Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time
14 August 2014

Here's an article I wrote for the Guardian on this amazing piece:

My interest in Olivier Messiaen's music started in my teens, when I heard a couple of his Vingt Regards sur l'enfant-Jésus. I was intrigued, but by no means bowled over. Still, I liked it enough to ask my mum to buy me the score, and thereafter found myself increasingly captivated by its remarkable musical language. In particular, I was fascinated by the juxtaposition of deep calm and great complexity. I have always been drawn to music with large contrasts. When I play, my default position is to reach for the extremes, to seek the greatest possible emotional range. It is rare that I find a piano I can play both as loud and as soft as I want. It feels slightly juvenile, to be honest: the desire to go from a tiny whisper to banging the drum as loud as I possibly can. But there we are – those are my raw instincts, and Messiaen lets me give full rein to them.

The Quartet for the End of Time is perhaps the first of Messiaen's works in which the contrast between movements becomes truly extreme: there is a new level of violence in the music. It is not hard to imagine why this might be, given the work's famous origins, written while Messiaen was a prisoner of war at the Nazis' Stalag VIII-A camp. The struggle to not only endure the terrible conditions, but also to incorporate the experience into his Catholic faith, must have been profound. (Henri Akoka, the clarinettist for the premiere of the quartet, asked Messiaen to join him in attempting to escape; Messiaen answered: "No, it's God's will I am here.") The result is a work more emotionally engaged than any Messiaen had written previously. To me, it is the most open and vulnerable of all his compositions, its religious certainties balanced with a palpable sense of longing.

The piece is so deeply involving to hear that one can miss how odd it is. The unusual combination of piano, clarinet, violin and cello, reflecting the players he had available to him at the camp, is only a part of it. Of its eight movements, only half involve all four players: one is a solo, two are duets, and one is a trio. Even stranger, the clarinet and cello are silent for the last 10 minutes of the piece. In fact, each musician has to sit still for this long once or twice, which can make the experience of performance feel rather disjointed. This reflects a curious and disparate genesis: the duo movements are reworkings of previous compositions; the solo clarinet movement was written as a gift for Akoka as they travelled together under German guard; the trio was written for friends in captivity before the concept of writing a quartet had even entered Messiaen's mind. Only the remaining four movements were written with the quartet in mind.

So how does Messiaen hold all this together? Personally, I think the lack of a unifying inspiration has left its traces; in particular, the trio movement has always struck me as sounding slightly out of place, a bit too jocular for what surrounds it without having a clear emotional function in the broader structure (do we really need light relief in this piece? I don't think so). But that is a small point compared to the majestic shape of the whole, which rests on the interplay between complexity and simplicity.

In the four movements that involve all the players, Messiaen experiments with subverting the idea of linear time – using palindromic rhythms, disturbing the sense of regular metre by adding or subtracting small note values, overlaying different-lengthed ostinati thereby creating in a few bars a process that would take several days to return to its starting point, and quoting birdsong, which seems to exist in its own realm without need of cause or effect. Contrastingly, the emotional heart of the work comes in the two duet movements for violin and cello with piano accompaniment, the cello movement occurring at roughly the midpoint, the violin at the end.

They are clearly intended to be heard as related – in fact, the original title of the final movement was Sécond Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus, referring back to the cello's Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus. These movements play with time in a different way – they are broad melodies in E major gradually unfolding within an exceptionally slow pulse. This comes to the core of Messiaen's work: the faith that motivated him to write music of such humble, heartfelt sincerity as to risk seeming naive. A fool for God, perhaps. As a metaphor for eternity, extreme slowness might seem suspect. Why should eternity be slow any more than fast? The mind recoils. And yet these melodies, so far outside of normal musical time, can truly sound otherworldly.

To play as slowly as written, performers need a great deal of trust in the music: it is easy to doubt it can sustain itself over such a vast span. One has to fundamentally alter one's sense of pulse, to pass over the individual notes and follow a broader beat that is so slow as to feel almost unbearable. It is a bit like walking in super-slow motion. In fact, it is so slow that it can be a challenge just to count to eight. But the rewards for engaging with this radical rhythmic space are profound: the music seems to touch the far edges of human experience, and yet its core too, like the gaze between a baby and its mother.

