In view of the timing of recent concerts at Howard Assembly Room I was a bit wary about going to see this event. The American composers night was at Thanksgiving and Solstice on the appropriate day so Quartet for the End of Time seemed to be tempting fate. Fortunately 15th January was the anniversary of the piece’s first performance in 1941 rather than a prophecy so all was well. Not only was this not an ending, it was a beginning in that I discovered how to really listen to music and appreciate it.
I was unfamiliar with the work of Messiaen before this event possibly because of its genre. It is more descriptive than tuneful so, had it been playing on the radio whilst I was in the shower I would have probably not taken much notice. It is certainly not background music, nor will it have you whistling along to the melody.
It consists of complex rhythms and uneven beats. The composer said that nature is uneven as shown in the waving tree branches, rippling water and movement of clouds, which is why it is more difficult to follow.
The piece was written in a German prisoner of war camp in Silesia, where Messiaen was being held, after persuading a guard to let him have a pencil and some paper. There were other musicians incarcerated in the facility and a quartet of inmates gave the work its premier in a hut at the camp on the bitterly cold 15th January, 1941. It takes its title from the Book of Revelation when the Angel of the Apocalypse says ‘There shall be time no longer.’ It must have certainly felt like that.
When I entered the wonderfully versatile Howard Assembly Room I saw that it had been set out not ‘in the round’ as such, more ‘in the rectangle’. The flat edge of the magnificent Steinway grand piano was on one side with the seats for the clarinetist, cellist and violinist nestled in its curve. There were three or four rows of seats on each of the four sides as well as those in the balcony.
I had been allocated a spot in the second row of the stalls facing the piano meaning the members of the quartet, other than the pianist, would be obscured from vision, being on its other side. That was to change, as a huge chap took his seat bang in front of me thus blocking my vision of the piano stool, and a lot of the rest of the hall as well! I have no problem with this, I am pushing 6ft tall myself and, up until about ten years ago, tipped the scales on the north side of 20st. so probably obscured many an audience member’s view in my time.
Being a ‘glass half full’ kind of guy, not an optimist, just a heavy drinker, I decided to make the most of the circumstances and once the recital began, concentrate on the music. I would like to thank my fellow attendee for his contribution to my enjoyment of the evening because, when the concert began I closed my eyes and was swept away into another world.
Because I wasn’t distracted by the visual aspect of the performers, I could devote all of my attention to the sound and use my imagination as to what it must have been like in the camp, the work being almost a soundtrack to the daily life. There was everything from birdsong to crashing noise summoning feelings of serenity and threat.
What made this experience a revelation was that the room was totally silent and, being a public performance rather than a recorded or broadcast version, there was no alternative but to listen and concentrate, with no temptation to go make a couple of tea, or even break the spell by drinking one. I had resisted the lure of the bar as it was only 4.00pm so a bit early, even for me. It was just me and the music.
The performers are all members of the Orchestra of Opera North and so were masters of their art and the inclusion of the clarinet, played by Andrew Mason, gave the piece a lot of depth as well as variety. On a couple of occasions I thought that they were about to burst into Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which would have been appropriate as, during the introduction by pianist, and Opera North’s Head of Music, David Cowan, we were told that Messiaen said that he saw colours when he wrote; this piece was orange! Apart from piano and clarinet, there was a cello, played by Daniel Bull, and Andrew Long, Acting Co-Leader of the Orchestra of Opera North, played violin.
As previously mentioned, I am not familiar with Messiaen’s work but assume that this is a fair example. That being the case I would advise that it is possibly not for those who like the more mainstream classics but, should you be wanting to broaden your experience, then it is well worth devoting your attention to. I am certainly glad that I made the effort to expose myself to his work although whether I have the self-discipline to recreate the experience at home is another thing entirely.
I must say that this was probably the most fulfilling hour I have spent in a long time and the serendipity of the seating turned what might have been a new, difficult experience into one which could serve me well for years to come when listening to music, The End of Time permitting.
To see what is coming up at Howard Assembly Room please go to https://www.operanorth.co.uk/event-tag/har/
Unless otherwise stated, all photographs by Stan Graham. Feature image is – from left to right – Andrew Long, Andrew Mason, Daniel Bull and David Cowan