PROGRAM NOTES: A Spiritual Journey
by Eric Bromberger
Ainsi la nuit
Born January 22, 1916, Angers, France
Died May 23, 2013, Paris
Henri Dutilleux was one of the most careful of craftsmen. Ideas for a piece might germinate for years, the process of composition was slow, and a piece might be revised over a course of years before the composer was satisfied. As a result, Dutilleux’s body of work is very small, and–not surprisingly–he often missed deadlines, sometimes by a number of years.
Such was the case with the composer’s only string quartet, which he titled Ainsi la nuit (“Thus the Night”). In the early 1970s the Koussevitzky Foundation commissioned a work for the Juilliard String Quartet from Dutilleux. Dutilleux had written nothing for string quartet since some student pieces while at the Paris Conservatory forty years earlier, and now he began cautiously, going back and studying works for quartet by Webern, Berg, Beethoven, and Bartók. Then Dutilleux composed three short movements, which he titled Nuit (“Night”), and sent them to the Juilliard in 1974. They were not in any sense finished compositions, but Dutilleux wanted to give the Juilliard some sense of his writing for quartet. Once the Juilliard had played through those pieces and approved, Dutilleux resumed work and over the next two years reworked and combined those movements into Ainsi la nuit, which was premièred by the Parenin Quartet in Paris on January 6, 1977. The Juilliard gave the American première the following year at the Library of Congress, and over the last forty years Ainsi la nuit has become one of Dutilleux’s most frequently-performed compositions–it is now available in over a dozen recordings.
Despite its evocative title, Ainsi la nuit is not based on a literary text, nor does it in any way offer a program. Dutilleux preferred to remain silent about the meaning of his title, and he would not explain the significance of the titles of individual movements, saying only that the music offers “a sort of nocturnal vision . . . a series of ‘states’ with a somewhat impressionist side to them.” Dutilleux did not like breaks between movements, feeling that they impeded the steady unfolding of musical ideas across the span of a complete work, and as a result Ainsi la nuit has an unusual structure. Only about twenty minutes long, it consists of seven principal movements, but Dutilleux also wrote an Introduction and then joined together the first five movements with what he called “parentheses”: brief linking passages that nevertheless serve important thematic functions. One observer has called these “nests”: they gather up ideas that have been previously introduced and present material that will continue to develop Only the final two movements are separate–that is, not linked by parentheses.
Ainsi la nuit is music of stupefying difficulty for the performers, and it challenges audiences as well. It has been observed that much of the musical material for the quartet grows out of a wide hexachord first heard very quietly at the close of the first measure of the Introduction–Dutilleux will proceed to build Ainsi la nuit on intervals and cells derived from that chord. But listeners coming new to this music may be best advised not to try to follow those thematic cells or even to try to make out the divisions between movements and parentheses. Instead, they might best approach Ainsi la nuit through the incredible soundworld Dutilleux creates (this truly is a “nocturnal vision”) and by following the arc of this musical journey across its twenty-minute span.
Dutilleux requires every type of string technique from his performers–artificial harmonics, pizzicato, sul tasto (playing over the fingerboard), ponticello (playing on top of the bridge), glissandos, and so on. These are normal enough, certainly, but Dutilleux employs them within music of extraordinary rhythmic complexity and extraordinary rhythmic freedom. The writing is often very high (frequently at the very top of the performers’ fingerboards), and while there are certainly animated and loud moments here, much of this music is extremely quiet. Misterioso is a frequent marking, and Dutilleux will specify “Very mysterious and distant” and at one point lontanissimo: “as distant as possible.”
Dutilleux was pleased with Ainsi la nuit and often expressed a desire to write a second quartet. He was 60 when he completed it, and though he lived until age 97, he never wrote another.
Piano Trio in D Minor, Opus 120
Born May 12, 1845, Pamiers, France
Died November 4, 1924, Paris
In the final years of his long life, Fauré turned to chamber music, producing six major works between 1916 and 1924. This was an extremely difficult time for the composer, for it brought not only the First World War but also the serious decline of his health. He had begun to suffer from deafness about twenty years earlier, and the gradual decay of his hearing was accompanied by a neural distortion that caused him to hear notes at incorrect pitches. Fauré also suffered from difficulty breathing (perhaps the result of his heavy smoking), and for extended periods in the early 1920s he lived as a virtual recluse, never leaving his room in Paris.
It was during this difficult period that Fauré wrote his only piano trio. He began work on it in September 1922 while on vacation in the village of Annecy-le-Vieux, in one of his favorite places, the mountains of Savoy near the Swiss border; the score was completed following his return to Paris in October. It is not surprising that music written under such conditions should be so expressive, and the gentle Piano Trio has been hailed as one of Fauré’s masterpieces. At the heart of this music is its wonderful slow movement, marked simply Andantino–Fauré actually wrote this movement first. Longest of the three movements, the F-major Andantino is based on its radiant, lyric opening idea, which passes seamlessly between violin and cello while the piano offers simple chordal accompaniment. The movement is in ternary form, with a more animated middle section before the return of the opening material, altered on its reappearance.
Fauré frames the Andantino with two fast movements. The opening Allegro ma non troppo, in D minor, is in sonata form. The concluding Allegro vivo opens with a conversation between strings and piano and finally drives to an animated, exuberant close in D major. The Trio received a private hearing at the home of a friend of the composer before its official première. Following this music’s sunny conclusion, the composer turned to the woman who had been his hostess at Annecy-le-Vieux and said: “That’s what your hospitality leads to.”
