Saturday, 7 December 2013

Olivier Messiaen - Quatuor pour le fin du temps

In an earlier blog I recalled how 1981 was the year that I didn't get to see Adam and the Ants at Fort Regent and I didn't get to see the "The Blue Lagoon". And I realise that probably makes me sound like a complete spoilt brat but I'm just reporting the facts as I saw them, without any gloss. I was housed, fed and safe and went to a good school unlike many other people and really if that's all I had to worry about, life was pretty good. In fact, knowing what I know now about the abuse some children the same age as me were suffering in a children's home only 5 miles away it seems indecent to talk about my teenage concerns. I find it incredibly upsetting that in an island as beautiful as ours, some children were living such a terrible life and continue to do so.  As my friend's 15 year son would say to me "First world problems". 

Being stuck at home meant that there wasn't a lot to do apart from practising the flute. That practice paid off and I got an interview at Charterhouse school on the basis of my Grade 8 and got a place at the school after my music audition. 

By the age of 14, as loving as my parents were I was getting fed up of not being able to have the same rules as my friends. I am hugely grateful to my loyal friends who would ring my doorbell and ask my mum "Mrs Bridge, Can Jennifer come to the cinema?", even though I knew the answer would be "no" I so appreciated that they did this as a) it let my parents know that everyone else really was going to the cinema and b) I knew I hadn't been forgotten.

I decided that I would either get at job in a bank aged 16 and get my own flat or I would get a scholarship to boarding school. I reasoned that at boarding school whatever the rules were at least we would all be in the same boat.

45% of the students played an instrument so, suddenly, playing an instrument was normal and I was in a crowd of similar people and it felt great. I loved singing in the chapel choir and was introduced to the staples of the Anglican musical tradition - Parry and Stamford. If ever I hear the opening bars of Stamford's Nunc Dimitis in B flat I am transported back. 

After one Sunday chapel, the organist played "Transport de Joie" by Olivier Messiaen and I sat transfixed in my choir stall. As soon as I could, I asked him the name of the piece. This was in the days before computers, google and wikipedia, so I had to look it up in a book. I would beg him to play it again. A few years later I was able to buy a CD with this piece on and I would lie on my back, listening to this piece, thinking "this is what it must feel like to be transported to heaven".

I was very pleased to discover that Messiaen's "Quartet for the end of time" was a set work for A level as it meant I could study his work in great detail. By this time pop music was playing no part in my life at all, well if it did, I can't remember anything significant.

"Quartet for the end of time" is not easy to listen to.

The more you learn of its provenance, the harder it is to listen to it.

When I listen to it I feel tormented. I don't listen to it often because I want to be distressed by it. I never want my reaction to be commonplace.

After the premiere, the composer said "Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension". The premiere was performed outdoors in the rain in front of 400 prisoners and guards in Stalag VIII-A, a prisoner of war camp in Görlitz. Messiaen had been captured and sent to the camp in June 1940.

He was only able to write the piece down due to a sympathetic prison guard who gave him some paper and pencils. He wrote for the available musicians; clarinet, violin, cello & himself on piano.

Messiaen was inspired by the of Book of Revelation from the Bible. Without being trite, with no end to his incarceration in sight perhaps he felt that the end of time had been reached or that time no longer had any meaning. 

And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire ... and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth .... And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and swear by him that liveth for ever and ever ... that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished ....

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