A few months ago the Stockholm International Rotary Club presented an unusual program, featuring a young artist and his music: Hugo Ticciati, violinist and leader of a new musical group in Sweden, “O/Modernt” (not/modern).
Hugo’s enthusiasm for his music and his musical projects, and his seemingly effortless mastery of the violin, made an indelible mark on my consciousness, so I have been alert to an opportunity to experience O/Modernt. The moment came last Sunday in a performance of chamber music at Stockholm’s Musikaliska, a “musical palace built in 1878”.
The program, Folklore, Fåglar, & Evigheit (“Folklore, Birds & Eternity”) was performed with four instruments:
Cello, Johannes Rostano
Clarinet, Chistoffer Sundqvist
Piano, Alasdair Beatson
Violin, Hugo Picciati
Before I get into the details and commentary, here is the source of the energy that is driving the writing of this article: I was blown away by the performance of the major piece, presented during the second part of the program.
The program, first part
Igor Stravinsky, L’Histoire du Soldat (“The History of a Soldier”, for clarinet, piano and violin)
“… (F)ull of the wit and humor of Stravinsky. The violin is guttural and raw, while the clarinet seems to have an erratic will of its own, often breaking in at ‘inappropriate’ moments and interrupting the violin. The piano acts as a combination of the rhythm section and a piano in a ‘honky tonk’ bar. The rhythms are always shifting and changing, and the music incorporates elements of jazz, Viennese waltz, and ragtime.” (Source)
Béla Bartók, Selected Duos from Opus 98 (for piano and violin)
“…(A)ll songs and dances included in this series are based on folk music from many Eastern Europe countries, but harmonic and rhythmic freedom is evident throughout the whole piece.” (Source). Although written for two violins, these duos were performed by one violin and the piano.
Béla Bartók, Romanian Folk Dances (for piano and violin)
These are six short dances based on folk tunes from Transylvania.
Comments on First Part
The first two offerings were unfamiliar, and not pleasant to my ear. This is not an unusual reaction to some music of these two composers; and, my ears do not function perfectly. The performers were properly energetic for the nature of the music, and seemed completely attuned to each other.
The third offering was one of my favorite sets of short pieces. I often play recordings of them. They are also arranged for orchestra which gives them a larger ‘appearance,’ but I prefer the two instruments and these were played as well as any that I’ve heard.
The program, second part
Olivier Messiaen, Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time)
Where to start? This is one the moments when I become aware, as a writer, how inadequate words are, after all. This is the bane of us (metaphorically) ink-stained wretches, but we are compelled by our natures to try, even if our efforts bring us ignominy and vilification.
We must begin with the composer Olivier Messiaen, an extraordinary man. He was an organist, and an ornithologist as well as a composer. He wandered forests, writing pad in hand, recording the songs of birds which he would incorporate into his music. As the bio under the previous link details, he was also influenced in his music by his Catholic faith and by Indonesian, Japanese and ancient Greek music. Modern western musical influences include the composers Debussy, Mussorgsky, and Stravinsky among others. Other influences include Bryce Canyon in Utah, and the life of St. Francis of Assisi.
Put all these together in your brain, then add considerations of tone, color, rhythm, harmony, instrumentation—all uniquely employed by Messiaen—and you will have some foundation for understanding the tasks of the musicians in interpreting his music.
The ‘quartet’ in the name of the piece refers to the number of the musicians, not the form of the music. There are eight sections, the names of which I record here in English, rather than the original French:
- Liturgy of crystal
- Vocalise, for the Angel who announces the end of time
- Abyss of birds (for solo clarinet)
- Interlude (for violin, cello, and clarinet)
- Praise to the eternity of Jesus (for cello and piano)
- Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets
- Tangle of rainbows, for the Angel who announces the end of time
- Praise to the immortality of Jesus (for violin and piano)
Now to the words…
Imagine each of the eight pieces as beginning with a group of people entering into a prayer circle. They prepare by quietly sitting, all but the pianist facing each other, resting quietly until the musician with the lead instrument for the set gives a subtle signal to the others that he is ready to begin. They begin.
When the set is over, the last musician(s) to play slowly disengage(s) from the performance, seeming to enter a contemplative state. All the others are silent and motionless as well. After about fifteen seconds they awake and prepare for performance of the next set, as described above.
After the last set, the violinist slowly lifted his bow from his instrument, allowing it to flow gently toward the music stand and, finally, touch it, resting there for more seconds as the others remained as if performing Zazen.
Finally someone turned up the lights and we knew it was time to offer enthusiastic applause, in raucous contrast to the mood of the piece just performed.
(The following are translated quotations from Messiaen’s Preface to the score. Source.)
1. Between three and four in the morning, the awakening of birds: a solo blackbird or nightingale improvises, surrounded by a shimmer of sound, by a halo of trills lost very high in the trees. Transpose this onto a religious plane and you have the harmonious silence of Heaven.
- The first and third parts (very short) evoke the power of this mighty angel, a rainbow upon his head and clothed with a cloud, who sets one foot on the sea and one foot on the earth. In the middle section are the impalpable harmonies of heaven. In the piano, sweet cascades of blue-orange chords, enclosing in their distant chimes the almost plainchant song of the violin and cello.
The abyss is Time with its sadness, its weariness. The birds are the opposite to Time; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant songs.
Scherzo, of a more individual character than the other movements, but linked to them nevertheless by certain melodic recollections.
Jesus is considered here as the Word. A broad phrase, “infinitely slow”, on the cello, magnifies with love and reverence the eternity of the Word, powerful and gentle, “whose time never runs out”. The melody stretches majestically into a kind of gentle, regal distance. “In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)
Rhythmically, the most characteristic piece of the series. The four instruments in unison imitate gongs and trumpets (the first six trumpets of the Apocalypse followed by various disasters, the trumpet of the seventh angel announcing consummation of the mystery of God) Use of added values, of augmented or diminished rhythms, of non-retrogradable rhythms. Music of stone, formidable granite sound; irresistible movement of steel, huge blocks of purple rage, icy drunkenness. Hear especially all the terrible fortissimo of the augmentation of the theme and changes of register of its different notes, towards the end of the piece.
Recurring here are certain passages from the second movement. The angel appears in full force, especially the rainbow that covers him (the rainbow, symbol of peace, wisdom, and all luminescent and sonorous vibration). – In my dreams, I hear and see ordered chords and melodies, known colors and shapes; then, after this transitional stage, I pass through the unreal and suffer, with ecstasy, a tournament; a roundabout compenetration of superhuman sounds and colors. These swords of fire, this blue-orange lava, these sudden stars: there is the tangle, there are the rainbows!
Large violin solo, counterpart to the violoncello solo of the 5th movement. Why this second eulogy? It is especially aimed at second aspect of Jesus, Jesus the Man, the Word made flesh, immortally risen for our communication of his life. It is all love. Its slow ascent to the acutely extreme is the ascent of man to his god, the child of God to his Father, the being made divine towards Paradise.
(End of quotations)
See what I did there? I avoided giving my own inadequate words in favor of those by the composer!
Nonetheless, I have to say further that this was a transcendent experience, due in equal measure to the God-given talents of the composer and of the four musicians.