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Musical series – part 3 – I’m going to France


France had an active community of musicians, writers and visual artists around the beginning of the 19th century. Paris is one of the epicenters in Europe for art, as well as for trade and industry. At the world fairs held there, composers came into contact with music from other parts of the world. A number of composers are fascinated by sounds of instruments from Asia and incorporate that into their music. Music emerges with a soundscape that we still recognize today as "typically French.

Olivier Messiaen


Between heaven and earth, birds fly

Olivier Messiaen might just be the greatest composer that France has produced. I know, it’s quite a statement to make. Messiaen and Debussy have one characteristic in common, their music spins a universe all its own. Messiaen’s music is not the easiest to fathom, and at the same time the music makes perfect sense if you know two important aspects of him: he was deeply religious and he had a fascination with bird sounds.

In the Netherlands at Easter we have the tradition of Bach’s Matthew Passion being heard in many places, and every year we may hear people moved to tears by the piece. It is an expression of the composer’s skill in writing something that is meaningful. The music apparently triggers a feeling in us that we refer to, for lack of adequate words, as “something higher,” without wanting to do injustice to the composer’s religious motivation or the listener’s experience of a faith.

Many of Messiaen’s works are the Matthew squared when talking about “the higher” in music. As I once heard a pianist explain, “in his music, a heavenly cathedral of sounds is made larger than my humanity. Messiaen uses the ‘language’ of the contemporary composer, which is a barrier for many people, so I want to highlight two of his works that are more accessible and hopefully give rise to a desire to discover more of his works.

Funnily enough, Messiaen is responsible for one of the greatest spectacle pieces in orchestral music: the “Turangalîla Symphony.” A wacky piece with a gigantic orchestral arrangement, a solo pianist and an ondes martenot! An ondes martenot is an analogue electronic instrument, with four different speakers, each responsible for a specific part of the sound. Surely that should appeal to HiFi lovers!

Nathalie Forget explains what the instrument is in this Youtube video. If you are a Radiohead fan, then you know the sound of the ondes martenot. In this performance of ‘how to disappear completely‘ there are no less than six of these instruments on stage. The Turangalîla is the result of a composer who throws himself energetically into a task and just keeps adding and building ideas.

If ‘less is more’, then Messiaen reverses that rule here. Every time you think ‘it can’t get any more’, he throws in a scoop. At some points it sounds like Stravinsky on steroids, but it is also clearly audible what is typically Messiaen: very rhythmic, melodies that strongly remind one of the singing of birds, melodies where there are huge jumps between successive notes and chords that are indeed reminiscent of cathedrals of sound.

There is humor in the piece, just listen to “Joie du Sang des Etoiles”. The French “o la la” is also given space, as all the “Chant d’Amour” sections of the piece are a seductive game between piano and ondes martenot. In the joyous finale of the piece, all sounds are taken from the ondes martenot and the ending is written to elicit loud cheers from the audience.

The other piece is “Quartor pour la Fin du Temps” (Quartet for the End of Time). Messiaen wrote it while imprisoned in a POW camp in World War II, where it was also performed for the first time. There could hardly be a greater contrast with Turangalîla, but here too the bird sounds are literally given voice in the movement “Abîme des Oiseaux” (Abyss of Birds) and the religious aspect is always present.

The final movement “Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus” (Praise for the Immortality of Jesus) was not written by a man in agony in a camp, but a man pulling himself up by his faith. It is music that shows that the heavenly is greater than the earthly.

Messiaen: Turangalîla Symphony – Riccardo Chailly, Concertgebouw Orchestra, Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano), Takashi Harada (ondes martenot), Decca, 1993

Messiaen: Quartor pour la Fin du Temps – Michel Beroff (piano), Gervase De Peyer (clarinet), Erich Gruenberg (violin), William Pleeth (cello), Warner Classics, 2008

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