Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Through a glass, Darkly

LIVRE D’ORGUE, by Olivier Messiaen. Performed by Oliver Brett. King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, Saturday 1st March 2008.

As part of Messiaen’s centenary celebrations, King’s College Chapel in Cambridge are putting on his complete organ works, over a period of several months. Unfortunately, I missed the first concert, which featured Stephen Cleobury playing La Nativité de Seigneur, but on Saturday I made it along to the second in the series, a shorter programme which again only contained one work: Livre d’Orgue, from 1951. The piece was performed by Oliver Brett, who graduated as King’s organ scholar and is now an organ scholar at Westminster cathedral.

Messiaen always had a strange, paradoxical role in twentieth-century classical music. He found himself either criticised by traditionalists for being too weird (with his interest in birdsong, mysticism, Sanskrit, surrealism, and a voluptuous and sensual Catholic conservatism) or by modernists for being too old-fashioned (lush harmonies, sweeping melodies, an obsessively religious programmatic basis for nearly all of his pieces). In the late 40s, he’d written such works as ‘Trois Petites Liturgies de la Presence Divine’, scored for orchestra, women’s voice and the otherworldly electronic sounds of the ondes martenot, and the massive ‘Turangalîla-Symphonie,’ a hymn to earthy love which was, in effect, a virtuoso piano concert, drawing on elements of the myth of Tristan and Yseult, Sanskrit symbolism, Javanese Gamelan music, and, of course, birdsong. While these scandalised those who were not quite so esoteric in their Catholicism as Messiaen, they also offended the avant-garde musicians and composers with whom Messiaen was associated through his teaching classes at the Paris Conservatoire, where his pupils had included the likes of Xenakis, Stockhausen and Boulez. Boulez even described Turangalîla as ‘brothel music’ (which would surely have offended Messiaen’s religious sensibilities), and the composer duly changed direction, taking the implications of Schoenberg’s serial (twelve-tone) system even further, and applying them to duration, articulation and dynamics as well as to pitches.

This period of avant-garde experimentation was to prove short-lived, and the pieces Messiaen wrote during this time (including the Livre) are neither his most popular, nor his most critically acclaimed (although they were very influential on the development of Boulez in particular). One can’t help feeling that Messiaen was pushed into a language not his own, and he seems to have realised this too; later in life, he made it clear that he did not feel the music was successful.

So what are we to make of the Livre d’Orgue, then? Well, its concerns seem mainly to be technical, rather than focussing on the emotional/religious/programmatic areas that Messiaen normally covered (although two of the seven movements are inspired by Biblical quotations, and one by birdsong). There is much rhythmic complexity (deriving from Messiaen’s use of Greek and Hindu rhythms).

The first piece, ‘Reprises par Interversion’ is entirely monodic – in other words, only one note sounds a time. This gives it a very fractured, disjointed quality, more akin to Stockahusen or Boulez than to his usual style. It also very much explores a separation between the organ registers: the emphasis is on harsh alternation and juxtaposition, rather than unity. (Although, to be fair, Messiaen had always been composing in ‘blocks’ which were sometimes only tenuously related – he eschewed more conventional notions of linear harmonic development, which gives the music its curiously static, ‘timeless’ quality.)

Following ‘Reprises’ comes the uneasy three-part polyphony of ‘Piece en Trio’, meant to represent the confusion and lack of clear vision faced in life on earth, as expressed in the first half of St Paul’s famous phrase “now see through a glass, darkly, but then we will see face to face.” Messiaen himself later wrote: “I was unable to realise my intention of expressing the darkness [surrounding the Mystery of the Holy Trinity], and only managed to write a short and fairly nondescript dodecaphonic [12-tone] piece: no blackness, no confusion, no mystery.” That illuminates the piece’s impact on me, too: despite the sometimes interesting sounds (Alexander Goehr, another of Messiaen’s pupils, commented that the Livre didn’t really sound like organ music at all – “it sounded like electronics”), it does feel rather colourless when compared to the orgiastic splendour of Turangalila or with the mysterious, grave beauty of the other organ works.

