Programme notes October 4th 2014

Saturday October 4th at 7:30 pm

St. Michael and All Angels, Kingsland


Eleanor Alberga:’No-man’s-land Lullaby’ for violin and piano (1996)

The composer writes; ‘Setting about writing a second work for Double Exposure in the summer of 1996, I had planned a somewhat lightweight and predominantly up-beat piece. However I was to receive visitations which ensured that the piece which emerged as ‘No-man’s-land Lullaby’ has neither of these qualities.  Indeed, for me the work became a kind of acknowledgment of European-ness and a realization that her two World Wars were part of my heritage also.

Visiting parts of Europe over that summer of ’96 I was struck by the almost unreal beauty of the landscapes, yet I received a heavy sadness in the atmosphere that took me back to the events of half a century ago, some of which had been played out against this very scenery.  At the same time I was visited by a melody.  It arrived unbidden and would not leave me alone; it did however offer comfort.

It was the language of the First World War that seemed finally to bring these things together, especially the image of young men dying slowly and uncomforted in a place called no-man’s-land.

The piece is cast in three sections and is entirely based on the melody that emerges most identifiably towards the end.  I am indebted to Paul Fussell’s book “The Great War and Modern Memory” for the many insights into life at the front.’


Further reading:

‘The Great War and Modern Memory’
Paul Fussell
ISBN: 139780195133325


Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975): Piano Trio no 2 in E minor op 67 (1944)

Allegro con brio
Largo -


Shostakovich wrote relatively little chamber music beyond his fifteen string quartets, constituting as they do a sort of intimate diary, and which purpose was to become most clear in his eighth quartet of 1960, when on the point of total collapse he committed it to posterity as the last thing he wished to say.  In it he quoted from several earlier works of his own and most significantly the main ‘Jewish’ theme from the last movement of this Trio.  The Trio had been written in 1944 in war-torn Leningrad with its avowed purpose as a memorial to Ivan Sollertinsky, close friend and musicologist.  It is also clear that the work had a wider message as a memorial to a whole people whose exact plight was becoming known to him only at this time.  Perhaps wider still he was to see the fate of Jews under the Nazis and the endemic anti-Semitism of Soviet life as an emblem of the human condition and of all suffering.  It was at any rate the first of many times when he was to use explicitly Jewish themes in his music.  There is perhaps not much point in trying to pin down an explicit meaning here as the music works so much more powerfully than on a merely empiric level.  The relationships between the four movements and their various themes is deep and the whole work builds to a terrifying moment in the last movement from where it subsides to the atmosphere of the opening of the whole work though utterly changed. 


Further reading:

‘Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and his Fifteen Quartets’
Wendy Lesser
Yale Universtiy Press
ISBN: 9780300169331

‘Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov’
Faber and Faber
ISBN: 0571227929




Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992): Quartet for the End of Time (1940-1941)

The extraordinary genesis of this work is a story worth recounting briefly as it still seems almost unbelievable. The 31 year old composer having been called up in 1939 and taking up duties in the medical corps of the French Army was taken prisoner at Verdun after the French defeat and transported to a POW camp deep in Germany.  The authorities in the camp took little interest in him and together with the his fellow prisoner the clarinetist Henri Akoka he worked on the music that was to become the Quartet’s third movement.  In due course a violinist and cellist, also prisoners, made themselves known to him and the Intermède was written for this little Trio with the composer rehearsing them in the toilets.  A sympathetic guard helped with paper and pencils and in finding instruments and finally a broken down piano was found and the work based on the vision of the Angel in chapter ten of the Book of Revelation came into shape. A concert was arranged.  This took place on 15th of January 1941 in freezing temperatures in an unheated hut and was attended by a large cross section of the camp’s huge prison population including those wounded lying at the front and guards and officers of the camp.  In Messiaen’s lifetime a certain mythology grew up around the premiere, a mythology he was understandably unwilling ever to quite clear up. Yet, when he said of this premiere, “Never have I been listened to with more attention and understanding” and to know what a spell this work continues to cast on all those who hear it sixty years on in circumstances infinitely less remarkable and infinitely more comfortable, one can only believe him.  The events and this sensation may well have crystalized his mission as a composer and artist for the rest of his life.

The sentences below are translations from Messiaen’s own notes for listeners and performers. 

In Homage to the Angel of the Apocolypse, who raises his hand towards Heaven, saying, ‘There shall be no more Time’.

I. Liturgie de cristal - Crystal liturgy.

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 opening movement begins with the solo clarinet imitating a blackbird's song and the violin imitating a nightingale’s song. The underlying pulse is provided by the cello and piano: the cello cycles through the same five-note melody (using the pitches C, E, D, F-sharp, and B-flat) and a repeating pattern of 15 durations. The piano part consists of a 17-note rhythmic pattern permuted strictly through 29 chords, as if to give the listener a glimpse of something eternal.

II. Vocalise pur 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 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.

III. Abîme des oiseaux - Abyss of birds.

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.

IV. Intermède - Interlude.

Scherzo, of a more individual character than the other movements, but linked to them nevertheless by certain melodic recollections.

V. Louange à l’Éternite de Jésus - Praise to the eternity of Jesus.

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 (King James Version))

VI. Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes - Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets.

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.

Toward the end of the movement the theme returns, fortissimo, in augmentation and with wide changes of register.

VII. Foullis d’arcs-en-ciel, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps - Tangle of rainbows, for the Angel who announces the end of time.

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!

VIII. Louange á l’Immortalité de Jésus - Praise to the immortality of Jesus.

Large violin solo, counterpart to the cello solo of the 5th movement. Why this second eulogy? It is especially aimed at the 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.

Further reading: 

‘The Miracle of Stalag 8a’
John William McMullen
Bird Brain Publishing
ISBN: 139780982625521


‘For the End of Time’
Rebecca Rischin
Cornell University Press
ISBN: 0801472970