Monthly Archives: June 2008

Olivier Messiaen (1908 – 1992)

A centenary tribute

by Neville Cohn






Many composers have been inspired by birds, whether through their song or flight. The latter is typified by Vaughan Williams’ sublimely beautiful The Lark Ascending. And the call of the cuckoo is instantly recognisable in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Think, too, of Schubert’s ecstatic song “Hark, hark the Lark” to words by Shakespeare. But it was Olivier Messiaen above all who found often white hot inspiration in bird song. He was an amateur ornithologist with a huge knowledge of bird life.


His excruciatingly difficult Catalogue d’Oiseaux (which Michael Kieran Harvey will play for PIAF in February) is testament to the finesse he brought to the job of painstakingly notating birdsong from many regions in France. He wrote it while his first wife, seriously ill, languished in hospital for 12 years before dying in 1959.

Messiaen  said that during this time, birdsong was a refuge to which he turned again and again, “in my darkest hours, when my uselessness is brutally revealed to me”.


Happier times were to come when he and his second wife Yvonne Loriod (for whom Messiaen wrote some of his greatest works) became a familiar site around France – and to a much lesser extent in Japan, Israel, North and South America.


Loriod, Messiaen’s muse, with tape recorder at the ready, the composer with paper and pencil, erasers and note books as well as binoculars, worked indefatigably to capture on paper the subtlest nuances of each bird’s cry and call.


More often than not, Messiaen’s piano music is excruciatingly  difficult. And while the composer was a fair pianist, he knew his technique was simply not up to the demands of his own compositions. Little Olivier taught himself to play on a broken down instrument belonging to an uncle. Then and throughout his life, he said, that he “knew, instinctively, that anything he might ever compose needed to be interesting (and) beautiful to listen to, to touch the listener”.


Instead of toys as gifts at Xmas, little Olivier preferred by far, presents of orchestral scores which he would read in bed with as much enthusiasm and focus as another child might read a Superman or Bugs Bunny comic. In this, he was similar to Benjamin Britten as a child.


On his 10th birthday, one of little Olivier’s teachers gave the child a score of Debussy’s opera Pelleas and Melisande which was, the composer recalled, “a revelation  – probably the most decisive influence of my life – it had never been listened to with such attention.”


“I didn’t get a piano prize at the Conservatoire (Paris)”, he once said. “I knew I would never have the virtuosity and the absolutely amazing technical possibilities of Yvonne Loriod” who premiered many of his works for piano.


In their painstaking gathering of birdsong, Messiaen and his wife were walking in the footsteps of Bartok and Vaughan Williams who had both had spent considerable amounts of time trekking through remote areas to notate and record the folk melodies of rapidly disappearing rural communities.


For most  birdwatchers, the thrill is seeing this bird or that and making a note of it. For Messiaen, though, that was only the beginning of capturing the essence of the bird’s song by notating it meticulously and then working it into whatever composition Messsiaen required it for.


The composer, in awe of birdsong, once said that “it is probable that in the artistic hierarchy, birds are the greatest musicians existing on our planet”.


Although it was the birdlife of his native France that received most of Messiaen’s attention, he was no less fastidious in notating the calls and cries of winged creatures across the world, as in, say, Malaysia and China. One of the earliest examples of Messiaen making use of bird calls in his own music is La Merle Noir (The Blackbird) for flute and piano. As he became more skilled in using birdsong in his music, he would, from time to time, use bird calls which he would weave together in fugal style – and these are marvels of contrapuntal intricacy. 


But if the songs of birdlife were a prime pre-occupation, there were any number of other factors which triggered his imagination: stalactites, bell chimes, galaxies and photons – and landscapes in general and mountains in particular. The music he wrote as a result of a visit to southern Utah in the USA resulted in a  feature of the area being rechristened Mount Messiaen. This may well be the only mountain anywhere in the world named after a composer. Messiaen’s imagination  was often triggered, too, by paintings, one, for instance,  showing the Virgin kneeling in contemplation, worshipping her unborn Child – or by a tapestry representing Christ on a horse, wielding a sword; these keyboard responses are found in Messiaen’s Twenty Contemplations of the Christ Child.


