Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
The co-authors of an acclaimed new biography of the composer Olivier Messaien were on campus last Friday. Nigel Simeone gave the annual Peter Gram Swing lecture, “Messaien Amid Nature,” and Peter Hill played
a short concert of Messiaen’s works for solo piano. Both events were sponsored by the Department of Music and Dance and took place in Lang Concert Hall. Hill and Simeone are both on the faculty of Sheffield University in the UK.
Messiaen is famous for his integration of bird song into his music, and Simeone’s portrayal emphasized the early start to Messiaen’s obsession with nature, beginning with his visits to his aunt’s farm in the French countryside as a child.
The earliest piece on the recital program, “La Colombe” (The Dove) was written in 1929 as a graduation piece from the Paris Conservatoire (where Messiaen studied with composer Paul Dukas). Though a very beautiful piano piece, Simeone noted that the birdsongs are not integrated into the piece’s musical vocabulary, and seem somewhat plugged in.
The second piece was a new discovery by Simeone and Hill, published in 1933 in a French music journal and forgotten ever since. It is entitled “Morceau de lecture ÃƒÂ vue,” or “piece for sight-reading.” One would have to be a very good sight-reader indeed, but the piece is a wonderful discovery, showing more signs of the later Messiaen’s harmonic and rhythmic adventurousness than “La Colombe.” The next piece, “Le tombe de P. Dukas,” was written in memorial of Messiaen’s teacher.
Simeone noted Messiaen’s increasingly scientific approach to birdsong collection in this period. He would go out into nature and record birdsongs in conventional musical notation, noting the breed of the bird and the time and place. These notes were often included almost verbatim in the pieces.
Messiaen’s greatest pianistic tribute to birdsong was “Catalogue des oiseux,” an epic set of piano pieces, each depicting a particular bird in its unique habitat, dating from the late 1940s and early 1950s. Simone emphasized that Messiaen did not only add the birdsongs but strove in these pieces to offer a picture of the entire landscape and the appropriate times of day.
Hill performed these pieces with impressively fluent technique and deep understanding (he has worked with the composer while recording the entire piano works of Messiaen on CD). He also perfomed “CantÃƒÂ©yodjayÃƒÂ¢,” a thorny 1948 piece which ventured into territory explored by Stravinsky in “Le sacre de printemps,” rhythmically complex and much spikier than the early, more Debussy-like pieces.
Simeone and Hill also addressed a small group of music majors earlier in the day, discussing their research processes. Hill and Department of Music chair Gerald Levinson, a former student of Messiaen, described their experiences with the composer.