Software Musings

Messiaen’s Cornfields

Posted on: 06/08/2006

At one of the last of this year’s concerts in the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival, I sat at the front of a packed, hot, dark church at 11 pm and heard Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. It was the first time that I’d heard it performed and it was a moving concert; the ‘cellist being in tears at the end.

In Ways of Seeing, John Berger prints Van Gogh’s Wheat Field with Crows twice. The first time he labels it “Cornfield with Birds Flying out of it” and the second time he titles it “The Last Picture that Van Gogh Painted Before he Killed Himself”. He then remarks, “It is hard to define exactly how the words have changed the image but they undoubtedly have. The image now illustrates the sentence.”

Before listening to the Messiaen, I knew that the quartet had been written in a German Prisoner-of-War camp. I knew that it had been performed under incredible harshness. I had read Messiaen’s own description of the piece with the quotation from Revelations.

As I walked away afterwards, shattered, I wondered how the quartet would have sounded had it had been entitled something like “Scenes from a Rustic Wedding” and accompanied by a description of the happy, light and cheerful nature of the piece. This would be an interesting experiment to perform.


1 Response to "Messiaen’s Cornfields"

I’m sure you know this already, but just in case..

‘Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time
Messiaen uses rhythmic motifs of 17 notes and 29 notes which play together. The different prime numbers ensure that the motifs are constantly creating new combinations of sound as the music evolves. It gives the piece a sense of timelessness because it takes a very long time before the two motifs will repeat a pattern already heard. Messiaen is using the same principle as the prime number cicada who (sic) avoids its periodic predator by choosing a prime number life cycle.’

I think it’s possible that however you primed your audience beforehand, this music would still work its magic.

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August 2006
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The author of this blog used to be an employee of Nortel. Even when he worked for Nortel the views expressed in the blog did not represent the views of Nortel. Now that he has left, the chances are even smaller that his views match those of Nortel.
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