Sunday, April 4, 2021

Another Messiaen post

It's been a number of months since I last wrote to my little audio diary and promotional blog. I made a few drafts, but never got around to finishing them. Yesterday I discovered a Messiaen work with which I was unfamiliar. Because I spent so much effort months ago listening to his music and writing my impressions, I figured I would follow up.

The story begins at the library. Ah, the library, one of my favorite places to be. It's quiet. The staff is not only usually helpful, they are sometimes enthusiastic to be of assistance when you need it (which is not often in my case, I know my way around our main branch pretty well). You can not only browse literally tons of materials, in most cases you can take them home. I usually have something that I'm hunting down, but half the enjoyment is browsing whatever else is on the stacks. One of my greatest disappointments during the pandemic lockdown has been the closing of the libraries. At one point you could order and pick things up, but what's the fun in that?

Recently I've had a particular interest in the German post-war composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann. That itself is an aside. Some months back, Duquesne University sold off its entire remaining collection of vinyl LPs to Jerry's Records. (I write "remaining" because I'm uncertain whether students and faculty had the option of picking through the collection first.) As far as I know, it's overwhelmingly classical recordings, and the majority of that is "standard practice" era (1750-1900). There are some very nice 20th century and avant garde recordings scattered throughout, which is what interests me and a few other people. My favorite buys from the collection have been some Zimmermann recordings, most significantly his opera Die Soldaten on a three-LP set. For $5, that's value.

The library reopened for browsing (with limitations) about a month ago. I'll take it! I've been checking out Zimmermann scores recently. When looking for the score of his ballet Présence, I noticed a Messiaen score with an unfamiliar name, Chant Des Déportés. Having listened to over 32 hours of Messiaen's music during the initial lockdown and not recognizing this title, I had to check it out. 

It's a work that was once considered to be lost in the Radio France archives. It was performed once in 1945 to mark the end of the war, filed away, to be rediscovered before the composer's death in 1992. 

When you consider the work, it's not surprising that it's not performed more often (apart from being considered lost at one time). It calls for a reasonably sizable orchestra (woodwinds, brass, percussion, glockenspiel, piano, "many" strings) plus a sizable choir of sopranos and tenors only. For all those numbers, Chants takes under 3.5 minutes to perform. You could fit it on one side of a 45rpm 7" single.

I'm not big on analysis. That is to say, I'll examine scores and look for basic elements: form, structures, densities, particular harmonies, and so forth. But I'm not looking to understand the significance of the two tetrachords in measure six, etc. However, looking at this score, I had a pretty immediate reaction to its relative simplicity of materials, despite its density.

There are three basic elements of the piece:

  • The melody. It's sung by the chorus, sopranos and tenors singing entirely in octaves, generally simple rhythms and longer note values. This is doubled and harmonized in the strings and brass, with tuba and basses playing only on the longer notes.
  • The glockenspiel plays a constant eighth note triplet line, everyone of which is a three-note chord, until the last note. This is reinforced in the flutes and oboes, with occasional rests along the way for breathing. 
  • The piano is the center of the third element. It has a rhythmic cell, displaced by an eighth note between the left and right hands, longer note values but all based on 16th note lengths (no triplets). This is doubled in the clarinets, bassoons, and percussion. 
The piece has the melody out front, but the other elements add a general level of density that underscores the piece. Also, it's entirely in 4/4 time, no tempo changes, and scored as being in B flat major.

Two notes in, there's no question that it's Messiaen. A few more notes, and there's little question that it's period Messiaen, 1940s, when he's in his prime. 

What's curious is the work's brevity. I'm sure it was written pretty quickly. It bursts out, no preparation, no build, it's just there, stays basically at a single dynamic level its length, and before you know it, it's done. It sounds like the concluding section of a much longer movement. 

Here's a video with not only a performance, but some additional background information: