Concert mystique Part 3/3 Olivier Messiaen & Jean Sibelius

By Gabriel Prynn, cellist

Part 3/3

Version française

Olivier Messiaen: Praise to Eternity of Jesus

At the outbreak of World War II the French organist and composer Olivier Messiaen was mobilized as a simple private. In 1940, he was taken prisoner by the Germans. On January 15th 1941 several hundred prisoners of the Görlitz POW camp in Silesia were invited to a very unusual concert in a makeshift performance space in the heart of the camp.

On the program: the Quartet for the End of Time, a première of nearly fifty minutes in duration composed by one of their fellow prisoners, that is to say by Messiaen himself.

The work was performed by an ensemble put together for the occasion: the composer at the piano, surrounded by three other prisoners, Henri Akoka on the clarinet, Jean Le Boulaire on the violin and Étienne Pasquier on the cello. It was bitterly cold. The musical instruments had been cobbled together and were barely usable, the cello missing a string, the keys of the old upright piano sticking.

Messiaen peu de temps avant le début de la Guerre
Olivier Messiaen shortly before the beginning of WWII

Socially diverse, the audience of some 400 people listened intently; it was probably an entirely new experience for many of them. The concert was preceded by a theological conference during which Messiaen – a passionate Catholic – spoke of the germinating theme of the work: the image of the Angel of the Apocalypse, « who raises his hand to the sky saying: Time shall be no more. »

The Quartet for the End of Time consists of eight movements, of which we will present the fifth as part of our concert: Praise to the Eternity of Jesus for cello and piano. It is indicated in the score: « infinitely slow, ecstatic, majestic, meditative, very expressive. » Messiaen describes this movement in the preface of the Quartet:

« Jesus is considered here as the Word. A long cello phrase, infinitely slow, magnifies with love and reverence the eternity of the Word, powerful and gentle, ʽthat will not diminish with the passing of the years.’ Majestically the melody spreads out into a sort of tender and sovereign distance. ʽIn the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ »


A Canadian première for the Northern Soul

The American musicologist James Hepokoski has said that in the mature works of Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) we find « his growing belief in the potential reuniting of music with nature. He now sought to bring the palpable grainy textures of musical sound and the process of musical elaboration into alignment with the magisterial spontaneity of nature’s cries, rustles, splashes, storms, cyclical course and the like. Thus the act of composition becomes a neo-pantheist spiritual exercise. The resultant work of art was intended to invite a complementarily mystical, reverential or poetic listening – not to be captured by rational analysis or chalkboard explanation. »

Clearly, in the case of the Trio Korpo, composed when Sibelius was only 22 years, we are far from his mature style. However, the influences of nationalism and of the mysteries of nature – key elements in his later symphonies – are already beginning to be felt here. Indeed, what is fascinating about this Trio Korpo, the most substantial of his early works, is how, despite the obvious influences of J.S Bach, Beethoven and Haydn, a unique voice is forming.

It includes passages evoking the rain, a recurring bird-song motif in rapid triplets, church bells, hymns of patriotic character. In short, the raw materials of an emerging style that anticipates the future development of the composer.

Jean Sibelius composed a total of five multi-movement piano trios: one in G major for two violins and piano (1883), one in A minor (1884), the Trio « Hafträsk » in A minor (1886), the Trio « Korpo » in D major (1887) and the Trio « Lovisa » in C major (1888). The Trio Lovisa has been known for some time because, at the request of the Abo Academy (the Swedish language university in Turku, on the southwest coast of Finland), the musicologist Otto Andersson acquired the manuscript in the early 1930’s.

However the other works were completely unknown until the Sibelius family made a donation of hand-written manuscripts to the University of Helsinki in 1982. The Piano Trio in D major « Korpo » of 1887 is certainly the most important finding of this archive. It has never been published, and apart from a performance given in the U.S. in October 2015 to mark the 150th anniversary of Sibelius’s birth, it has never been played publicly in North America!

The story behind the composition of this trio is quite particular. The Sibelius family had spent a happy summer holiday in Hafträsk (on the island of Norrskatajuste, in the Turku archipelago) in 1886. The following year they decided to return to this region, staying in the village of Korpo, in a lovely house near the imposing neoclassical Korpo Manor. Apparently the Sibelius’s made music almost the entire day. As during the summer of 1886, Jean Sibelius played the violin, his sister Linda the piano and his brother Christian played the cello.

Their hostess at the Manor, Ina Wilenius, seems to have been an accomplished pianist and had prepared for the family visit by acquiring the scores of all the Beethoven piano trios (note the clear reference to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata in the Molto Adagio section of the Trio Korpo). She later confided that the young Jean Sibelius showed great enthusiasm for piano trios, both as a performer and as a composer.

He liked to compose during the clear summer nights, fortified by strong coffee; he did not drink alcohol. Ms.Wilenius described how every morning he presented them with a new sketch, the result of the labours of the previous night.

The considerable length of the Trio Korpo would suggest that these same miniatures would collectively come to form the two movements of this voluminous work.


Concert mystique on February 20th, 2016 at 7.30pm at Bourgie Hall

Concert mystique Part 1

Concert mystique Part 2

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