Although I first became aware of Olivier Messiaen in the mid-sixties, it was only towards the end of that decade that I began to hear some of works live at the parish church of St Peter and St Paul, Fareham, played by a talented young organist. The organ itself was in a rather sorry state, as I seem to recall, and was lovingly rebuilt in the early 1970s. To celebrate the rebuilding, I put together a special recital with my friend Peter Allan, a former organ scholar at Wadham College, Oxford (who later kindly played at my wedding and, much later still, became Principal of the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield). The recital featured music of all periods, but notably included Messiaen’s Verset pour la fête de la Dédicace which was apposite for the occasion.
My interest in Messiaen bloomed again in the early eighties when I bought a copy of Jennifer Bate playing the Verset along with Messe De La Pentecôte and Le Banquet Celeste. (Jennifer Bate, who died at the end of March this year, was a leading exponent of the composer. It was an enthusiasm based not merely on admiration, but personal rapport and friendship.) In 2004, whilst I was living in Presteigne (Powys), Bate gave an excellent recital at St. Andrew’s Parish Church, as part of the Presteigne Festival. Again the programme was varied, but included several items by Messiaen. On my way out through the porch, I couldn’t resist buying a boxed set of his complete organ works at what seemed an extremely reasonable price!
Although Messiaen is associated with music for the organ, he has also written for a large orchestra e.g. Turangalîla-Symphonie and for small ensembles, most notably Quatuor pour la fin du temps (English: Quartet for the End of Time). The latter can rightly regarded one of the the truly revolutionary works of the twentieth century, comparable perhaps to Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps or Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. The work was written while the composer was imprisoned in Stalag VIII-A, a prisoner-of-war camp in Görlitz, Germany (now Zgorzelec in Poland), and had its premiere in that camp where the work was rendered on barely serviceable instruments in front of four hundred fellow prisoners and guards.
On the 14th May 2015 (a birthday present postponed by a day), I heard the work for the first time, and live, at the Crickhowell Music Festival at St Edmund’s Church under the Festival’s banner of ‘Signs and Wonders’. It was, I recall, an utterly spell-binding performance.
In his Preface to the score, Messiaen declares that this eight movement work was inspired by text from the Book of Revelation (Rev 10:1–2, 5–7, KJV). The latter of course is the final book in the New Testament, traditionally understood to be written by St John the island of Patmos (an island approximately 140 km north west of Symi). The Book of Revelation was one of the last books to enter the canon of the New Testament. (Interestingly, the Orthodox Church, while acknowledging its place in the canon, doesn’t make provision, unlike the Churches in the Western tradition, for its use in public liturgy, the only exceptions being some Alexandrian churches and the Monastery of St John at Patmos).
Messiaen’s music draws upon two principal strands – his Catholic faith (as expressed liturgically) and his interest in ornithology (birdsong) and these inform Quatuor pour la fin du temps, though perhaps not so explicitly as they do in other compositions. The fifth (effectively middle) movement of the work is entitled ‘Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus’. Here the French composer takes inspiration not so much from the Book of Revelation, but from St John’s Gospel. He writes:
“Jesus is considered here as the Word. A broad phrase, "infinitely slow", on the cello, magnifies with love and reverence the eternity of the Word, powerful and gentle, "whose time never runs out". The melody stretches majestically into a kind of gentle, regal distance. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." (John 1:1, KJV)
This performance is by the Amici Ensemble recorded in December 1999 in Guelph, Ontario.
[The Première Audition Poster is attributed to Badinguet 42 under CC BY-SA 4.0.]
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