David Jones, artist and poet (1895-1974) begins his PREFACE TO THE ANATHEMATA :

'I have made a heap of all that I could find.' (1) So wrote Nennius, or whoever composed the introductory matter to Historia Brittonum. He speaks of an 'inward wound' which was caused by the fear that certain things dear to him 'should be like smoke dissipated'. Further, he says, 'not trusting my own learning, which is none at all, but partly from writings and monuments of the ancient inhabitants of Britain, partly from the annals of the Romans and the chronicles of the sacred fathers, Isidore, Hieronymous, Prosper, Eusebius and from the histories of the Scots and Saxons although our enemies . . . I have lispingly put together this . . . about past transactions, that [this material] might not be trodden under foot'. (2)

(1) The actual words are coacervavi omne quod inveni, and occur in Prologue 2 to the Historia.
(2) Quoted from the translation of Prologue 1. See The Works of Gildas and Nennius, J.A.Giles, London 1841.

10 December 2008

Olivier Messiaen : 100th anniversary today

In 1988 France's gift to the people of Australia, for our bicentenary celebrations of Captain Phillip's 1788 arrival with the First Load of Prisoners, was Olivier Messiaen. He came to attend concerts of his music, given in his honour, and for his own interest to hear and observe the Lyre bird.

On Saturday 28 May 1988, Messiaen attended a performance of his Quartet for the End of Time at Melba Hall, Melbourne Conservatorium. To get a good seat, your correspondent arrived hours early, with a book to read. Had he known there would be an on-stage interview with the composer he would also have brought drawing materials. To record the event, therefore, he had just a jotting pencil and a small white paper bag used for a bookmark. It had contained a gift from Joy: three trout flies, and their names written in blue. White Moth, Red Tag, Royal Coachman.

After the concert, the master generously also added his own name (down the left side).

There was discussion of course about the famous circumstances of the composition and first performance of Quartet for the End of Time, given by Messiaen and fellow prisoners to an audience of prison-camp companions and their Nazi guards.

Also discussed was Messiaen's relation to birds and bird song. As noted on the drawing, he said of St Francis, "As he preached to the birds, I thought he was a colleague."

When the all-sounds song of the Lyre bird was teased at by the questioner, with what seemed to me possibly a secondary shot at postmodern practitioners - the word "stealing" was used - Messiaen took offence. If not for himself then on behalf of this unique bird whose practice seems so much like his own. "No bird steals another bird's song", he protested. "It's a lie. It's a transcription!" (You, not the Lyre, are the liar.)

It is known that in the following days Messiaen did encounter Lyre birds in song and dance at Sherbrook Forest, outside Melbourne. He made notations of their songs in his journal, as he had done for many decades, and these he later incorporated into his final composition, Éclairs sur l'au-delà…. (Illuminations on the beyond…). The third movement of this 11 movement work is
L’Oiseau-lyre et la Ville-fiancée (The lyre bird and the bridal city).

For 61 years Messiaen was the titular organist at Église de la Sainte-Trinité, Paris. Shortly after Messiaen's visit to Melba Hall, your correspondent visited Paris for the first time. One Sunday morning he attended several masses at La Trinité in the hope that Messiaen might play the organ. No such luck, but some Messiaen work was played. A great thrill. (photo by PT)

In 1992 Christine and I were living in Berlin. On Good Friday we attended the service and organ recital at Alte Dorfkirche, Zelendorf.

As this drawing records, the first piece was by Mendelssohn, the second by Bach and the third by Messiaen, Combat de la mort et de la vie, part four of Les Corps glorieux (Glorious Bodies) of 1939. Ten days later, on 27 April 1992, Messiaen died.

A month after, a concert of remembrance was given in his honour at the Franzosische Friedrichstadtkirche, home of the French Reform Church. A work by Bach, then Messiaen's nine part meditation for organ La Nativité du Seigneur (The Nativity of the Lord) of 1935. As the final sustained chord ended and faded away a blackbird could clearly be heard singing, outside, in the evening light, beyond the stained glass.

That's the obvious point to end this. However, given the present plight of the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM), one more recollection. Of a wonderful wintry Friday night in Melbourne earlier this year. Of leaving a packed MCG at three quarter time, with the Magpies unexpectedly thrashing the Cats, and rushing through the Fitzroy Gardens to St Patrick's Cathedral for a 10pm start of Messiaen's great piano cycle Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jésus (Twenty views of the child Jesus) performed on a (Southern) cross of pianos by Michael Kieran Harvey and a team of pianists from the Australian National Academy of Music. Of stepping back into the Melbourne chill at 1.15am, totally exhilarated.