The public première of the Piano Trio took place at a Societé Nationale concert on May 12, 1923, Fauré’s 78th birthday. The composer, however, was too ill to attend and remained in his room.
Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps
Born December 10, 1908, Avignon
Died April 28, 1992, Paris
Called up during World War II, Olivier Messiaen was serving as a medical auxiliary when the Germans overran France in the spring of 1940. He was taken prisoner and sent to a POW camp east of Dresden, where he discovered among his fellow prisoners a violinist, a clarinetist, and a cellist. A sympathetic German camp commander supplied Messiaen with manuscript paper and arranged to have an upright piano–old and out of tune–brought in for his use. That fall, Messiaen wrote an extended work called Quartet for the End of Time for the four musicians, who gave the première performance at that prison camp–Stalag VIII A– on January 15, 1941. Their audience consisted of 5000 fellow POWs, who sat outside in sub-freezing temperatures to hear the performance. “Never have I been listened to with such attention and understanding,” said Messiaen of that occasion.
It would be incorrect, however, to assume that the Quartet for the End of Time was written in response to the seemingly-endless existence of prisoners of war. Rather, Messiaen–a devout Christian–took his inspiration from the Revelation of St. John the Divine in the Apocrypha, specifically from the tenth chapter: “I saw a mighty angel, descending from heaven, clothed in a cloud, having a rainbow on his head. His face was as the sun, his feet as columns of fire. He placed his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the earth, and, supporting himself on the sea and on the earth, he raised his hand towards Heaven and swore by Him who lives forever and ever, saying: There will be no more Time; but on the day of the trumpet of the seventh angel, the mystery of God will be completed.”
The Quartet is an expression of faith in the resurrection from temporal existence, a faith expressed in many ways. For example, the work is in eight movements because while seven is “the perfect number” (the number of days of the creation), the music here “extends into eternity and becomes the eighth, of unfailing light, of immutable peace.” The notion of the dissolution of time is further reflected in the metrical notation of the music itself. Messiaen sometimes uses traditional meters and bar lines, but the actual metric flow of the music often has nothing to do with the prescribed measures; at other points he dispenses with an established meter altogether. The instrumentation varies (only in certain movements do all four instruments play simultaneously), and the Quartet also marks the first appearance of birdsong in Messiaen’s music–he was fascinated by the songs of individual birds, carefully notated these songs, and used them as an important thematic feature of his music from this point on. Messiaen himself prepared a detailed and colorful description of the eight movements, worth quoting at length:
– Liturgie de cristal (Liturgy of Crystal): Between the hours of three and four in the morning, the awakening of the birds: a thrush or a nightingale soloist improvises, amid notes of shining sound and a halo of trills that lose themselves high in the trees. Transpose this to the religious plane: you will have the harmonious silence of heaven.
– Vocalise, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du temps (Vocalise, for the angel who announces the end of time): The first and third parts (very short) evoke the power of that mighty angel, his hair a rainbow and his clothing mist, who places one foot on the sea and one foot on the earth. Between these sections are the ineffable harmonies of heaven. From the piano, soft cascades of blue-orange chords, encircling with their distant carillon the plainchant-like recitativo of the violin and cello.
– Abîme des oiseaux (Abyss of the birds) Clarinet solo. The abyss is Time, with its sadnesses and tedium. The birds are the opposite of Time; they are the desire for light, for stars, for rainbows and for jubilant outpourings of song!
– Intermède (Intermezzo). Of a more outgoing character than the other movements but related to them, nonetheless, by various melodic references.
– Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus (Praise to the Eternity of Jesus) Jesus is here considered as one with the Word. A long phrase, infinitely slow, by the cello expatiates with love and reverence on the everlastingness of the Word, mighty and dulcet, “which the years can in no way exhaust.” Majestically the melody unfolds itself at a distance both intimate and awesome. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
– Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes (Dance of fury for the seven trumpets) Rhythmically the most idiosyncratic movement of the set. The four instruments in unison give the effect of gongs and trumpets (the first six trumpets of the Apocalypse attend various catastrophes, the trumpet of the seventh angel announces the consummation of the mystery of God). Use of extended note values, augmented or diminished rhythmic patterns, non-retrogradable rhythms–a systematic use of values which, read from left to right or from right to left, remain the same. Music of stone, formidable sonority; movement as irresistible as steel, as huge blocks of livid fury, of icelike frenzy. Listen particularly to the terrifying fortissimo of the theme in augmentation and with change of register of its different notes, toward the end of the piece.
– Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du temps (Clusters of rainbows, for the angel who announces the end of time) Here certain passages from the second movement return. The mighty angel appears, and in particular the rainbow that envelops him (the rainbow, symbol of peace, of wisdom, of every quiver of luminosity and sound). In my dreamings I hear and see ordered melodies and chords, familiar hues and forms; then, following the transitory stage, I pass into the unreal and submit ecstatically to a vortex, a dizzying interpenetration of superhuman sounds and colors. These fiery swords, these rivers of blue-orange lava, these sudden stars: Behold the cluster, behold the rainbows!
– Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus (Praise to the Immortality of Jesus) Expansive violin solo balancing the cello solo of the fifth movement. Why this second glorification? It addresses itself more specifically to the second aspect of Jesus–to Jesus the man, to the Word made flesh, raised up immortal from the dead so as to communicate His life to us. It is total love. Its slow rising to a supreme point is the ascension of man toward his God, of the Son of God toward his Father, of the mortal newly made divine toward paradise – And I repeat anew what I said above: All this is mere striving and childish stammering if one compares it to the overwhelming grandeur of the subject!