Some Notes on Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) the centenary of whose birth is being celebrated at Chamberfest ’08 in a series of three concerts

Monday, July 28, 2008. Ottawa.

Olivier Messiaen described his musical leanings in these four words: theologian, rhythmist, colourist, and bird lover.
– Messiaen was a strong Catholic and lifelong organist at Trinité Church in Paris. His compositions for organ fill half a dozen CD’s.
– Messiaen regarded rhythm as a topic almost separate from music and spent much time studying the intricacies of Hindu rhythmic patterns.
– Messiaen learned to notate and recognize some 500 bird songs that he incorporated into his music.
– Messiaen was synaesthetic: he naturally visualized colours while listening to or reading music. While enduring life as a POW in a German prisoner-of-war camp at Gorlitz, Silesia from 1940-42 he regularly dreamed of sound colours that he put into his music.
-His seminal “Quartet for the End of Time” was composed in Gorlitz as a way of surviving the “cruelty and horrors of the camp.” It was premiered on January 14, 1941 in Stalag V111-A before an audience of 5000 prisoners. Messiaen commented later, “Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension.”

The following notes on the eight movements are partly based on Messiaen’s descriptions.

I. Predawn and the awakening of the birds; a thrush (one of the most vocally talented of birds) improvises, amid notes of shining sound and a halo of trills that lose themselves in the trees…The piano [Jamie Parker] provides a rhythmic ostinato based on unequal augmentations and diminutions—the clarinet [James Campbell] unfolds a bird song.
II. From the piano, soft cascades of blue-orange chords, the plainchant-like recitativo of violin [Annalee Patipatanakoon] and cello [Roman Borys].
III    “Clarinet solo [James Campbell]. The abyss of time, with its sadness and tediums. The birds are the opposite of time; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows and for jubilant outpourings of song! There is a great contrast between the desolation of time…and the joy of bird-songs.
IV    Scherzo. Of a more outgoing character than the other movements.
V    A long phrase, infinitely slow, by the cello…with love and reverence…majestically the melody unfolds itself at a distance both intimate and awesome.
VI    Dance of Fury. Rhythmically the most idiosyncratic movement of the set. The four instruments in unison give the effect of gongs and trumpets…Use of extended note values [and] augmented or diminished rhythmic patterns. Music of stone, formidable sonority; movement as irresistible as steel, as huge blocks of livid fury or ice like frenzy….
VII    In my dreamings I hear and see ordered melodies and chords, familiar hues and forms: then following this transitory stage I pass into the unreal and submit ecstatically to a vortex, a dizzying interpenetration of superhuman sounds and colours…rivers of blue-orange lava, these sudden stars…behold the rainbows.
VIII    Expansive violin solo [Annalee Patipatanakoon] balancing the cello solo [Roman Borys] of the fifth movement. Glorification of total love…a slow rising to a supreme point [of human life]—the ascension toward [the ultimate beyond all striving.]\

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