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 A composer’s letters <<Bien Cher Félix>>

 Letters from Olivier Messiaen & Yvonne Loriod
to Felix Aprahamian

 Edited and translated by Nigel Simeone

Thanks to Felix Aprahamian’s 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 Messiaen’s piano works. Chances of touring expanded as Messiaen’s 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. Aprahamian’s attention to pressing matters is always to Messiaen’s 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 d’Assisi. 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/performer’s 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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