Most people think birds just go pi-pi-pi

James Fletcher

  • The Messiaen Companion edited by Peter Hill
    Faber, 581 pp, £40.00, March 1995, ISBN 0 571 17033 1
  • Olivier Messiaen: Music and Colour. Conversations with Claude Samuel translated by Thomas Glasow
    Amadeus, 296 pp, $29.95, May 1994, ISBN 0 931340 67 5

By spring 1940 France and Britain had been at war with Germany for more than six months; Belgium was already occupied by the Nazis. On 9 June some fifty divisions Of the German Army under von Rundstedt, a commander so formidable that even Hitler is said to have treated him with considerable respect, struck southwards from Belgium towards Rheims. The French forces behind the Aisne resisted heroically, but were far outnumbered. On 11 June they began a strategic withdrawal south across the Marne, then east into the Vosges. But the situation was hopeless, and on 22 June they were forced to surrender.

A few days later in Nancy, the occupying forces arrested a young medical orderly while he was trying to escape into the countryside on an old bicycle without tyres. He was stocky and fit, but somewhat shortsighted, which had disqualified him from active military service. Along with more than a thousand other prisoners he was transported by train to a prisoner-of war camp in Görlitz, about sixty miles east of Dresden. The journey, more than four hundred miles on a slow train in high summer to an unknown destination, must have been more gruelling than anything he had so far experienced in the war. At one point he witnessed a near riot as hundreds of dehydrated men fought to get at a single outlet where water was being distributed. He refused to join in the struggle and struck up a conversation with another soldier who was calmly reading a book. He found he was talking to a fellow-Parisian. Guy-Bernard Delapierre, an Egyptologist. The two were shortly separated, but he was later handed a note from Delapierre giving him Delapierre’s address in Paris, and they were to become close friends during the second half of the war.

On his arrival at Görlitz he was assigned to Stalag VIII A. The Germans discovered that he was a music teacher and church organist, that his name was Olivier Messiaen, and that his haversack contained scores of the Brandenburg Concertos, works by Beethoven, Ravel and Stravinsky, and Berg’s Lyric Suite. It contained very little else. They could scarcely have guessed at the strangeness of the music Messiaen would write and perform in the camp.

Conditions there were bleak but not horrific. On top of physical hardship, hunger and boredom, the prisoners faced frightening uncertainty: no one knew how long the war would continue, nor when or whether they would ever return to France. Messiaen called his Görlitz quartet Quatuor pour la fin du temps; Iain Matheson’s interesting essay in The Messiaen Companion discusses the ambiguity of the title. ‘Time’ can be understood in a musical sense (Messiaen’s preface to the score describes some of the musical devices by which he aims to bring the listener ‘close to eternity’) and it also has an eschatological meaning: the work is written ‘in homage’ to the angel of Revelation 10.6 who said that there shall be time no longer.’ But Malcolm Hayes is surely right that the title has a more immediate meaning: ‘We know now that Messiaen was not to stay in captivity in a German prisoner-of-war camp for years to come, perhaps even to die there. He himself did not know that at the time.’

At Görlitz he made friends with a violinist and a clarinettist, who had been allowed to bring their instruments with them, and an accomplished (but cello-less) cellist, Etienne Pasquier, who was later to play on the record Messiaen made of the Quatuor – a fact which oddly passes without comment in the useful discography by Christopher Dingle that concludes Hill’s book. The Germans were not unsympathetic to these musical endeavours. The camp commander supplied Messiaen with manuscript paper, and found a cello, with one string missing, for Pasquier. A German officer gave Messiaen the complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas – a considerable gift in any circumstances – and Messiaen’s widow, the pianist Yvonne Loriod, remarks in an interview with Peter Hill that he was locked in a wash-house all day, not as a disciplinary measure, but with a supply of paper, pencils and dry bread, so that he could compose undisturbed. No one seems to have been at all concerned that he was studying the ‘degenerate’ Stravinsky and Berg – a liberalism of attitude that he was not to find in Paris when he returned there.