Creative juices almost invariably flowed at the sight of light shining through stained glass windows. This, the composer once enthused, “is one of the most wonderful creations of man. You are overwhelmed. For me, it is the beginning of Paradise”.


His fascination with stained glass was a natural result of his ability, noted when he was still a child, of associating different colours with different tonalities ie he would see colours when listening to sound. There was another youthful epiphany: “I noticed an extraordinary thing (when aged six year). I was reading, and I could HEAR what I was reading in my head”. These were pointers to a rare musical gift.


Since his childhood, Messiaen was profoundly religious; a devout Catholic his entire life. This was somewhat surprising in that he was brought up in a home that was conspicuously agnostic and irreligious.


Messiaen, incidentally, was organist at La Trinite, Paris for 60 years from the age of 22 years until his death at 83.  



Concentration Camp Music


by Neville Cohn




Francesco Lotoro

Francesco Lotoro

In the closing months of Word War II, a platoon of soldiers led by a young South African – then-23-year-old Major Gideon Francois ‘Jake’ Jacobs – parachuted on to the island of Sumatra to liberate the civilian inmates of a Japanese internment camp for whom Jacobs would ever after be known as ‘the man who came from heaven’. Jacobs subsequently became military governor of Sumatra, going on to a distinguished career in South Africa as academic and politician.



Karel page from NONETT written on hygienic paper in the Pankrac' prison

Karel page from NONETT written on hygienic paper in the Pankrac' prison



Shortly before Jacobs’ arrival, the inmates of that camp had given a performance of choral miniatures. That long-ago performance, and the rehearsal preparation that came before it, was an attempt by two remarkable women to counter the effect of despair, boredom and illness that were all-pervasive in the camp.  Norah Chambers and Margaret Dryburgh, a missionary, had set the ball rolling by painstakingly notating versions of popular classics on scraps of hoarded paper – the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, Grieg’s Morning from Peer Gynt, Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude and Dvorak’s Largo movement from the New World Symphony. (In an astonishing instance of synchronicity, a woman in the Ravensbruck concentration camp also arranged the Dvorak piece for women’s choir.)


At that unique concert in the Sumatra camp, the audience consisted of Japanese guards and internees. The ‘vocal orchestra’ singers, most frail from starvation and illness, were not strong enough to stand. Instead, they sang while sitting down. And as fellow-internee nursing sister Vivian Bullwinkel recalled, “we experienced a wonderful surge of optimism and hope – and that was a real comfort.”


There were also internment camps in Australia and the UK. After the promulgation of Germany’s anti-semitic Nuremberg Laws in the years leading up to World War II, numbers of German and Austrian Jewish musicians were granted political asylum in the UK. But when war broke out, their formal status changed from refugee to that of enemy alien. Some remained in internment camps in the UK but others were sent by boat to detention camps in Australia. The most famous of these ships was the Dunera and among the detainees, who came to be known as the Dunera boys, were Rabbi Boaz Bishopswerder of the Berlin Reform Synagogue who used his time on board ship to compose his Fantasia Judaica  for violin and piano. And, while detained in Tatura, the rabbi’s son Felix Werder wrote his Symphony No 1, eventually becoming one of Australia’s most respected musicians.







On the other side of the world in a German Stalag in Silesia, a French POW, trying to stave off boredom, embarked on a composition to be played by three fellow POWs and himself as pianist. It’s written for an instrumental ensemble not often encountered in mainstream classical music – piano, violin, cello and clarinet. And the composer, ever practical, carefully avoided the use of any notes which did not function properly on the ramshackle instruments that were all the players had at their disposal at that most unusual premiere. The composer was Olivier Messiaen and the work, now known to millions, was A Quartet for the End of Time. Of all music created in prisons of one sort or another, this work is almost certainly the best known. And in Japanese POW camps in Taiwan and Manchuria, Colonel Edmund J. Lilley countered the soul-destroying boredom of captivity by writing a set of American songs.


