Musings   2 comments


“We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars…everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.” —Thornton Wilder, OUR TOWN, Act 3


Here are the “Fun Facts” that I handed out at my recital at OLA this afternoon. Someone said, “I never understood Messiaen before. Now I do!” No performer can ask for more…
I must give my dear wife credit for taking the rather academic bit of prose and making it “Fun.”

Welcome! Here we are in a cathedral, and a city, with a pretty long-term investment in Angels! The resonant acoustic and powerful organ of this magnificent Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels is the perfect setting for this French music, whose composers wrote for exactly this kind of space.

We have a half hour together, so let’s see what the Angels, and their companions, have for us to hear.

~ The French carol melody “Joseph est bien Marie” is used in both the first and last piece (by Alexandre Guilmant and Eugene Gigout).

~ Guilmant and Olivier Messiaen were organists at the same Paris church, l’Eglise de la Trinité: Guilmant was there for 30 years (1871-1901), Messiaen for 61 years (1931-1992).

–~L’Eglise de la Trinite was the location for the funerals of both Hector Berlioz and Gioacchino Rossini of William Tell Overture fame (also known as the theme from the “Lone Ranger”) — thousands attended Rossini’s!

–~ Guilmant and Messiaen both taught at the Paris Conservatoire and were huge influences as teachers. Guilmant taught organ performance. Messiaen taught composition and was the teacher of many important modern composers, some of whose names may surprise you! Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Oliver Knussen, Quincy Jones, and two iconic TV composers — Lalo Schifrin, who wrote the “Mission Impossible” theme, and Marius Constant, who wrote the theme for the original “Twilight Zone”!

–~ Olivier Messiaen had synesthesia, and saw specific colors while hearing music. He was also an ornithologist, and many of his pieces include bird songs.

~ Some say Messiaen was the most important organ composer of the last 150 years – others say the most important since J.S. Bach, who died in 1750.

~ Although Messiaen used musical elements from other cultures (especially Greece and the Far East), he was a fervent Roman Catholic, and most of his music is heavy with Christian symbolism, often written as performance notes in the text.

~ Both Messiaen pieces are from La Nativité du Seigneur, a Christmas suite. The nine movements depict various elements of the birth and life of Jesus, including Mary and the Child, his descent to earth, the shepherds, the Word, the angels, the Wise Men, his later suffering, and the resurrection. Though still modern to many ears, these pieces were written in 1935, 77 years ago.

~ Messiaen usually includes a Scriptural quotation with each piece, either depicting its content or indicating that it inspired the piece. The passage for the evocative “Les Anges” is from the Christmas story from the St. Luke Gospel:

            “the celestial armies praised God and said ‘Glory to God in the highest.’”

~ The scripture for “Dieu parmi nous” is more extensive, blending Ecclesiastes, two of the Gospels and the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise on learning she is to bear the Christ child:

“Words of the communicant of the Virgin, of the entire Church: He who created me has rested in my tent, the Word is made flesh and dwells among us. My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.”

~ While listening to “Les Anges” listen for (in Messiaen’s words) “the overwhelming thrashing of jewel-studded wings as the angels exult in the Heavenly Birth,” darting around in the sky, singing joyfully, and finally disappearing into the distant heavens at the end!

~ “Dieu parmi nous” (God among us) is one of Messiaen’s greatest and best-known pieces. The many descending lines (listen for the low notes in the pedals) symbolize Jesus coming down from heaven to humanity. Les Anges are here too; you can hear them, especially in the first part of the piece.

~– The Gigout Rhapsodie combines at least three carols – the first (heard repeatedly in the Pedals) is the “Joseph” carol, the second is “Angels we have heard on high,” and the third is the best known of all carols (you’ll recognize it when you hear it)!

Thank you for joining me here today. Many thanks, as always, to Sal Soria here at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels for inviting me to present this program for you. I hope you get an opportunity to spend some time looking at the various angels here in the cathedral as well. Joyeux Noel — or holiday of your choice — to all.

Elliott Carter died Monday. He was born on the same day in the same year as Messiaen, December 1908 (yes, Carter was 103 years old).

I had the pleasure of performing two of his major pieces – one at Carnegie Recital Hall, and one at Yale.

For an ensemble I was in at SUNY, I played harpsichord in Carter’s Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord. We made our NY debut in Carnegie Recital Hall, getting a positive review from the toughest Times music critic, Donal Henahan. He sat in the center of the front row with a stern face, trying to unnerve us!

Arthur Weisberg, the renowned conductor of the school’s contemporary ensemble (with whom I’d studied and performed with at SUNY) really wanted to do Carter’s rarely performed Double Concerto for Harpsichord, Piano, and Two Chamber Orchestras. I was an organ major, but I knew the harpsichord majors wouldn’t touch it – they were much more interested in Couperin than Carter – so I volunteered.

It’s probably the most difficult piece ever written for the harpsichord, and I worked on it all year, as well as keeping up my more official studies.

A special bonus was that Ralph Kirkpatrick, the harpsichordist who first played it and Yale faculty member, had left his papers to Yale, so I was able to study his markings on the original harpsichord part. (Very few marks, by the way – just some beats circled and a few fingerings.)

To show you how difficult the piece is, at one point the conductor beats different times with each hand, for each ensemble. Learning it over the course of a year, and then performing it, was one of the great experiences of my life.

I’ll go out on a limb here and say that Aaron Copland (1900-1990) and Elliott Carter were the two most important American composers of the 20th century. But Carter’s music is much more difficult than Copland’s, both to perform and to hear!

Copland did explore some more abstract styles and organization (including some 12-tone experiments) in some of his later work. But he had turned to a more populist and accessible style in the 1930s (Rodeo, El Salon Mexico, Appalachian Spring), and except possibly for the wonderful Piano Sonata of 1930 his music was never as complicated and “thorny” as Carter’s. Though both were born in the U.S., they inhabited different musical universes.

May they all (including Olivier) rest in peace!

 * * *

Steve Jobs died a year ago last month, on October 5, 2011. I’m listening (audiobook) to the Walter Isaacson biography published soon after his death.  I highly recommend it!

Jobs is one of those giants whom it’s impossible to either imitate or succeed and I don’t envy Tim Cook’s position!

Jobs was also one of most quotable people of modern times, as well. Here’s a link to a dozen of them. Read, ponder – and act!

Posted November 5, 2012 by Ray Urwin

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