Sunday, April 19, 2009

From D.H. Lawrence to Messiaen

Let me start this post by a quote from Lawrence's "Aaron's rod", towards the end of the chapter "Florence", wherein the hero Aaron plays a piece of solo flute for the Marchesa, who used to be a dilettante singer (contralto), but is now (after WW1) in a sort of downbeat mood, and feels nausea when listening to music (especially the orchestral one):
...And there, in the darkness of the big room, he put his flute to his lips, and began to play. It was a clear, sharp, lilted run-and-fall of notes, not a tune in any sense of the word, and yet a melody, a bright, quick sound of pure animation, a bright, quick, animate noise, running and pausing. It was like a bird's singing, in that it had no human emotion or passion or intention or meaning--a ripple and poise of animate sound. But it was unlike a bird's singing, in that the notes followed clear and single one after the other, in their subtle gallop. A nightingale is rather like that--a wild sound. To read all the human pathos into nightingales' singing is nonsense. A wild, savage, non-human lurch and squander of sound, beautiful, but entirely unaesthetic.

What Aaron was playing was not of his own invention. It was a bit of mediaeval phrasing written for the pipe and the viol. It made the piano seem a ponderous, nerve-wracking steam-roller of noise, and the violin, as we know it, a hateful wire-drawn nerve-torturer.

After a little while, when he entered the smaller room again, the Marchesa looked full into his face.

"Good!" she said. "Good!"

And a gleam almost of happiness seemed to light her up. She seemed like one who had been kept in a horrible enchanted castle--for years and years. Oh, a horrible enchanted castle, with wet walls of emotions and ponderous chains of feelings and a ghastly atmosphere of must-be.
She felt she had seen through the opening door a crack of sunshine, and thin, pure, light outside air, outside, beyond this dank and beastly dungeon of feelings and moral necessity. Ugh!--she shuddered convulsively at what had been. She looked at her little husband.
Chains of necessity all round him: a little jailor. Yet she was fond of him. If only he would throw away the castle keys. He was a little gnome. What did he clutch the castle-keys so tight for?

Aaron looked at her. He knew that they understood one another, he and she. Without any moral necessity or any other necessity. Outside--they had got outside the castle of so-called human life. Outside the horrible, stinking human castle Of life. A bit of true, limpid freedom. Just a glimpse.

It is always difficult to discuss such a passage without, somehow, destroying its charm. I will therefore limit myself to providing a few directions through which its understanding may be deepened (or so it is for me).

First, I'd like to qualify a little the rather harsh judgment about the piano, by referring to composers such as Satie (one may also relate the mediaeval flavour of what Aaron plays to Satie's world) or Mompou, who found a voice for it that does not deserve to be called ponderous or nerve-wracking, and Messiaen, who seemed to echo the comparison of Lawrence with birdsongs, by composing his "Catalogue d'oiseaux", and that one was mostly composed for piano, even though, the first piece of this collection can be said to be "Le merle noir", itself composed primarily for the flute (with a piano accompanying).

On the other hand, the piano indeed has a tendency towards grandiloquence, from which the flute seems immune. One may think of Japanese music, and of the often central part played by the shakuhachi (wooden flute), and that may be the best approach to enter the "out-of-life" world (though I disagree with this characterization) Lawrence is talking about in this passage. The wonderful recording by Lily Laskine and Jean-Pierre Rampal came readily to my mind while reading these lines.

But before the "Catalogue d'oiseaux", even before "Le merle noir", there was Messiaen's "Preludes pour piano", whose first piece is called "La Colombe", already a bird, even if this one is a metaphor for Messiaen's mother. This piece, at least for me, particularly resonates with Lawrence's point.

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