The third movement is more successful: entitled ‘Les Mains de l’Abime’, it erupts as a thunderous cry from the abyss inspired by a quasi-surrealistic verse from the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk: “the abyss has cried out! The depths have raised up their hands!” Sections of massive, dissonant organ thunder bookend a quiet, eerily ambiguous central section, which brings to mind another Biblical description: that of the “still, small voice” with which God speaks to Elijah in the middle of a howling thunderstorm, as the prophet flees into the desert.

As some sort of recovery from the abyss, an interlude based on ‘Chants d’Oiseaux,’ but we’re soon back to more troubled waters, with another rhythmically complex ‘Piece en Trio’, and then, in the following movement, more Old-Testament prophecy, this time from Ezekiel. “The rims of the four wheels were full of eyes all around…for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.” Messiaen’s depiction of these nightmarish eyes in the wheels – ‘Les Yeux dans les Roues’ – is characterised by serious, booming bass pedal notes and rippling, endlessly questioning figures in the higher register.

Finally, in ‘Soixante-Quatre Durees’, a fantastically intricate movement based on sixty-four different note durations, tension is built by slowly moving held notes punctuated by alternating high and low register bursts, somewhat reminiscent of Charles Ives’ ‘The Unanswered Question.’ The piece ends on a final, held note, fading away unexpectedly, unsettlingly, leaving the question answered.

The work as a whole is deeply serious, grave. Messiaen chooses to focus on the darker aspects of the Bible, and Livre seems to fall more into the anguished, mid-century Catholic doubt of Penderecki, than the composer’s usual rhapsodic, paradisal visions.

In other works, such as ‘Les Canyons Aux Etoiles’, the awe and mystery generated by the nature of God and his creation, beyond human comprehension, is celebrated as a source of mystic wonderment: the child-like rapture that can sometimes come from not knowing things. Livre, though, is much more about confusion, doubt, lack of clarity – paradoxically, despite the extremely ordered serial framework, the listener has less to cling on to. Messiaen’s characteristic, slightly off-kilter melodies, are kept largely at bay, and his weird, idiosyncratic harmonic language reined in. It feels too restricted – an attempt to make order that actually ends up creating disorder in the listener’s mind. That’s one way of looking at it, anyway.

I’ve barely talked about the performance at all –I was so preoccupied with trying to understand the work itself that I wasn’t really concentrating on how it was played. I will note that the candlelit surroundings of the Chapel appeared suitably austere, in keeping with the music: shadows were cast on the inscrutable, immobile faces of carvings projecting outwards, high above on the wall, and the stained-glass windows, denied sunlight, showed only the blank blackness of the night outside.

The organ’s not an instrument one normally associates with avant-garde music, and this is a work that constantly catches you off-guard, and doesn’t offer you an alternative: you’re not given the catharsis of shrieking dissonance that Penderecki’s ‘Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima’, and neither are you given much consolation. Instead, a curious musical limbo opens up, and there’s no way out.

Livre d’Orgue is a work that puts up barriers, which I find it really hard to engage with, and I can’t help feeling that this is because Messiaen doesn’t really understand serialism. Well, let me qualify that – of course he understands it in a technical sense – he taught serial scores at the Conservatoire – but he just can’t seem to make it his own. Writing within this system causes him to lose his voice, rather than allowing him to express himself through it, as Anton Webern or Arnold Schoenberg had been able to. Perhaps this is because he’s coming out of the same late-Romantic Germanic tradition as the members of the Second Viennese school – but then, neither were the new generation of avant-gardists who had (partly) pressured him into this method. The strict control of the system causes his music to lose some of that woozy unpredictability, and even the birds which make their way into the fourth movement sound distant, filtered through the bars of a serialist cage, rather than fluttering free in the open air of Messiaen’s personal musical language.

Such distancing, such inaccessibility, was heightened by the fact that Oliver Brett was invisible up in the organ loft, meaning that there was no visual centre either. His performance can’t be faulted though – that this concert remained a puzzling, rather troubling experience (in a negative, rather than a stimulating way) was due to the composition itself. There is only so far one can go with interpretation of a score – if something isn’t in the music itself, the performer cannot create it, except in exceptional circumstances, and Brett delivered the Livre as well as could be expected.

I’m not sure whether I will ever understand this work – I think it’s a failure, an interesting failure, but a failure nonetheless. I may come to some epiphany, I may find the key to understanding this piece, but I’m not sure there is a key. We do indeed see through the glass darkly, and maybe we don’t even see through it at all.

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