Peter Hill joins us at ANAM this week coaching ANAM pianists in the piano cycle Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus by the great French composer of the twentieth century Olivier Messiaen. Here Peter reflects on his experiences of performing and researching Messiaen’s music and of working with the composer.
My involvement with Messiaen’s music dates from my first day as a student at Oxford when I was handed the score of Visions de l’Amen (for two pianos) and rather unwisely agreed to play the first piano part at a concert a day or two later. It was a baptism of fire, and I can still remember that I was baffled by how to play the fast streams of chords in the second and seventh movements (I’ve since discovered a good fingering). But the sounds and the colours together with the overwhelming impact of the final Amen thrilled me.
A year or two after the Oxford experience I set myself to learn Cantéyodjayâ, composed in the late 1940s just after Messiaen had completed his first overseas commission, the mighty Turangalîla-Symphonie, written for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Cantéyodjayâ is the start of a very modern, experimental phase in his music. It packs an extraordinary punch for a relatively short piece and became a mainstay of my repertoire. Cantéyodjayâ couldn’t be more different from Visions de l’Amen and it introduced me to the astonishing range of ideas and effects in Messiaen. In fact, every work he wrote has its own quite distinctive personality. From Cantéyodjayâ I went on to learn the Quatre études de rythme (composed at a similar time, 1949–50), and then the early Préludes, composed in the late 1920s, when Messiaen was still a student at the Paris Conservatoire.
It was at this point – never having played either of the two great cycles – Vingt Regards and Catalogue d’oiseaux – that I was asked to record all Messiaen’s piano music! It was an enormous project and took me eight years to complete. At the time I was greatly helped by Messiaen himself, who invited me to work with him on the music at his home in Paris. I had imagined he might be rather cerebral about music, but in fact he was the reverse, absolutely passionate – so that when I performed a piece from (say) Catalogue d’oiseaux the music really had to ‘be’ the birds and the scenery. Messiaen was quietly spoken, and had exquisite manners, which thankfully extended to speaking French at a moderate tempo for my benefit, and we conversed widely on all sorts of matters as well as music. He loved English poetry (his father had taught English, and was a translator of Shakespeare) but he knew it only in French: so I would be asked to recite (from memory) in English a passage which Messiaen would quote, such as this from his father’s translation of Macbeth: ‘La vie n’est q’une ombre qui passé, Un pauvre acteur qui se pavane et s’agite durant son heure sur la scène …’ Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage … I’m afraid my attempts to oblige only showed that Messiaen’s knowledge of English literature was a lot better than mine.
Ten years after I last saw Messiaen I went to Paris and paid a visit to his widow, the pianist Yvonne Loriod, still living in the Messiaen apartment in the 18th arrondissement. She told me that she had spent the years since Messiaen’s death putting his papers in order. Would I like to see the archive? We set off down a dimly-lit corridor and jangling a huge bunch of keys she threw open the door with a flourish on a room in immaculate order, with shelving from floor to ceiling on which were boxes and files, all neatly labelled. She must have noticed the expression on my face, and very simply, even casually, she said, ‘Perhaps when you are next in Paris you might like to come and do some research here?’ Indeed I did return, and the work I did in the archive led to a biography of Messiaen, a study of Oiseaux exotiques, which he composed in the 1950s, and a recently completed book on Catalogue d’oiseaux.
Messiaen often said to me that in the most virtuoso passages the playing must always be expressive and melodic; ‘never like an étude’, he would say. This is not easy to achieve! The Messiaen playing I least like are those performances, which however accomplished, sound mechanical, while the best are full of grace and beauty as well as emotional power. I also think that Messiaen was a master at structuring music over huge spans of time, and that the performer needs to recognise how Messiaen has made a particular moment sound overwhelming through the careful steps which prepare it.
I find Messiaen’s music not only beautiful but thrillingly exciting. How could it not be in (say) the final stages of Vingt Regards where one is driven irresistibly forwards by wave upon wave? One can see what I mean in the slow movements. Here Messiaen may ask for a tempo which is ‘infinitely slow’, but however still and contemplative it should never lose momentum. If one loses the sense of the shape as a whole, then the performance fails. I compare it to being in a great Gothic cathedral at night and exploring the vault high above one by the light of a single torch: the whole reveals itself only inch by inch, but it is still a whole – marvellous!
Article featured in Music Makers vol 21
Hear Peter Hill and the ANAM pianists perform this very work on Saturday evening at the South Melbourne Town Hall.
Sat 25 Mar 2017 7.30PM
MESSIAEN Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus
Peter Hill piano
Peter Hill’s ANAM residency is generously supported by Arnold and Mary Bram