But during World War II, far and away the greatest amount of music of many kinds and of varying quality was composed in nazi concentration camps. But works were also composed in a variety of other detention facilities such as military prisons and conventional POW camps across Europe as well as in the UK. One can only marvel at the power of the creative impulse that enabled musicians to write music in an environment devoid of compassion, camps which, at their worst, were like horrifying anterooms to Hell.


It is very largely due to the tireless efforts of Francesco Lotoro  that so much of this music has been retrieved from near-oblivion, much of it now available on compact disc. Lotoro points out that “the level of creativity in a camp such as Theresienstadt was so great that, in order for the only piano there – a battered upright instrument – to be available to composers and pianists in an equitable way, a roster had to be drawn up allowing each musician to have use of the piano for thirty minutes at a time.”


Twelve CDs have now been released and Lotoro envisages at least another 12 compact discs to record all the music deriving from concentration camps.


Lotoro is an Italian-born pianist, conductor and music historian. Rescuing and recording music written in prisons has become his life’s work. But Lotoro points out that he is not the first musician to have taken on this work. Before he came on the scene, others were trying to conserve and catalogue music from the camps. He cites, for instance, Aleksander Kulisiewicz.


 “He was a trained singer in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and a victim of cruel medical experiments by the nazis, operations that resulted in the loss of his fine voice.” After the war, Kulisiewicz compiled lists not only of compositions but also poetry written in the camps but these have yet to be published. He effectively got the ball rolling. Lotoro estimates there are almost 4,000 concentration camp compositions which he likens, in extent, to the spoken testimonies from Holocaust survivors, an enormous project initiated by famed movie director Steven Spielberg.


For Lotoro, the task of gathering music scores continues – “there are libraries to be explored, antiquarian shops of various kinds around Europe to visit. It will be necessary (in the long term) to set up a central archive of such music, catalogued and kept under one roof rather than have these scores being kept in a variety of museums and libraries around the world.”


Lotoro also makes the important point that with time running out, survivors still able to recall music that does not as yet exist on paper ought to be encouraged to put notes on paper. “For instance, there is an opera – Karel Svenk’s Long Life to Life – that some survivors of Theresienstadt, now living in Israel, still sing by heart. But there is no written score – and we need to notate it soon otherwise it will vanish with the passing of those who can still remember it.”


Theresienstadt, near Prague in Czechoslovakia, had originally been built as a garrison town. It had facilities for a population of  7,000. But when the two arch-nazis and chief planners of genocide – Reinard Heydrich and Adolf Eichmann –  chose Theresienstadt primarily as a transit camp for Jews en route to the death camps such as Auschwitz, the population grew to 60,000. Among those imprisoned here by the Germans, were Jewish war veterans, some decorated for valour, who had fought in the Prussian Army during World War 1. Their loyalty to Germany in WWI counted for nothing in the camps


In this overcrowded place, in terribly oppressive conditions, there was an amazing creative flowering as one work after another poured from the pens of imprisoned musicians: Gideon Klein wrote a fine piano sonata and arranged a set of Czech and Russian folk songs (his death has never been confirmed but he is thought to have perished as a slave labour in a salt mine); Pavel Haas wrote his Piano Sonatas Nos 5, 6 & 7 – and Viktor Ullmann wrote the opera The King of Atlantis.(Johann Marcus, one of Ullmann’s sons, survived and lives permanently in a psychiatric hospital in England).And Hans Krasa wrote a childrens’ opera Brundibar. These works have since become internationally known.


One of the blackest days at Theresienstadt was 17 October 1944. Lotoro says that “within the space of a few hours, an entire generation of composers, virtuoso pianists,  philosophers and artists died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz to which they had been deported from Theresienstadt.”


Many of these often-transcendentally gifted people were cut down in their prime. Among those slaughtered was the 15-year-old Jiri  Kummermann  who left a String Quartet and a text book of harmony and counterpoint exercises. Another teenager – Petr Ginz – not a musician, has left a deeply moving diary of his experiences; while in Theresienstadt, he founded and edited a camp newspaper before being transported to Auschwitz where he was killed.


