Thursday, May 08, 2008

Musical birthday boys

Yesterday was the 175th birthday of Johannes Brahms, one of the greatest Western composers, and one of my personal favorites.

It's hard to pick out a single work that represents him best, but A German Requiem, op. 45 (1868) is a good place to start. Not a conventional church-goer, Brahms completed this Requiem after the death of his mother and used vernacular biblical texts of his own choosing, rather than the traditional Latin text of the Catholic mass. In his case, the vernacular happened to be German. The Requiem was a musical watershed for Brahms, as it sealed his reputation as an equal of the greatest composers of the past. Among his non-vocal works, I can't think of greater examples than his Violin Concerto, op. 77, and the powerful F minor Piano Quintet, op. 34. More familiar are his ever-popular waltzes and Hungarian dances.

Brahms grew up in the German port city of Hamburg. The house was destroyed during the war, but a wonderful little museum run by the Johannes Brahms Society (Johannes-Brahms-Gesellschaft) now preserves his hometown memory. I visited there in 2002.

This year is also the centennial of the birth of the French modernist Olivier Messiaen. His intensely Catholic-mystical work only came to prominence after the war, during the heyday of the avant-garde, and so took time to find an audience. But Messiaen composed in a tonal, if eccentric, language some of the last century's most remarkable musical works. He served as the organist of Paris' Sainte-Trinité church for over 60 years, until his death in 1992. His later works, like the Turangalîla Symphony (1947), have only recently become more widely played.

But those came after Messiaen's most famous composition, written in a German prisoner-of-war camp in 1940, the Quartet for the End of Time. It is this weirdly beautiful piece, in eight movements, inspired by the singing of birds and the Christian Apocalypse, that introduces almost all music lovers to Messiaen. He wrote it for the instruments and performers he could scrounge together: piano, clarinet, violin, and cello. And fortunately, the prison commander was sympathetic: the work was premiered on a freezing January evening in 1941, as best they could manage. Surely, January 1941 in a German prisoner of war camp must have seemed like the end of time. But the title also refers to the innovative way Messiaen treats rhythm, much of the work lacking time signature or rhythmic repetition. The last movement seems to make time itself stand still.*

POSTSCRIPT: The Tashi Quartet, formed originally in 1973 to perform the Messiaen quartet, has reassembled to do it again, for the first time in 30 years, going on tour for the rest of the year.

POST-POSTSCRIPT: Music journalist and blogger Alex Ross has this 2004 article from the New Yorker about the quartet. Ross is author of the indispensable new history of modern music, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century.
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* The full story of one of the last century's most famous musical works is recounted in Rebecca Rischin's For the End of Time, her wonderful "biography" of the Messiaen quartet and the people associated with it.

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