The first thing Messiaen produced at Görlitz was a sprightly but enigmatic two-minute trio for his three friends, which eventually became the Quatuor’s fourth and shortest movement, the Intermède. The Quatuor began to take shape, even before the Germans had found a battered upright piano, growing eventually to eight movements and lasting about forty-five minutes. The work received its world première on 25 January 1941, in a large prefabricated building like a Nissen hut, at a temperature somewhat below freezing. It was attended by several thousand prisoners of many nationalities (Poles, Czechs, other Central Europeans and French) and of every conceivable trade and profession.

What sort of music did his shivering audience hear? Messiaen serenely disregarded every traditional protocol of chamber music: sonata form, motivic inter-relationship, instrumental question-and-answer, emotional narrative – he dumped the lot. Four of the eight movements, including the two longest, involve less than the full quartet, and one of the remaining four is entirely in octave unison. The twin climaxes of the work, the fifth and eighth movements, are two hymn-like melodies of glacial austerity and near-immobility. The fifth is for cello and the eighth for violin, each accompanied throughout by the simplest possible throb of chords on the piano. As Roger Nichols wrote twenty years ago, ‘the two accompanied solos for stringed instruments and the third movement for clarinet alone cannot be appreciated by, and could not have been written by, a man in a hurry.’ The first movement consists of a pair of super-imposed isorhythmic sequences on piano and cello decorated with snatches of bird-song: the violin does a nightingale, the clarinet a blackbird. The movement does not develop in any way; the isorhythmic sequences continue for a time, the birds chatter and gurgle. Then it stops. It is as if one had been shown a sample of acoustic eternity as one might be shown a sample of cloth: ‘it will be like this, but there will be more of it.’ The third movement is a sort of incantation for unaccompanied clarinet. The sixth, the one in octave unison, has the most arresting title: ‘Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes’ (But this is misleading: it’s neither dance-like nor furious – nor remotely suggestive of trumpets to my ear.) In fact it’s an intricate rhythmic study with bars of irregular length, and features what was to become another of Messiaen’s favourite devices: palindromic (what Messiaen calls ‘non-retrogradable’) rhythms. Only the second and seventh movements, and the tiny piano-less fourth, even approximate to conventional chamber music. The harmonic idiom is equally odd, including the innocently cadential Intermède, the brutally dissonant opening of the second movement, the Debussyesque charm of the seventh movement, and the agonised and at the same time peaceful bitonal effect of the cello and violin solos. Yet it is not forbidding music, for all the rigour of its intellectual ingredients. It is enjoyed by people for whom the more conservative Schoenberg and Bartok remain impenetrably abstract, and has remained one of Messiaen’s most popular works to this day.

And what did his (literally) captive audience make of it all? Messiaen had no doubt: ‘Never have I been listened to with so much attention and understanding,’ he told Antoine Goléa. Four months later he was back in France.

This much is legendary. But Malcolm Hayes has discovered a hitherto unknown pendant to the story which unexpectedly confirms Messiaen’s judgment. In l98l a composer called Charles Bodman Rae went to live in Warsaw. While he was looking for a flat of his own he stayed as a lodger with a retired architect and his wife. One day he was practising the piano part of the Quatuor when his landlord

burst into my room with a mixed expression of confusion and distress on his face. He said he recognised the piece I was playing and wanted to know who had composed it. He sat down and I explained about Messiaen and the circumstances under which the Quatuor had been written and first performed. He then recounted to me his experience as a prisoner of war in the same camp at Görlitz in Silesia. Aleksander was in a very emotional state while he was recalling these events. There were tears in his eyes and it took some time for him to regain his composure. He had been present at the first performance and vividly recalled the atmosphere in the large freezing hut where hundreds of prisoners ... assembled to hear the piece. Apparently there were even wounded prisoners, brought in from the hospital block, lying on stretchers at the front of the audience. He remembers his fellow prisoners remaining in complete silence for the hour or so that it took to perform the piece.