Lotoro has made it his life’s work to not only rescue, edit and record as much concentration camp music as possible but to interview as many survivors of the period as possible (now very few in number) as well as descendants of murdered musicians.


“Karl Berman was a survivor of Auschwitz: he was liberated by American troops. He lost his entire family in the camps”, said Lotoro. “After the war, he continued his vocal studies in Prague and became a celebrated opera singer. I met him in Prague in 1992. He was very old and was to die three years later. It was a very moving experience. The old man gave me a recording he’d made of four songs, settings of Chinese poems that Pavel Haas had composed for him shortly before dying in an Auschwitz gas chamber.”


Lotoro added that in Prague, he’d also met Stepan Lucky who had been training as a virtuoso pianist when the war began. “When I met him in 1993, I asked him for his autograph which he gave me after writing it with a shaking hand; it was illegible. The German soldiers deliberately crippled his right hand. So, unable to play the piano, he became a composer instead.”


Some musicians who had survived the camps tried to block out their experiences. Lotoro says that when he visited Frantisek Domazlicki and played a piano piece the old man had written in the camps, he became angry as if he wanted no reminders of that terrible time. “Instead, he gave me a copy of a Sonata for trombone drums and piano.


“I had a similar reaction when I wrote to Felix Werder in Melbourne asking if he could send me some psalm settings he’d made in the Tatura camp in Australia . ‘I will send them to you but please don’t ask me anything concerning that period. I am very old and tired’”. Werder, who wrote a good deal of avant-garde music in Australia, was music critic for The Age newspaper for many years.


In the Warsaw Ghetto, in terrible conditions. Wladyslaw  Szpillman (whose life was made into the Roman Polansky movie The Pianist) composed  his Concertino for piano and orchestra.


Although it was the Jews of Europe who, more than any other group, were singled out for murder by the Nazis, there were others, fewer in number, who perished in the camps: gypsies, homosexuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses such as Eric Frost who composed a hymn in Sachsenhausen which is still sung by Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations.  Polish Catholics imprisoned in Dachau wrote a puppet opera on a Christmas theme. And in a detention camp in Rumania,  Zdenko Karol  Rund  wrote a setting of the Mass called Salve Mater Polonia .


Lotoro and his colleagues have been working tirelessly to retrieve, edit, study and perform an immense amount of music. Not all of it is at the highest level of creativity and in style and format ranges from standard classical forms such as sonatas to cabaret and music theatre, music primarily for children, jazz and sacred music. The KZ MUSIK CDs are available on the Musikstrasse label.


Copyright 2008 Neville Cohn

150th anniversary of Giacomo Puccini’s birth


by Neville Cohn


Violent sex, rowdy, late-night booze-ups with his card playing mates, driving powerful cars – and expensive motor boats – at breakneck speed as well as composing some of the most loved operas in the repertoire. This was Puccini. But when little Giacomo came into the world in the Italian town of Lucca 150 years ago on  22 December 1858, he was destined for a life as church musician as five generations of Puccinis had been before him in their home town. But the young Giacomo was to achieve much greater things.


He wasn’t an attractive personality; he was self-centred in the extreme – and he certainly didn’t lack self-confidence. He’d often say in later life: “I am a mighty hunter of wild fowl, beautiful women and good libretti”.


His huge opinion of himself armoured him against many vicissitudes although he was shaken by the negative response of the audience at the premiere of Madame Butterfly which bombed big time. Ever-feisty, he exchanged insults with outraged opera goers who hissed and booed at the first ever airing of that most loved of tear-jerkers. The critics also clobbered it. So, with the sounds of that first night audience’s booing and hissing ringing in his ears, Puccini made some adjustments to the score. And when it was mounted at Brescia shortly afterwards, it was a triumphant success with many arias encored and, in the quaint fashion of the time, the composer coming on stage at the end of each encore to share the applause with the singers. Butterfly’s hold on audiences everywhere has never wavered since.


This became a pattern: his operas given the thumbs down by audiences and critics at their first airings but finding overwhelming acceptance in the long term.


