Carnegie Does Messiaen

February 24, 2008

om1a1.jpg Soon after he was released from a Nazi prison camp, where he had famously composed and performed the Quatour pour la fin du temps, Olivier Messiaen was appointed to teach harmony at the Paris Conservatory. The young teacher took a novel approach to his first class. Walking in without addressing or even acknowledging the assembled group, he sat down at the piano, opened the orchestral score of Debussy’s Prélude à laprès-midi d’un faune, played the work through flawlessly, closed the score and took it with him from the room. The class was irretrievably in love with him.

Nowadays the students might probably report such an event to the front office, and the teacher would be at least officially warned. In a film, La Liturgie de cristal, a much later Conservatory class taught by Messiaen is shown. He is again sitting at the piano, students are gathered in seats behind him, and he is again playing — this time from a work that he claimed dominated his life, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. He is not just playing the orchestral part but singing the vocal lines. (“I sing like a composer,” he unnecessarily apologizes for what is in fact accurate and expressive singing.) He is pointing up and asking students about aspects of the text setting (the repeated word loin receiving illuminating attention as expressing how far from normal reality Mélisande — and, by implication, her music — is).

Though he is one of the most respected composers of his century, most of us think of Messiaen simply as the creator of his own highly characteristic works. Or, if we know a little more, we remember him as a master organist-pianist and teacher of other major composers. But the centenary of Messiaen’s birth, involving celebrations in many countries, may fill out the picture for many.

Those of us who have never been much tempted by theories of “progress” in the arts are particularly pleased when we find it. When I was a young student learning organ works of Messiaen, and even more when I went on to be a historically- and analytically-minded musicology student, I never dreamed that Carnegie Hall would one day captivate me with a half day devoted to a view of Messiaen that was consonant with what I was then trying to learn.

Carnegie Hall! It represented all that was stiflingly establishmentarian to youngsters like me. I won’t insert here examples of the artistic blindness that we then attributed to such institutions, but the Weathermen and Black Panthers of the day had nothing on us for violence of expression — at least verbally. And lest it be felt that I’m exaggerating the kind of neglect even so famous a composer as Messiaen saw in favor of a constant repetition of the same repertory favorites, one of the attractions of today was what the Hall itself billed as the Carnegie Hall premiere of Visions de l’Amen, a 65-year-old two-piano work long securely lodged in the international repertory!

It could be argued, of course, that Messiaen has now become so establishmentarian (though the people who walked out of last week’s performance of the Turangalîla-Symphonie may dispute that) as to pose no real adventure for Carnegie. But it was not just the time devoted this afternoon to the man and his music that represented the progress I hail, but the approach. The program, all in Weill Hall, was laid out thus:

1:00 – 2:00 PM
Peter Hill: Olivier Messiaen in an Age of Change

2:00 – 3:00 PM
Film Screening
Olivier Messiaen: The Crystal Liturgy (directed by Olivier Mille)

3:00 – 3:30 PM: Break

3:30 – 4:30 PM
Jeremy Geffen with Pierre Boulez

4:30 – 5:30 PM
Messiaen Visions de l’Amen
Michael Mizrahi, Piano
Elizabeth Joy Roe, Piano

It is tempting to summarize here the marvels of Peter Hill’s lecture (and I hope that pieces that I will write here later will be informed by it), but suffice it to say now that he fleshed out the whole image of Messiaen as artist, husband in a rare musical partnership, and man driven by a consistent vision.

The film (a clip from which can be seen here) was testimony to an awareness of vocation thrilling to contemplate. Nothing was more affecting than Messiaen’s description of the moment when he, as a ten-year-old, became conscious of himself as a being dedicated to music.

The interview with Boulez was by definition magisterial, and it was a rare experience to hear the octogenarian musician talk about his youthful discovery, in his very first days in Paris during World War II, of the music and the man who would dominate his conservatory education. He spoke with an unsentimental respect, not unmixed with criticism, of his debt to his maître. But the restrained façade was broken somewhat when the interviewer confronted him with his own words spoken to an audience at the Théâtre du Chatelet on the night after Messiaen’s death. Boulez seemed surprised, and a little misty-eyed, to hear the words he had spoken in dedicating that night’s performance of Pelléas et Mélisande to the man who not only taught the work as a testament to all he believed in artistically, but who attributed to it a rôle in his survival in the prison camp: Messiaen often recalled lying in bed in the barracks reconstructing whole acts of the work in every detail of its score, from dynamics to orchestration.

You may imagine that the audience in the hall was by then thoroughly prepared for the experience of the Visions de l’Amen, a piece devised to be performed by the composer and the great pianist, his wife, Yvonne Loriod.

May we hope that the New York Philharmonic, for whom Olivier Messiaen composed his last work, will perform Éclairs sur l’au-delà during this centennial year?

One Response to “Carnegie Does Messiaen”

  1. […] 27, 2008   After Sunday’s Messiaen experience at Carnegie Hall, it was invigorating to know that there was another toothsome evening of his music […]

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