There are few pieces that offer the possibility of such transfiguration, and that it should have emerged from such horrific beginnings seems little short of miraculous. It offers a stark juxtaposition between the destructive and creative potentials of humanity, a struggle we all embody to some degree. Do we seek to transform whatever forms of violence we experience into something creative and relational, or do we spit them out and perpetuate the cycle? Perhaps Messiaen's solution was an attempt to avoid the reality of his situation, an escape into his artistic and religious worlds, but it has left us an enduring and improbable masterpiece.
In nearly 60 years of concert going your performance of the quartet with your colleagues in Greyfriars was one of the best ever. I'd also been to the lecture earlier in the day which was extremely illuminating. Was also at your concert in Dunoon yesterday -thanks for coming! great! Regards Chris
Posted by Chris Robertson on 12 January 2015
Thank you Steven for your big part in the stunning performance of the Quartet at Greyfriar's Kirk on Monday - and thanks to your fellow musicians too. I don't think I've ever heard such rapt silence at the end of any performance before, I think it must have lasted 20 - 30 seconds, it really felt like the end of time! Absolutely stunning, the stand out event of the Festival this year. All I could do was to walk slowly down the transformed streets of Edinburgh, gradually descending from the peaks that you had taken us to, back to a changed "normal" life. It will stay long in my memory. Thank you.
Posted by Charles Gaskell on 16 August 2014

A change of pace - charity abseil
27 May 2014

I've always been rather scared of heights and when I saw an advert for abseiling off the Forth Road Bridge in aid of Chest Heart and Stroke Scotland, something clicked in my mind and I realised I was sorely tempted. I kept trying to put it out of my mind, but finally I signed up and immediately felt sick! My wife Jeannie is going to do it with me, and we went for a 'trial run' at a local outdoor climbing centre which helped calm the nerves. If you want to sponsor either of us (in which case, thanks a lot!) here are the links.
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20 May 2014

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The power of dreams
27 November 2013

Last night I dreamed that I was furiously improvising with tone clusters, up and down the piano, a great wall of sound going on and on. When I woke up this morning my fingers were sore! I had to plaster up three of them...
Hi Steven, you may not remember me, but I was at Denmark Road when you were. I am just about to start learning Ondine, and I enjoyed your article aboutlearning it. I am already dreaming about playing it, even though I can't yet. No sore fingers yet though.... So pleased that you have been so successful, it is fully deserved. My friend Rachel, who was also at Denmark Road with us says Hi too. No need to reply, just wanted to say many congratulations on your success.
Posted by Anne on 22 April 2014

31 August 2013

Congratulations. Particularly enjoyed the "Pictures". All the best. Peter
Posted by Peter D Cooper on 11 November 2013

Messiaen-Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jésus
30 May 2013

Very unusually for me, I'm struggling to sleep after a concert, Messiaen's 'Vingt Regards sur l'enfant-Jésus' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. After 2 hours in the dark with my thoughts I decided writing this might be a better use of the time, and maybe a better way of getting to sleep too. Strangely enough, the last time this happened (many years ago after a Wigmore Hall recital), the music which provoked it was also religious in nature - a selection of Liszt's 'Harmonies poétiques et religieuses', ending with 'Benediction de Dieu dans la solitude'. I remember a feeling of the deepest calm as that piece ended which in a way I don't understand left me with a profound alertness which lasted far into the night.

Today was the last in a short tour of the Messiaen, and what an experience it has been. I've loved this work ever since I first learned a few of the pieces as a student, but as I return to it over the years I find myself increasingly amazed. It takes over two hours to play (I prefer no interval, which I find greatly deepens the audience's concentration), and yet it has a tremendously satisfying sense of structure. It comprises 20 pieces which are contemplations of the child Jesus from various perspectives, including the Father, the spirit of joy, the virgin, the cross, silence, time…. The abstraction of these last two immediately give a hint of Messiaen's unusual theological bent, but his faith was deeply felt and a prime motivating force for his music. One thing very important in the piece is a certain naivety: very few composers in 1944 would have risked writing music as simple as the theme of God, an extremely slow chorale in F# major which opens the work and returns every few movements to act as a binding agent. Yet alongside this is music of staggering physical and intellectual complexity. As an example, Messiaen depicts the creation of the world (Par lui tout a été fait) by means of all kinds of fugal construction techniques. After the movement reaches a certain point, it starts running back on itself, like time reversing; it's a stimulating though ambiguous metaphor. When the palindrome is complete, the music moves into a passage which develops incrementally from the gentlest beginning to a blazing statement of the theme of God. It's an amazing shape.