Paradoxically, his Fanciulla del West  was a stunning success at a glittering first night at New York’s famed Metropolitan Opera with fans and critics alike extolling an opera set in the Wild West and starring Enrico Caruso in his first and only cowboy role. But this opera about a poker game in which the stakes are a man’s honour and a woman’s body has never found a firm and honoured place in either the repertoire or the affections of opera-goers, perhaps because it lacks the rich stream of melody that makes most of his other operas so cherished. Perth opera lovers can experience this rarity at the Maj next year.  


To this day, however, productions of La Boheme, Butterfly and Tosca have been licences for printing money. It made a fortune for Puccini (and his publisher Ricordi who bankrolled his genius client until he hit the jackpot)  who would use it to buy big-boys’ toys like souped-up motorboats in which he’d roar around Italian lakes.


Puccini seldom needed to wait for inspiration. And when it came, he would drop whatever he was doing – perhaps a noisy drinks party  – go to his room and, with drunken revelry in the background, write arias for his heroines. It was on such an occasion that he repaired to his room at a nearby inn to write the last notes of Mimi’s death scene in La Boheme, noting afterwards  “I had to get up, and while standing there in the middle of the room,  I cried like a child. It was like seeing a daughter die.” Then he went to join his sozzled, carousing mates and hit the turps. 

Boheme was wildly successful and Puccini used some of the proceeds to buy himself a yacht which he called Mimi I – and hundreds of new babies around the world were called Mimi.


Puccini was not particularly liked by his fellow composers. Would envy have been part of this? Probably.


His operas were sneered at by the likes of Gabriel Faure. That great French composer of some of the finest songs in the repertoire, dismissed La Boheme as “dreadful” and sneered at Puccini’s work in general as “a kind of soup in which every style from every country gets all mixed up.”  Shostakovich said “he wrote marvellous operas but terrible music” – and Stravinsky called Butterfly “treacly violin music”. And an eminent critic called Tosca “a shabby little shocker”    .        


But as the money rolled in from opera goers who seemed never to have enough of his music, Puccini laughed all the way to the bank. Before he hit the operatic jackpot, though, Puccini had to put up with the endless complaints of Elvira, first his mistress (she was married at the time and in the strictly Catholic Italy of the time, divorce was not an option) and later, after her husband died, Puccini’s wife. Endlessly, in their early years, she nagged her lover pointing out that Mascagni and Leoncavallo were making fortunes from their respective one-act goldmines – Cavalleria Rusticana  and I  Pagliacci – while he wasn’t. He certainly made up for lost time with Tosca, Butterfly and Boheme which made them wealthy.


As she grew older and less glamorous, Elvira became increasingly infuriated by Puccini’s dalliances and accused their domestic servant Doria  Manfredi quite wrongly of having an affair with Giacomo.  Doria was so devastated by these unfounded accusations that she killed herself. Elvira almost landed in jail after Doria’s family had Elvira charged  but Puccini bought off the family with thousands of lire.


During his student days, young Giacomo earned some income by playing the organ at church services – and the piano in taverns and brothels. But as he would often say, “early on God touched me with a finger and said ‘write for the theatre and ONLY the theatre’”. There’s no doubt that the Lord gave the young Puccini very good advice because when it came to theatre, his instincts were almost invariably unerring.


Unlike many, lesser composers who weren’t fussy about the libretti they set to music, Puccini’s endless searches for perfect texts often prompted fiery encounters between composer and wordsmiths, driving Puccini to distraction and his librettists to prostration. But when the words were to Puccini’s satisfaction, what magic flowed from his pen. His music manuscripts, incidentally, were incredibly untidy and only very few music editors were capable of translating his scrawls into readable notation – and in this there was a parallel with Beethoven’s manuscripts which are fantastically untidy as well.


It was throat cancer that killed him. He’d been a heavy smoker most of his life. He endured agonizing medical treatments which precipitated a fatal heart attack, dying before completing Turandot.


His legacy lives on in the form of innumerable recordings and regular mountings of his operas th