Messiaen at Stanford

A concert of revelations and extremes at Stanford

This year marks the centenary of Olivier Messiaen, a French composer who had a profound impact on 20th century music. Last Thursday Stanford Lively Arts kicked off festivities in his honor with a concert of one of his seminal works, Quator pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the end of time), which Messiaen composed while a POW in a German concentration camp, Stalag VIIIA. The unusual instrumentation—violin, cello, clarinet and piano—was a product of his limited choices, though Debussy and Takemitsu also explored this coloring.

Messiaen’s friend, Henri Akoka, managed to hang onto his clarinet through capture and an arduous march to the prison camp, while also keeping Messiaen alive through the ordeal. Conceived from passages in the Book of Revelations, the clarinet solo is the heart of the quartet, and clarinetist Todd Palmer movingly reprised Akoka’s original performance.

The concert took place in Stanford’s opulent Memorial Church, a lavish distance from the crude huts and frozen fields around Stalag VIIIA. But high barrel vaults and stone filigree kept our focus on Messiaen’s text and profound religiosity. And he would have been at home here, having spent most of his career as the organist for Paris’ Trinity Church. The setting was also chosen for the excellent organ housed there, as the second half of the concert consisted of selected organ works. The extreme dissonances and punishing fingerings, performed by Robert Huw Morgan, gave us a look into Messiaen’s composing, a brilliant amalgam of Greek and Hindu rhythms and strangely symmetrical tone clusters. He overlays this framework with a love of birdsong and primes, both evidence of his staunch faith (primes, being indivisible, represented divinity to him!).

Clarinet and violin doubled thrush and sparrow over a thin soup of cello harmonics and sparse piano chords, his liturgy for the earth. Thundering chords and chromaticism announced the arrival of the last Angel, which Messiaen gentles to one of the most extraordinary textures of modern music: cello doubled by violin two octaves higher in plainchant, a sing-song melody which wanders across softly disturbing piano chords.

Messiaen had mild synaesthesia: he could “see” notes and described those chords as “blue-orange,” very high thirds and perfect fourths over larger intervals, creating outer harmonies and inner dissonances. The effect equates to the sizzle of complimentary colors. Much harmonic analysis has been written about Messiaen’s unconventional and “painterly” approach.

In the third movement clarinet solo Palmer waited for coughs and rustlings to subside, then lipped his mouthpiece. Twenty seconds later I realized that the softest tone had inserted itself just over the threshold of hearing, slowly swelling to insistence. Palmer’s concentration was fierce and gripped us, and it seemed natural that afterwards he would hold his clarinet aloft in one fist as his breathing slowed. Messiaen wrote of this movement, “…The abyss is Time, with its sorrows and its weariness. The birds are the opposite of Time; they are our desire for light…”

After a light scherzo cello returned for notes so slowly bowed that they trembled on the edge of breaking. Grayed out piano chords formed a backbone, which according to Messiaen “…unfolds in a kind of tender and supreme distance,” and places the cello as divine Word. After bell-like unisons, a movement of fire and ice, he returned us to slow reverence in the final violin song. Here is a passage so sorrowful it transported us to a realm we were not meant to endure.

Although Messiaen and his three friends did survive the camp, the near-starvation left many without hair or teeth, a memento mori for the end of time.

—Adam Broner

Originally published in the Piedmont Post