- “Abyss of the Birds” from Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time) for Clarinet, Violin, Cello, and Piano (1940-41)
Anthony McGill, clarinet
- Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (1962)
Romanza: Très calme
Allegro con fuoco
Anthony McGill, clarinet • Gloria Chien, piano
“Abyss of the Birds” from Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time) for Clarinet, Violin, Cello, and Piano (1940-41)
Olivier Messiaen (Avignon, 1908 – Paris, 1992)
Quartet for the End of Time had one of the most remarkable premieres of the 20th century. Messiaen served in the French army during World War II and was captured at Verdun in June 1940. He was sent to Stalag VIII-A in Görlitz, Germany (today in Poland), where he spent about eight months before being released. His fame helped him greatly: a sympathetic guard provided him with the materials to compose the quartet and arranged the premiere on January 15, 1941 in a freezing cold hall in front of a few hundred spellbound prisoners and guards. Messiaen said, “Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension.”
The instrumentation was determined by the musicians available—Messiaen himself played the piano alongside clarinetist Henri Akoka, violinist Jean Le Boulaire, and cellist Étienne Pasquier. The work’s movements are a mix of solos, duos, and trios, with only four of the eight movements using the full quartet. “Abyss of the Birds” was actually the first music Messiaen composed. He met the clarinetist Henri Akoka while serving at Verdun and began a piece for him based on the birdsongs that he heard at the end of his night watch. They were captured before Akoka could try the piece, and the clarinetist first played it in an open field in Nancy, where they were held while waiting to be transported to the prisoner-of-war camp. Messiaen’s sprightly birdsongs are surrounded by meter-less, meditative reveries.
Messiaen was freed and allowed to return to Paris just a month after the January 1941 premiere of the full quartet. Akoka, who was Jewish, was not so lucky but he made his way out of captivity in a daring escape. He was briefly transferred to western France, and on the ride back to the prisoner-of-war camp he jumped from the top of the train in the middle of the night. He lay injured and unconscious by the tracks and luckily was found by railway workers and taken to the home of a sympathetic doctor who hid him for over a month while he recovered. He reached the French Free Zone on May 17, 1941. (For the full story of Messiaen, Akoka, and the quartet see For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet by Rebecca Rischin.)
“The abyss is Time with its sadness, its weariness. The birds are the opposite of Time; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant songs.”
Francis Poulenc (Paris, 1899 – Paris, 1963)
The Clarinet Sonata was one of Poulenc’s last works but it doesn’t sound like a late work. Its style is out of step with the avant-garde 1960s rather it hearkens back to Poulenc’s beginnings. He launched his career in the heady atmosphere of post-World War I Europe and embraced the spirit of novelty and experimentation that was so popular at the time. He created his own sound inspired by café music—cheeky, irreverent, and slightly absurd. It wasn’t like anyone else. He said, “I am not a cubist musician, even less a futurist, and of course, not an Impressionist. I am a musician without a label.” To create his unique sound he used winds. After exploring unusual combinations of winds in his earlier years in pieces like the sonatas for two clarinets and for clarinet and bassoon, he returned to more traditional pairings for his late flute sonata, clarinet sonata, and oboe sonata, each with piano. French musicologist Claude Rostand famously described Poulenc as part monk, part troublemaker and the droll, insouciant sound of winds suited him perfectly.
Poulenc wrote his Clarinet Sonata for Benny Goodman. Though known as a jazz clarinetist, Goodman had a strong interest in classical music and commissioned and premiered many works in the mid-20th century: Bartók’s Contrasts, Gould’s Derivations, and concertos by Copland, Hindemith, and Milhaud. Poulenc was supposed to play the piano at the premiere but he passed away from a sudden heart attack on January 30, 1963 and Leonard Bernstein joined Goodman for the premiere on April 10, 1963 at Carnegie Hall.
Johannes Brahms (Hamburg, 1833 – Vienna, 1897)
Brahms met clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld in March 1891 on a visit to Meiningen, where the clarinetist played in the court orchestra. Brahms had recently declared himself retired but his fondness of Mühlfeld’s playing inspired him to compose again. He wrote this trio and a clarinet quintet that summer and Mühlfeld premiered them before the end of the year in Berlin with Brahms at the piano. Three years later he wrote two sonatas for Mühlfeld and again accompanied him on the piano. Brahms liked Mühlfeld, calling him Fräulein Klarinette and Dear Nightingale, and treated him very well, giving him the manuscript scores for the sonatas and allowing him to have the full fees from their joint performances.
Though Brahms’ focus on the clarinet was new, the trio looks back. Brahms knew it was probably one of his last pieces, and it is a work of memory, of wistful longing for a lost past. The deep, dark-hued cello and the clear, bright clarinet are not natural companions but in the first movement they co-exist by echoing each other in long phrases. The effect of hearing two similar phrases in two different sound worlds is like hearing a story from different points of view. Every time the clarinet enters over the cello there’s a subtle twist in the plot, a new way of understanding the narrative. It’s a reminder that the past is ephemeral but we hold on to the faded memories of once strong emotions. The movement ends with running arpeggios in contrary motion—both instruments moving quickly but collectively not going anywhere. The acceptance at the end is sweet but inevitable. The two middle movements are similarly bittersweet. The energy picks up a bit in the last movement for a satisfying conclusion to this late retrospective work.
Program notes by Laura Keller, CMS Editorial Manager
© 2020 Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center
From Bruce Adolphe's Inside Chamber Music Lecture
"Brahms was a little bit out of time and that fits into my vision of why his music is rhythmically so complex. He was out of time in the sense that harmonically he wrote very differently from everyone around him. To put him in context, there was Wagner and when Brahms was older there was Mahler, Debussy, and Richard Strauss. His style was harmonically very different. He also was—it turns out—rhythmically innovative. But he was out of sync with himself emotionally. He was a difficult guy. He had bad relationships with most women. There were a few he liked well and a lot who he irritated—not just women, most people. In fact, there are lots of famous quotes of Brahms to give you an inkling of his personality. For example, “If there’s anyone in the room I have not insulted please forgive me.” “If someone you meet says he’s a friend of mine he’s probably mistaken.” And then there was the most out of sync relationship in his whole life—with Clara Schumann and Robert Schumann…
Brahms’ rhythm is probably the most unique aspect of his composing. What you hear in the Clarinet Trio are many rhythmic displacements—a rhythmic displacement means that the meter continues but the phrases are off center. It disrupts the meter and the tension between the meter and the phrase is a very big part of the drama. That’s how Brahms builds drama more than any other composer."