Program Notes

OLIVIER MESSIAEN (1908 – 1992)

'ABÎME DES OISEAUX' (ABYSS OF THE BIRDS) for solo clarinet from Quatuor pour Fin du Temps

As musicians, we use the word “color” to express quality of sound: a quiet passage in a minor key might be “dark”; a strong section may be “resolute”; a trumpet fanfare, “bright.” The French composer Olivier Messiaen was known for his idiosynchratic use of musical color due in part to a physical condition called synaesthesia whereby some of the physical senses overlap. In Messiaen’s case it manifested itself with him literally seeing colors associated with different “colors” in music. This, along with his devout religious faith and passion for ornithology provides a basis for the movement called “Abyss of the Birds” from his masterwork “The Quartet for the End of Time.”

The piece itself has a painful past. During World War II, Messiaen was interned in a German prison camp where he discovered among his fellow prisoners a clarinetist, violinist and cellist. The four of them (Messiaen on piano) performed the “Quatuor” for fellow prisoners on January 15, 1941. The title of the piece springs from a passage in the Book of Revelation about the descent of the seventh angel at the sound of whose trumpet the Mystery of God will be consummated and who announces "that there should be time no longer." In a preface to the score, Messiaen wrote:

“Abyss of the Birds” for clarinet alone. The abyss is Time with its sadness, its weariness. The birds are the opposite to Time; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant songs.

Program notes by David Yang