:_The_Music_1941%E2%80%9344
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terez%C3%ADn_-_Theresienstadt_%28Anne_Sofie_von_Otter_album%29

Speaking of solo flute pieces, the three cicles of solo flute pieces called Les Chants de Nectaire, by Charles Koechlin, deserve a careful hearing:
http://www.nectaire.org/nectaire/cms/cms_module/index.htm

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Alex. Those look fascinating! I knew one erstwhile resident of Teresienstadt very well: the Czech-Jewish violinist Paul Kling, with whom I used to concertize. He was transferred to Auschwitz, which he also survived.

Alex Lobo said...

I've just read the post you dedicated to him and I've listened his Beethoven's 4th violin sonata. What a great musician! And quite a character. You're fortunate to have met him.

Bryan Townsend said...

Where did you hear the 4th violin sonata? I have a CD of Paul Kling playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto and the Kreutzer Sonata, but I don't think it was ever commercially available.

Yes, I'm very grateful!

Alex Lobo said...

The 4h by Kling it's on Youtube:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_m8Q0nrDzxo

...and also, on the other side of the LP, the 5th:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IqRfJFOfUEE

They were recorded in Europe in the 1950s with different pianists and issued under the Remington label.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Alex!

How I wish that Paul and I had spent some time in the recording studio! We did some very nice Paganini and Giuliani in concert. Some was recorded by the CBC, but for broadcast only, not commercial release.