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By Alexander Soares – Pianist at St Paul’s Cathedral 23rd October 2020
This peculiarity mirrors the astonishing gestation of the work: Messiaen was summoned for military service at the start of World War II, captured in May 1940 and taken to the prisoner-of-war camp at Görlitz, with the first performance given in front of a large group of fellow prisoners and guards. The work demonstrates the composers uneasy reconciliation of his devout Catholicism with the horrors of the war. The unusual instrumentation – clarinet, violin, cello and piano – was necessitated by the players he had at his disposal at the camp, and the sequence of eight movements was inspired by the Biblical passage from Revelation: “There shall be time no longer; but on the day of the trumpet of the seventh angel, the mystery of God shall be finished.”
Rehearsing Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time is an immensely challenging process. I first learned and performed the work as a teenager at the RCM Junior Department: my first experience playing Messiaen. The learning process involved actively forcing yourself to reject the traditional norms of the core classical era, as well as assimilating a new rhythmic language. I was drawn to the complete directness of the emotional experience, but also the immense complexity of the score, and the economy of musical material. Listen out, for example in the second movement to the luminous kaleidoscope of cluster chords in the piano, and how the same passage is transformed in the seventh movement to a vertiginous, terrifying vortex. There are a great deal of connections with some of the other works by Messiaen I have played – Des Canyons aux Étoiles, the Vingt Regards and Catalogue d’oiseaux – yet the quartet is in many ways more disjointed. Music of violence and bewildering ferocity is juxtaposed with radiant, harmonious and ecstatic music of the deepest calm. The eternal scope of the work often only reveals itself during performance; perhaps unsurprising given that the full ensemble plays together in only half of the movements.
Rather than a vision of the apocalypse, Messiaen’s instead portrays the end of time as we know it and the beginning of eternity. Linear time is subverted, through the use of palindromic rhythms, the addition or subtraction of small note values, and quoting birdsong. The latter would become an increasing preoccupation for the composer, and Messiaen associated the unencumbered existence of birds and their joyous song as a manifestation of the divine realm.
At the emotional core are the duo movements for strings and piano, both expansive, unfolding melodies in E major at an incredibly slow pace – infinitely slow – as Messiaen marks. In performance it requires a great deal of belief: to play so slowly feels unnatural, and there is a resistance in the performer and audience alike. The transformative power is unique – resistance yields to acceptance, and time is reborn and experienced anew, creating one of the enduring masterpieces of the twentieth century.
Excerpts from Messiaen’s introduction further illuminates the sequence of movements:
I. Liturgy of crystal. Between the morning hours of three and four, the awakening of the birds: a thrush or a nightingale soloist improvises, amid notes of shining sound and a halo of trills high in the trees.
II. Vocalise, for the angel who announces the end of Time. The first and third parts evoke the power of that mighty angel, his hair a rainbow and his clothing mist… Between these sections from the piano, soft cascades of blue-orange chords, encircling with their distant carillon the plainchant-like recitativo of the violin and cello.
III. Abyss of the birds. Clarinet solo. The abyss is Time, with its sadness and tedium. The birds are the opposite of Time; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows and for jubilant outpourings of song!
IV. Interlude. A Scherzo.
V. Praise to the eternity of Jesus. A long phrase, infinitely slow, by the cello expatiates with love and reverence… the melody unfolds itself at a distance both intimate and awesome.
VI. Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets. The four instruments in unison give the effect of gongs and trumpets. Music of stone, formidable sonority; movement as irresistible as steel, as huge blocks of livid fury or ice-like frenzy.
VII. Cluster of rainbows, for the angel who announces the end of Time. In my musings, I hear and see ordered melodies and chords, familiar hues and forms; then submit ecstatically to a vortex, a dizzying interpenetration of superhuman sounds and colours. These fiery swords, these rivers of blue-orange lava, these sudden stars: Behold the cluster, behold the rainbow!
VIII. Praise to the immortality of Jesus. Expansive violin solo balancing the cello solo of the fifth movement. It is total love. Its slow rising to a supreme point is the ascension of man toward his God, of the Son of God toward his Father, of the mortal newly made divine toward paradise.
NOTATIONS AND SKETCHES
Alexander Soares (piano)
Solo piano works by Boulez, Dutilleux and Messiaen
Review from Gramophone Magazine – May 2019 – Editor’s Choice
‘Although most of these pieces have been collated on various anthologies of French piano music, few of them can match this new release in its balanced conception or consistency of execution…Soares has their measure in abundance, resulting in what could hardly be a more auspicious debut album.’
Available to purchase in St Paul’s Cathedral after the performance or from http://citymusicfoundation.org/shop/
Picture: Emile Holba
City Music Foundation announces a New Partnership with Barts Heritage
Barts Heritage is an organisation formed in 2019 for the preservation, restoration and maintenance of the unique and historic buildings at Barts Hospital. Its new CEO Will Palin started in November 2019 and is in overall charge of the project to repair and conserve the Great Hall, and the rest of the North Wing, in time for the 900th anniversary of the hospital’s foundation in 2023. Will was previously Director of Conservation at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, for five years where he was in charge of the award-winning £8.5m project to conserve The Painted Hall.
St. Bartholomew’s Hospital has led the provision of healthcare in London for almost 900 years. Founded in 1123 by the monk Rahere to give free medical care to the poor of the City of London, there is no other hospital in the country which can begin to match its record of continuous service on the same site.
Through this new collaboration CMF will bring exceptional, wide ranging music to the historic heart of St Bartholomew’s Hospital with regular, free performances in the Great Hall throughout 2021. This programme aims to draw lovers of music and architecture, of history and medicine, and all those seeking the companionship and solace of shared musical experience to one of the most important and ancient institutions in the City of London.
Dr Clare Taylor, managing director of City Music Foundation says:
“It’s hard to put into words exactly how much this collaboration means to me and to CMF. I trained as a doctor at Barts in the 1980s, living in Charterhouse Square, and I did my medical house job in Annie Zunz and Dalziel wards in the KGV wing. Always a dedicated musician in my spare time, I continued to sing, including in the choir at Barts the Great, for many years. In 2012 I ceased medical work to support my husband in his City role, and soon after began a second career running CMF. The role of music in health and well-being is well established. This is a unique opportunity to bring CMF musicians to experience this and share their music with the Barts community as it approaches its 900 year anniversary, and to support Barts Heritage as they preserve and promote these magnificent buildings.”
Will Palin, CEO of Barts Heritage says:
“We are thrilled to be working with the City Music Foundation to bring the very best of live music to the heart of this beautiful site. We look forward to hosting monthly free concerts in the Great Hall throughout 2021 and to working with the Foundation on pioneering projects exploring the ways in which music can foster wellbeing for staff, patients and other visitors to the Hospital – ahead of our major restoration project.”
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