A passion for birds and a message of grace

Winter warm brahms
Fragility. © Charles Thibo

Grace – this idea was at the heart of a composition of Olivier Messiaen, conceived in 1990. The French composer first considered writing an oboe concerto for his friend Heinz Holliger (born 1939). His ideas later evolved into a piece for oboe, cello, piano, harp and orchestra: Concert à 4 (Quadruple Concert). He drew his inspiration from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Domenico Scarlatti and Jean-Philippe Rameau as well as from his transcriptions of bird songs, Messiaen’s trademark.

In earlier post on Messiaen’s piece “Chronochromie” I have mentioned Messiaen’s passion for birds. He would observe them for many hours, record their voices and try to transpose them into music. The famous conductor and composer Pierre Boulez, one of his students, would later, despite misgivings about his teacher’s compositions, admit: “He taught us to look around and to understand that anything can become music.” That was one of the most valuable lessons that he taught his students, the next generation of composers.

In this specific case Messiaen had an encounter with an oriole lasting an hour, about which he noted: flute-like timbre, whistling, golden, sliding, rich in harmonics, luminous, major in key, strong and bright. The oriole is called “loriot” in French and it alludes to Messiaen’s wife, Yvonne Loriod, a pianist, as  the researcher Christopher Dingle explains in a book about Messiaen’s final works. The “Concert à Quatre” was written for five musicians he felt particularly grateful to: his wife, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, the oboist Holliger and the flautist Catherine Cantin, as well as the conductor Myung-Whun Chung. Unsurprisingly, his wife Yvonne was given the part of the oriole, joined by the woodwind.

Unfinished business

Messiaen was able to complete the draft score for four out of five movements. However his declining health prevented him from finishing the piece. Of the completed movements, Yvonne Loriod, in conjunction with the composers George Benjamin and  Holliger, orchestrated the second half of the first movement and the whole of the fourth. Messiaen described the latter in the draft score as “completely reviewed – good in terms of sonority, length and dynamics”, as Dingle notes.

Furthermore, Messiaen had intended to include a sequence based on various bird songs. To write it, Loriod used similar sketches discarded from Messiaen’s opera “Saint François d’Assise” and included them in that last movement. She also added a chorus of bells from the same source. Messiaen had intended the fifth movement to be a fugue but as he had not even sketched it, it could not be completed and was thus left out of the final version. The recording featuring Catherine Cantin, Heinz Holliger, Yvonne Loriod, Mstislav Rostropovich and the Orchestre de l’Opéra Bastille under Myung Whun Chung ist part of the Deutsche Grammophon’s recordings of Messiaen’s orchestral works. Highly recommended!

Elegance and tension

The “Concert à 4” starts on an elegiac note, very melodious, played by the strings. They set the stage for the winds that take up the theme until the get interrupted by the piano. Here comes the oriole, and once you focus on the music, you see and hear the bird singing as it hops from one branch to the next. The string now play a more menacing melody, tension building up – and broken off again. Peace prevails, the first theme comes back. A very colourful first movement, illustrating fragility and natural grace.

The second movement, called “Vocalize”, starts on a flute theme, joined by the oboe and a delicate piano melody – beautiful, pristine. Messiaen was a deeply religious man and his music is very often meant as a reverence to God and his creation. At the same time, the second movement features a melody inspired by traditional Japanese or Chinese music. The first bars of third movement, called “Cadenza”, recall the second movement, but the strings give it a different texture and dynamic, something is wrong here, questions. The flute shows up, but does it echo the question or is it part of the answer? The piano and percussions add to the confusion. There is a basic idea, a theme, difficult to grasp, but fascinating to listen to.

The finale called “Rondeau” – that is where Mozart comes in, the first bars sketching a theme that echoes Vienna’s classics, embedded in a broader orchestral theme, and referring to the form of the finale of many classical works written by Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. Again, the whole movement is very elegant, several sound effects that could well have been written by Igor Stravinsky create an element of surprise, but do not destroy the overall harmony.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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