Bodman Rae wrote to Messiaen about this incident and later discovered that Messiaen had written a charming letter to Aleksander. ‘As far as I know,’ says Bodman Rae, ‘they may have corresponded occasionally until the architect’s death.’

Back in Paris, Messiaen resumed his weekly duties at the Church of La Sainte Trinité: 10 o’clock High Mass – accompanied plain-chant only; 11 o’clock Mass – Frescobaldi, Bach or romantic music; Midday Mass – his own music (it alarmed the more conservative parishioners, but the clergy approved of it); five o’clock Vespers – improvisations, sometimes free, sometimes in pastiche. By the end of his life he had held this job for more than sixty years, and he told Claude Samuel that he would have refused any other appointment as an organist, even Notre Dame. In the autumn of 1941 he was appointed to teach harmony at the Conservatoire at the same time as Milhaud secured a chair in composition. In response to the interest of his pupils, he also started a private class in analysis of forbidden modern works: Guy-Bernard Delapierre acted as host, because he was the only person Messiaen knew with a big enough room and a decent piano. Although it wasn’t ‘legalised’ by the Conservatoire until 1947, the class rapidly acquired a reputation as a forum for advanced musical debate, and it was here that Messiaen first got to know Pierre Boulez and Yvonne Loriod. Boulez has remained a committed partisan to this day, despite his disapproval of certain aspects of Messiaen’s music.

Loriod’s technical ability was such that Messiaen found it quite impossible to think up anything she couldn’t play – and it wasn’t for want of trying, as anyone familiar with Vingt regards sur l’ Enfant-Jésus will have noticed. He was so delighted by her that he began to include hair-raising virtuoso parts for her in all his orchestra works – and in the two biggest ones parts for the eccentric Ondes Martenot, a sort of early synthesiser, which were later played by Loriod’s sister Jeanne. Not until 1959, when Heinrich Stroebel, commissioning Chronochromie for the Donaueschingen festival, put his foot down (‘Attention Messiaen,’ he wrote sternly, ‘cette fois-ci, pas de piano, pas d’Ondes’) did he write again for orchestra without piano. Loriod also inspired him to unprecedented productivity: in the seven years after he met her he produced six major works: Visions de l’ Amen in 1943, Trois petites liturgies and Vingt regards in 1944, Harawi in 1945, and in 1948 Cinq rechants and the orgiastically complicated Turangalîla-symphonie. It is with this work that Part One of The Messiaen Companion comes to an end.

Peter Hill has adopted for this excellent book a somewhat different strategy from those of the Britten and Bartok Companions in the same series, where the rule is, roughly, one essay per major work. He has divided the book into two more or less equal parts separated by a shorter central ‘interlude’. The first part contains a general introduction to the music, then a chapter each on the piano music, the organ music, the songs, and the orchestral and choral music – up to 1949 in each case. The interlude contains essays on specific aspects of Messiaen (his Catholicism, his synaesthesia, his interest in birds), three short reminiscences by former pupils, Boulez, George Benjamin and Hill himself, and Loriod’s interview with Hill. Part Two consists of seven essays, of which three are on individual works: La Transfiguration de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ, Des canyons aux étoiles ... and the opera Saint François d’ Assise. The other four are on the later piano music, the later organ music, the orchestral music up to 1964, and finally the ‘last works’, in particular the vast, posthumously performed Eclairs sur l’ audelá.

The most interesting of the single-work chapters is by Richard Steinitz on Des canyons aux étoiles, possibly because the author’s enthusiasm is tempered by doubts about the work’s total impact. ‘One has to accept,’ Steinitz says, ‘that the nature of his faith reduces the possibilities of dramatic tension. This great hymn to heaven and earth has no darker side ... Indeed, apart from the Tristanesque love celebrated in Turangalîla-symphonie, Harawi and Cinq rechants, Messiaen’s entire oeuvre passes over problems of suffering humanity.’ This neglects Saint François, but remains a valid criticism. Messiaen’s serenity can seem exasperating. ‘Death?’ he replied when André Malraux, as Minister of Cultural Affairs, asked him to consider composing a requiem for the dead of two world wars, ‘that exists, but I myself emphasise the Resurrection.’ And, talking to Claude Samuel about Japan: ‘Above all, it’s a country where everything is noble: in the streets in Japan, one sees no drunks, no beggars.’ The loyalty of Messiaen’s pupils, if nothing else, proves that he was not numbly indifferent to the human condition; but he can sometimes seem so, the more because the book conveys very little sense of his private character.

