O sacrum convivium, motet pour le Saint-Sacrement (1937); Quartour pour la fin du Temps (1940); Pièce pour piano et quartour à cordes (1991); Oiseaux exotiques (1956)
Another grab-bag of works from different times in the composer's life.
O sacrum is a lovely little work. It's vaguely tonal with some nice harmonic tensions and combinations. It's also quite short, clocking in at about four minutes. In a way it's an interesting pairing with what follows, even though the works are quite dissimilar.
That brings us to Messiaen's most famous composition, Quartet for the End of Time. It's better known for the circumstances of its creation than the music itself. It was written during the composer's internment in a German POW camp (NOT concentration camp) early in World War II. He had four instruments available: violin (with three strings), cello, clarinet, and piano.
That sounds great to me! I can hardly imagine a better chamber music combination, but then I'm partial to the clarinet.
I've read that the guards at the camp gave Messiaen some latitude in working on the piece, but he still had to sneak around to create it. This would have qualified as entartete musik, after all.
I've seen the Quartet performed live only a single time, by the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble. The program started with a piece by Fred Rzewski for a vocalist also playing flower pots as semi-tuned percussion. Then came Quartet, followed by John Cage's 4'33", and ending with a piece by George Crumb for flute and three percussionists.
It was an absolutely beautiful program, even though I wouldn't qualify any of it was "new music". I took my wife to that one, and she said she really enjoyed it as well.
I did have a comment about following the Messiaen with the Cage. Are there still debates whether 4'33" is actually music? Probably not so much as, we've each made up our minds. In this program, it was used as an extend silence after the Messiaen. The four players walked off stage one by one, each extinguishing a candle when leaving.
I question if this was an appropriate interpretation of Cage's work. The piece is meant to be filled with the sound of the ambient world. When the players walked off the stage, their steps seemed thunderous in the middle of this huge silence. It seemed too....intentional. Active.
On the other hand, I can hardly imagine a better work (Quartet) to be followed by a long meditative silence. Sit and contemplate what you've just experienced. In that respect it was truly great, almost religious. Perhaps performances of Quartet should have instructions to the audience to sit in silent meditation for four minutes.
I wrote that I've only heard the piece performed in completion a single time. One movement of this piece is in unison. My former classroom at Carnegie Mellon University was next to the Eurhythmics studio. Every few semesters, I'd hear that melody being played during the final week of classes. I thought curiously once, "There isn't a flute in that piece!" (Just a final going on.)
As for the music? It's not fair to compare it to the motet mentioned above, though only three years separates them. By the time of this work, he's started to leave behind much of his post-19th century tendencies. There's more irregularity of rhythm, it's generally less rooted in tonality (with exceptions), and he's exercising many of the techniques he would later describe in The Technique of My Musical Language. The first publishing date I've found on that work is 1944, so it wouldn't be surprising to find he had started to organize those materials this far back.
What time in his creative life. The 1940s saw this work, Turangalîla, Vingt Regards, Visions de l'Amen, Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine (the last two I've heard before but are on subsequent discs in this set), his first book, among other works. What a time. It's fair to say that this, going into the 1950s, is my favorite period in this composer's body of work.
The eight movements of Quartet include two duets for cello and piano (one being a reworked earlier work for ensemble of ondes Martenot), a duet for violin and piano (a reworked earlier work for organ), a trio for violin, cello and clarinet, and a clarinet solo. I don't hear any direct bird quotations, but the clarinet solo movement is entitled "The Abyss of the Birds".
There are some fireworks along the way through the work, but the quieter movements really stand out. The piece ends on a very high note on the violin, fading away. A silence would indeed be appropriate.
Pièce would be one of Messiaen's final works. It's a short work that I'd never heard before. Not essential, but there are echoes of Quartet in the unison rhythmic writing for the strings. There's surprisingly little chamber music in Messiaen's oeuvre, and no string quartet music at all. Not his voice, I suppose.
Oiseaux exotiques is set for solo piano and chamber wind and percussion ensemble. It's another mostly (but I'd say not entirely) birdsong transcription and interpretation work. As I've written before, I used to be hired as a baritone saxophone ringer for the Carnegie Mellon Wind Ensemble. One year this piece was programmed, but of course Messiaen never wrote anything involving the saxophone. I still greatly looked forward to seeing the work, especially with my friend Donna Amato playing the difficult piano solo. What I recall is that I had a bad cough that night, barely got through whatever it is I played, and had to leave during this piece because my hacking would have disturbed anyone near me. At least I can listen to the recording.
Three discs to go, and there's a lot of music featuring the voice on those. I'll stay on the project though.