A composers letters <<Bien Cher Félix>>
Letters from Olivier Messiaen & Yvonne Loriod
to Felix Aprahamian
Edited and translated by Nigel Simeone
Thanks to Felix Aprahamians efficient filing system, his correspondence
with Messiaen for 50 years is preserved. Aprahamian as Honorary Secretary
of the Organ Music Society in the mid-thirties put out a feeler to the young
composer, who had some fascinating and controversial organ pieces that needed
British premieres. Firstly French organists came to London to play single
pieces, then in 1938 Messiaen gave a complete performance of La Nativité
du Seigneur. British critical response was generally hostile and somewhat
childish in tone. Edwin Evans, and a few other senior critics, were cautious
but nonetheless positive in their opinions. That was sixty years ago, and
waspishness is still evident to this day.
As opportunities for performance of music other than that for the organ
increased, the more Messiaen corresponded with Felix Aprahamian, often about
functional matters concerning rehearsals, hotels, fees, and other details.
Yvonne Loriod took much part in this and was increasingly involved in performance
as she gave premieres of Messiaens piano works. Chances of touring
expanded as Messiaens reputation grew around the world.
From 13 January 1939 to 1 December 1944, correspondence between the two
ceased as the War intensified in Europe, and Messiaen was at first imprisoned
then released to live and work in Paris. He had continued composing, although
he did no more than mention the most remarkable Quatuor pour la fin du
temps written during his imprisonment in Silesia.
The years following the War saw a steady rise in performances of Messiaen,
and the correspondence is much more urgent about endless detail. Aprahamians
attention to pressing matters is always to Messiaens satisfaction,
and his favourite a thousand thanks is frequent.
In correspondence of this sort the chance of catching something quintessentially
musical from the maestro is rare, which makes one of the last letters especially
touching, written on 15 December 1983 at the time of the opera Saint
François dAssisi. Felix Aprahamian obviously requested
Messiaen to improvise at a London recital. He responded very frankly, I
improvise much better during a Service ... In a concert, my gifts desert
me, and my imagination disappears... This sudden appearance of hesitation
and perhaps apprehension by a master organist and revelatory composer is
a brief flash of the human frailty most of us experience all too often.
The gods amongst us may also fear it but rarely say so!
This collection of correspondence plays a useful part in revealing the
practicalities of a composer/performers life in much of its exposure
to the whims of modern life and travel.
(Price £12 from Rosemary Dooley, Crag House, Witherslack, Grange-over-Sands,
Cumbria LA11 6RW, England.)
Basil Ramsey, 3 January 1999
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