Messiaen’s optimism and religious convictions may not be entirely without parallel in recent classical music, but his synaesthesia and his interest in bird-song certainly are. As Malcolm Troup notes, the practice of equating music with colour or light has a long pedigree; the very word ‘chromatic’ betrays it. Many musicians must remember having been told by their harmony teachers that a dominant seventh chord gets ‘darker’ if the minor ninth is added to it, ‘brighter’ if the major 13th is added. This is the general area of Messiaen’s synaesthesia, but he went much further than this, and gave fantastically detailed descriptions of the colours he saw in particular harmonies; in several of his scores he even indicated the colours of chords. I am sympathetic to investigations of this sort, but my credulity wobbles when Messiaen (who admitted to Peter Hill that he did not have perfect pitch) claims, in the preface to Trois petites liturgies, that he associated a particular mode with ‘blue-violet rocks, sprinkled with little grey cubes, cobalt blue, pale Prussian cblue, with some violet-purple, gold and ruby-red reflections, and mauve, black and white stars’, and that a semi-tone higher it suggests ‘pale, prairie-green foliage, with patches of blue, silver and reddish orange’. The composition might suggest these things, but surely not the mere mode it uses. But even if this was partly a tease (when Claude Samuel reacted with astonishment to some of his descriptions, Messiaen demurely said: ‘I limit myself to saying what I feel’) Jonathan Bernard’s essay certainly shows that it was remarkably consistent. Bernard has collated every recorded mention of colour in Messiaen’s theoretical works, scores and interviews with the modes of the passages in question, and even his explanations of the inconsistencies are convincing. I remain open-minded on this matter, but the case for the prosecution, I concede, is shaken.

On the bird-song question, it’s the other way round: I don’t share Messiaen’s interest in bird-song, but have never doubted it as the source of some of his most spectacular music. He was rightly proud of his ornithological knowledge, even slightly proprietorial about it – ‘most people think birds just go pi-pi-pi,’ he said to Gillian Weir, in the tone of voice in which a gourmet deplores the popularity of hamburgers. Robert Sherlaw Johnson’s essay discusses the gradual development of bird-song in the music, from its recognisable but unambitious beginnings in the Quatuor to its final explosion in the sermon to the birds in Saint François. He shows how Messiaen fitted the songs into his existing tonal schemes, making them lower and slower, expanding their microtonal intervals, and devising complex ‘chords of resonance’ to mimic the tone-colours of individual species. Indeed, the real debt Messiaen owed to birds was that they got him out of the impasse he had reached in the early Fifties, when he seemed to have exhausted the creative potential of his technical ideas and was in danger of spending the rest of his career oscillating between the slightly Glen Millerish lushness of Turangalîla and the experimental astringencies of the Quatre études de rythme. But the discipline of reproducing bird-song threw him back on the resources of his ear again, and he made their songs his own from then on, so that birds are part of the language of Messiaen literature as folk-songs are of Bartok’s: ‘an ecstatic chorus of larks’, ‘a long skylark solo entrusted to the three xylophones’, or, as Malcolm Troup describes the ‘Epode’ for 18 solo strings from Chronochromie.

Entries are staggered and in descending order: six blackbirds bear the brunt of the action in the opening pages with two or three voices of the 18 predominating at a time until the full ensemble suddenly breaks off with the arrival of a linnet accompanied by a trio of two garden warblers and a whitethroat on violins 2, 3 and 4, along with two chaffinches from the previous tutti, thus dividing the ‘Epode’ almost exactly in half. Almost immediately, the blackbirds and nightingales resume their staggered entries and, but for the second solo first violin, we are back to full capacity.