I sometimes think it may be a bit juvenile, but I've always loved extremes in music - playing as loud and as quiet as possible - and the Vingt Regards is perhaps as extreme as piano music gets. It may be that it is again the contemplative moments which have left me wide awake. There are several movements of profound calm in the work, but one particularly stands out to me for its beauty and audacity: the penultimate movement, Je dors mais mon coeur veille (I sleep but my heart keeps watch). Here the theme of God is distilled into literally the chord of F# major, slowly elaborated in the upper registers of the piano. When I first looked at this movement, I couldn't imagine how it could possibly work in performance - there seemed to be far too little substance there (it takes almost 2 minutes to leave that F# major chord!). And yet, it turns out to be one of the most remarkable inspirations in the entire work; music of the most transcendental beauty.

For Messiaen, the greatest music in the world was birdsong, a symbol of divine joy. So maybe it's fitting, as I finish writing this now, that the birds are starting to sing.
Your Wednesday night concert was one of the very best I have heard in nearly 40 years of concert going. I thought I knew the work well, but I heard it in a completely new way. I was not the only one of my friends who also had difficulty sleeping afterwards, and the music is still ringing in my head more than 2 days later! Thank you!
Posted by Nick Couldry on 01 June 2013
I wish merely to echo the comments of the other 3. A fantastic concert, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Do you have any plans to expand your Alkan repertoire, given the bicentenary of his birth this year ? Thanks again
Posted by St John Brown on 01 June 2013
St John, no more Alkan in the pipeline, I'm afraid.
Posted by Steven Osborne on 03 June 2013
How moving
Posted by Anne Judith on 18 March 2014
Steven it was incredibly enlightening, enriching. Luckily I managed some sleep but will be singing those haunting chords all day.
Posted by Emma Gibbins on 30 May 2013
A remarkable concert and life experience. Utterly spellbinding, transcendent, meaningful. To hear the complete suite of 20 made so much sense of the music, and allowed us (and you!) total immersion in Messiaen's vision and compositional skill. Congratulations on an extraordinary performance.
Posted by Frances Wilson on 30 May 2013

19 May 2013

More details here
The RPS award for Steven is very richly deserved.He has developed over the years in to a first class pianist whether as soloist in a recital,in a chamber ensemble or as soloist with an orchestra.
Posted by David Howitt on 04 June 2013
Congratulations Steven!
Posted by Stewart Gillan on 06 June 2013

Returning to the Tippett piano concerto
24 March 2013

Last Friday I played my first performance of the Tippett piano concerto in many years; it took place at the Barbican with the BBCSO and Alexander Vedernikov. I don't generally comment here on individual concerts but I feel this piece is so greatly neglected that it deserves mention. Ever since I was at university and studied Tippett's music with the marvellous musicologist Ian Kemp, I've felt like something of an evangelist for his music. The quality of feeling that Tippett creates in his best pieces is utterly his own, somehow combining otherworldliness with a Beethovenian earthiness. There are often things one has to forgive in his music; awful librettos in the operas, overreaching ambition (though not a bad fault, this), unidiomatic instrumental writing, passages where he seems to lose the direct emotional connection with what he's writing. And yet, in the midst of this is some of the greatest, most purely felt music of the later 20th century. For me the piano concerto is one of his best works, and I remain perplexed that it is so seldom programmed. The explanation is probably partly economics - it's not possible to prepare this concerto with an orchestra in only one rehearsal because it's very complex. But it's a remarkable work, full of deep feeling, contemplation, struggle, joy and much else besides. The BBCSO and Vedernikov took the piece very seriously, and I was delighted with the result. Vedernikov is something special, I think, a conductor who has been a little under the radar but hopefully is starting to emerge more into the limelight. Certainly his performance of Shostakovich 8 in the same concert was rather astonishing for the coherence he managed to create out of this sprawling hour-long work. He doesn't resort to superficial tricks, but rather trusts the music to unfold in its own time. His ability to adapt to Tippett's very particular idiom was very impressive. And, perhaps the greatest compliment of all, every one of the orchestral musicians I talked to sang his praises.
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