Friday, June 03, 2005


For the first time, blogging by request... A friend suggests by email that I write about the Quartet for the End of Time and (what do you know!) I just finished playing my last one here in Spoleto at the 1 pm concert. I am happy to blog about it because the performance was totally overwhelming for me personally, for mysterious reasons. Was it exhaustion, or accumulation, or release? Daniel Phillips (one of my favorite musicians) was playing the last movement, and I felt that I was going to lose it on stage... i.e. burst out crying. This is rare for me... After some polite goodbyes, I decided to "celebrate" by walking home alone, away from cars and people; I ambled down quiet Church Street, and tried to give my brain its own time.

It is a piece for the "end of time," and yet the pianist (yours truly) has to be time. In the cello and violin solo movements, I simply play chords, awkwardly slowly, marking moments which are much slower than seconds, and marking (with my harmonies) a larger, really time-free, arc of meaning under the melody. In no other piece do you feel such a tremendous strain between something achingly large (something that only eventually will be expressed) and the snail's steps you must take to express it. But he (Messiaen) manages it; not a note is out of place in the last movement; every harmony is extraordinary, an essential step, a grammatical and striking word of the holy overall sentence... somewhere toward the middle of the last movement, I began to feel the words that Messiaen marks in the part, I began to hear them, feel them as a "mantra": extatique, paradisiaque. And maybe more importantly, I began to have visions while I was playing, snapshots of my own life (such that I had to remind myself to look at the notes, play the notes!): people's eyes, mostly, expressions of love, moments of total and absolute tenderness. (This is sentimental, too personal: I know. How can you write about this piece without becoming over-emotional?) I felt that same sense of outpouring ("pouring over") that comes when you just have to touch someone, when what you feel makes you pour out of your own body, when you are briefly no longer yourself -- and at that moment I was still playing the chords, still somehow playing the damn piano. And each chord is even more beautiful than the last; they are pulsing, hypnotic, reverberant... each chord seemed to pile on something that was already ready to collapse, something too beautiful to be stable... and when your own playing boomerangs on you and begins to "move yourself," to touch you emotionally, you have entered a very dangerous place. Luckily, the piece was almost over... When I got offstage I had to breathe, hold myself in, talk myself down.

It wouldn't have gotten to that state without the architecture of the whole, its obsessive completeness. The clarinet movement with its desolate slow melodies ("abyss of the birds")... total despair. Then the amazing, sensual cello movement ... As I walked home I meditated on the idea that the whole piece is somehow in E but only truthful about it occasionally... when the "E majors come," they are such solutions, total releases of implication, homecomings for the soul. I think it was a release for me: the release of all the stress of the concerts (true enough, if not that interesting), and/or the release of some bottled up affection? This second is more intriguing: Music as Therapy. I was therapized by today's concert, by the end of time. It was a difficult session, I but I think I enjoyed it... where will all that affection go?


Anonymous said...

Would you consider posting an email address in your profile? I'd like to write, but perhaps you feel that private communication is against the spirit of blogging? ;)

Erin said...

Thank you for writing this -- it is very moving. I am probably more moved by the entry than I would be by the actual music ...

rb said...

this is beautiful

i look forward to reading more of your pensées

David from Charleston said...

For those who wonder how Jeremy's performance was perceived on the other side of the proscenium, a somewhat clumsily written review from the major local daily newspaper, the Charleston Post and Courier, had the following remarks:

"Quartet captivating, Magical: Four chamber players thrilling execute Messiaen's 8-part work"

[In reference to the opening piece, Le Merle Noir]

"Jeremy Denk cannot be considered merely accompanying. His delicacy in rendering treble chords and intensity in bass figures makes him an equal partner in te pursuit of the music of God's creatures."

[In reference to the Quartet for the End of Time]

"Denk's lyrical piano technique together with Todd Palmer's deep, dark clarinet, Alisa Weilerstein's polished cello sound and Daniel Phillips' soaring violin made for moments that were indeed magical.

It seemed every patron stared without blinking at these four magicians who, when they play together, create something not of this world.

Dead silence held for many seconds after the ethereal solos, and at the end.

The performance was not flawless. If it had been, it would not be of this dimension."

Full review can be read at:§ion=spoletotoday

pedrodebaca said...

Wonder if you'd consider giving an update on your dear old dad, my theatrical IDOL from the dusty days at the Las Cruces Community Theater. Playing Lazer Wolf, the butcher in Fiddler on the Roof, the man, a master of spirit gum and fake hair, even out-oyed the great Hershel Zohn.

Scott D. Strader said...

What a wonderful piece of music. I love the simplicity and breadth of those chords! They have a spirituality, distinctly Messiaen's, similar to the opening movement of Vingt Regards performed by Serkin: echoes within an infinite space.

I appreciated your reflections on the piece.

David Rothenberg said...

True, one of the greatest pieces of recent music, one of the finest works of art conceived in war out of listening to birds. And you have written beautifully about the experience of playing such sublime music.

Few composers have understood the what birds can teach us as well as Messiaen. For more on that side of him, see:

Joe Denk said...

In an art form hardly of the level of Messiaen, the play I am doing, I have had trouble emotionally performing stories such as the
Wandering Jew looking in the fence at Buchenwald. Nice to feel that this is not a unique instability but maybe even a sensitivity we share. Great entry on June 3! Inspiring and a joy to us in NM.

Anonymous said...

Audiences are also "therapized" by music. I cannot hear that Shubert piece (forgive me, I always forget the proper name for it)or the slaves' chorus from the opera Nabuco (?sp) or the slow movement from Brahms second concert without having all the nitty-gritty stuff take its rightful place--in the back seat of life--for a wonderful, albeit sometimes short, period of time.

"Affectionately", your steadfast, biggest fan.

Anonymous said...

This entire blog is an exercise in narcissistic pretense.

Molly said...

Reading through the archives of your blog, I begin to connect strange threads into this post, an e-Ariadne drawing thin cotton conclusions through and out of your entries. Specifically, your thoughts regarding the similarities between metaphor and music (metaphor as a sort of meta-metaphor for a passage?) reminded me a bit of Messiaen's program notes for the piece. While of course they don't begin to compare to the music itself, I do find them uncommonly appealing for program notes.

"Outpourings of blue-orange lava," he writes, and somehow the juxtaposition of the antithetical colors underscores the score, its aching beauty, its contrast with the circumstances of its composition. So many pieces sort of transcend their historical context, but with this Messiaen the piece both transcends and is intimately entangled with its history (another melding of opposites!). His descriptions are secondary, and upon hearing the music they burn away like a flambe, but leave a trace of flavor beneath the repast of the performance. Somehow, these concrete layers (history, the composer's own preface) in addition to the abstract layers usually present in a wonderful piece give Quartet for the End of Time - an unbelievably moving piece at any rate - an extra sort of weight and inertia that never fails to involve me so thoroughly it's almost unsettling.

In any case, I'm sorry to invade your blog with my verbose and amateurish descriptions of ol' Olivier, but thank you for your thoughts; I find them lovely.

Steve Hicken said...


I'd like your permission to quote this post in my book on 20th century music. Feel free to e-mail me. Thanks.

Steve Hciekn

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