Music and Colour, a baker’s dozen of interviews with Claude Samuel, is really two books in one: a translation of Samuel’s 1986 book Musique et Couleur: nouveaux entretiens which itself contained the greater part of his 1967 Entretiens avec Olivier Messiaen. The interviews are both fascinating and frustrating: fascinating because the composer felt comfortable enough with his sympathetic interrogator to speak freely; frustrating because they are of little biographical help and Samuel is not the most incisive of examiners.

‘As for Mozart,’ says Messiaen at one point, ‘he was surrounded by mediocre composers who were botching their minuets.’ One longs to know what particular aspect of Haydn’s incompetence in this area specially irritated Messiaen, but Samuel just lets it go. Similarly, when Messiaen dismisses Neoclassicism as ‘totally reprehensible’, Samuel fails to challenge him so we never learn why – or even what either of them meant by Neoclassicism anyway. (Did Messiaen really think Le Tombeau de Couperin, for instance, ‘totally reprehensible’? It’s hard to believe. My guess would be that the remark is a stab in the general direction of Poulenc, but it’s infuriating not to know.) Elsewhere, by contrast, Samuel allows Messiaen to be bland to the point of economy with the truth. Recalling the première of Livre du Saint-Sacrement, given by Almut Rossler in Detroit, Messiaen calls it ‘a very great success’. Yet we know from Gillian Weir in The Messiaen Companion that ‘the (Methodist) church was acoustically dead, the organ ciphered, and the reception was mixed.’

But there are pleasures in the book, too. The long interview on Saint François is excellent. It is amusing to learn that Stockhausen’s first encounter with Messiaen involved a year in the analysis class spent studying accentuation in Mozart. ‘Because of that, he was unhappy in my class,’ says Messiaen, with what must be considerable understatement. Above all, the book conveys something of Messiaen’s famously insatiable curiosity, his zest for the unexpected, the rare and the bizarre:

Finally, a word should be said about the Geophone. I’m the one who gave it its name, but it’s M. Larivière – in charge of the ‘percussion pool’ in Paris, after overseeing for many years the percussion equipment for the radio – who built it. Geo is for earth and phone is for sound. The Geophone is an earth machine. It’s a large, flat drum, with very thin membranes on both sides. Inside it is neither earth nor sand, but little lead beads. Swaying the drum produces a sound akin to that of waves lapping on the seashore, dragging back sand and pebbles. The result is very sonorous and beautiful. I used the Geophone for the first time in Des canyons aux étoiles ...

He tells us how, in Iran in the Sixties, he heard the only unidentified bird that ever made its way into his music:

That’s when I heard the song of a bird that must have been in the rocks in front of the Apadana of Darius. It kept repeating the same refrains. I transcribed the song, but I wasn’t able to catch a glimpse of the bird. Back in France I enquired about it at the Museum of Natural History, but no one was able to identify it: so, in desperation, I called it ‘bird of Persepolis’.

(One ought to add that his transcription of the curlew in Le courlis cendré was good enough to enable Yvonne Loriod, who had never heard one before, correctly to identify a curlew on the first hearing.) And, on his greatest regret after leaving Bryce Canyon, in Utah, which inspired Des canyons aux étoiles:

The tyrannosaurus is the only prehistoric animal that walked on its hind legs. It had rather small front legs and enormous hind legs. It was carnivorous and pounced on the diplodocus and stegosaurus in order to devour them. By contrast, the other prehistoric animals were quite peaceful; as the weather was very hot, they lived in the water and ate leaves off the tree-tops. But the stegosaurus possessed a means of defending itself: it not only had a powerful and dangerous tail and two brains – one in the head, the other at the far end of the tail – but its back was covered with bony, triangular plates on which the aggressive tyrannosaurus haplessly shredded itself. This is fascinating, and I would have liked to see this fossil, but I didn’t have a chance to.

I’m not sure which is the more delightful part of this: the idea of the tyrannosaurus grinding itself to bits like a piece of prehistoric parmesan, or the notion that even in the primeval swamp the two-brained good guys always win.