Olivier Messiaen: Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus (1941) for Cello and Piano
from Quatuor pour la fin du temps, also known by its English title, Quartet for the End of Time)
In 1940, Olivier Messiaen (1908-92) was interned in a German prison camp, where he discovered among his fellow prisoners a clarinettist, a violinist and a violoncellist. The success of a short trio which he wrote for them led him to add seven more movements to this Interlude, and a piano to the ensemble, to create the Quartet for the End of Time. Messiaen and his friends first performed it for their 5000 fellow prisoners on January 15, 1941.
If the plain facts of the work’s origins are simple, the spiritual facts are far more complex. Messiaen’s religious mysticism found a point of departure for the Quartet in the passage in the Book of Revelation (chapter 10) about the descent of the seventh angel, at the sound of whose trumpet the mystery of God will be consummated, and who announces “that there should be time no longer.”
According to the composer, the Quartet was intended not to be a commentary on the Apocalypse, nor to refer to his own captivity, but to be a kind of musical extension of the Biblical account, and of the concept of the end of Time as the end of past and future and the beginning of eternity. For Messiaen there was also a musical sense to the angel’s announcement. His development of a varied and flexible rhythmic system, based in part on ancient Hindu rhythms, came to fruition in the Quartet, where more or less literally Messiaen put an end to the equally measured “time” of western classical music. (Quoted from Here).
The 6th Movement is for Piano and Cello alone. The preface of the work gives description
Praise to the Eternity of Jesus. Jesus is considered here as the Word. A broad phrase, infinitely slow, on the violoncello, magnifies with love and reverence the eternity of the Word, powerful and gentle, … “In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God, and the Word was God”.
The music is literally some of the slowest notated music I have ever encountered. Infiniment lent, extatique (Infinitely Slow, Ecstatic) ( Sixteenth Notes = 44). Notated in semiquavers (16th notes) it is a shock to sit down at the piano and realise exaclty how slowly it is meant to be played. Inspired by the Angel of the Apocalypse, there is no thunder, no fire and brimstone trumpets. Berlioz, Mahler, Verdi: those crashing apocalyptic visions don’t fit into the ethereal ecstacy of Messiaen’s vision.
All of Messiaen’s music is, by his own admission, infused with his passionate love for Catholicism and his works take on elements of ritual and sacrament. A recurring theme is the blood shared by Mary and Jesus in the womb. Le baiser de l’enfant-Jésus (“The kiss of the infant Jesus”) from the massive piano cycle Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus is a vast meditation on the blood in the umbilicial chord making Mary the recipient of the first Holy Communion. In his massive Turangalîla-Symphonie the love of God and erotic, human love of an Adam and Eve or Tristan and Isolde, are mirrored and reflected in slow ethereal moments with a suspended, floating quality. The use of Ondes Martenot, with its otherwordly purity of tone and ability to sustain notes, emphasises this magical quality.
Messiaen based the “Louanges” on two of his prewar compositions—“Oraison,” from a piece titled “Fête des belles eaux,” for six Ondes Martenot, one of the first electronic instruments; and “Diptyque,” a 1930 piece for organ. Hearing the eerie sound of the Ondes Martenot immediately puts the cello in the high register in an aural context.
When you encounter this work, you encounter a type of Spiritual Amniotic Fluid. It is very hard to play. The slow melodic line is incredibly hard to sustain on the cello and the repeated chords on the piano difficult to judge. It is not minimalism. It is a fluid state which you can only convey by really entering into that state of mind yourself. The notes become the medium for a spiritual containment that is very hard to define.
As Alex Ross so eloquently puts it:
This is the music of one who expects paradise not only in a single awesome hereafter but also in the happenstance epiphanies of daily life. In the end, Messiaen’s apocalypse has little to do with history and catastrophe; instead, it records the rebirth of an ordinary soul in the grip of extraordinary emotion. (Quoted HERE)
“Any great art work … revives and readapts time and space, and the measure of its success is the extent to which it makes you an inhabitant of that world – the extent to which it invites you in and lets you breathe its strange, special air.”
― Leonard Bernstein
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