Notes from the Rehearsal Studio: Learning the “Quartet for the End of Time”

Yolanda Wu (violin), Walter Kennon (piano), Ben Pfeifer (cello) and Ken Margolis (clarinet)
rehearsing the Quartet for the End of Time

Join ACMP this Sunday, April 7 for a live (and livestreamed) class with violinist and chamber music coach Calvin Wiersma on the first and sixth movements of Olivier Messiaen’s seminal work, the Quartet for the End of Time, with ACMP member musicians Yolanda Wu (violin), Kenneth Margolis (clarinet), Ben Pfeifer (cello) and Walter “Skip” Kennon (piano.)

Sunday, April 7, 3pm
Scholes Street Studio
375 Lorimer Street
Brooklyn, NY 11206

THE EVENT WILL ALSO BE LIVESTREAMED
LIVESTREAM LINK

FREE ADMISSION (voluntary donations are gratefully accepted – cash at the door or online.)

NO RESERVATIONS REQUIRED

In advance of this special event, I interviewed the four intrepid adult amateur musicians who took on this challenging piece. For the clarinetists, pianists, violinists and cellists among you, I hope you will be inspired to delve into Messiaen’s masterwork yourselves!

Interview with the Messiaen Musicians:
Yolanda Wu (violin), Ken Margolis (clarinet), Ben Pfeifer (cello) and Skip Kennon (piano)

Stephanie Griffin (ACMP): What inspired you to take on the project of learning Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time?

Ken: I first heard the work back in college and was immediately taken by its mystical qualities, the haunting verses of Revelation 10 describing the angel of the Apocalypse that inspired Messiaen (“the angel who raised his hand toward the sky and declared ‘there shall be time no longer’ ’’), and the unique circumstances (a German POW camp) in which it was composed and first performed.  I have had a desire ever since to play it some day and now, 50 years later, thanks to ACMP connections, it happened!

Skip: I, too, heard it for the first time in college and was blown away by its highly chromatic harmonic language, sometimes feeling atonal, others ear-twistingly tonal.  The rhythms in some movements are tremendously complex and very difficult to co-ordinate with each other.  Some movement, the piano accompaniment is solemnly hypnotic with its rhythmic ostinatos.

Yolanda: I had heard of this piece but didn’t know it beyond having the vague impression that it is serious and difficult music.  When Ken asked me to work on it, I was excited to take on a challenge and said yes immediately.  It’s been such a worthwhile experience!  Although my family wonders when they will no longer be subjected to hearing the piece with a loud clarinet playing one note.  😉

Ben: I was lucky enough to get roped into this project thanks to Yolanda!

Stephanie: Is this your first time tackling this work? If not – what were your prior experiences?

Skip: It is my first time.  It is definitely not sight reading material!  With complex chromatic harmonic cluster accompaniments and those ever changing rhythms, it is a musically difficult piece for the piano, actually for everyone.  But technically for me, it is not so frightening most of the time.  

Ken: My first time playing it, but I have heard some memorial live performances over the years, including by Tashi in 1974 and the Israeli Chamber Project in 2021.

Stephanie: What are some of the challenges this piece presents that differ from other chamber pieces you have played?

Yolanda: The rhythms in this piece are very challenging.  You can’t count in regular meter so we are often subdividing in our heads with running sixteenth notes.  Also, the instrumentation is unusual and there are challenges to sounding as one with piano, clarinet, cello and violin.

Ken: There are many, but most notably the rhythms.  Some movements lack time signatures, perhaps suggestive of the theme of timeliness.

Ben: Prior to learning the piece and seeing the score, I had wrongly assumed that I was hearing interpretive decisions in the recordings I listened to. Some of it sounds downright free and ethereal. But this effect is actually a product of Messiaen’s unrelenting mathematical precision.     

Stephanie: Are there any other chamber pieces you have studied or performed that prepared you well for some of the challenges of the Quartet for the End of Time?

Skip: I played Bartók’s Contrasts and some of his solo piano pieces. Some of Bartók’s complex rhythms and modal melodic writing seem present here, except this time often without time signatures.

Stephanie: What are the rewards you gain from delving into this piece that differ from other chamber pieces you played?

Ben: We are lucky as chamber musicians to have hundreds of years of repertoire to choose from. Studying and playing a modern composition like this gives you a perspective on all the music written before it in a visceral sense. It’s one thing to listen to or read about a challenging modern piece of music – it’s quite another to get it under your fingers.     

Skip: Playing beautiful, exotic, exciting, spiritual and moving music that really is like no other composer’s work..

Stephanie: What are some of the most interesting things you learned while working on the Quartet for the End of Time that you can apply to your playing of other chamber pieces?

Yolanda: Putting this piece together is not all that different from other chamber pieces.  As with all chamber pieces, listening to each other is really important for intonation and blending sound.  And it’s good to study the score so that you know what everyone is doing (e.g. in the first movement when everyone is doing their own thing rhythmically but at moments someone else plays with you or has an important counter rhythm).  In the unison movement (Dance of the Fury for the Seven Trumpets), it’s really important to have a leader and for everyone to share an internal pulse.  We’ve had discussions about how to subdivide longer held notes and also have worked out groupings within sixteenth note passages so that they “make sense” and can be played better in unison. 

Ben: It takes time for a clarinet to produce sound compared to a stringed instrument. The same is true comparing strings to the piano. Asking for strict rhythmic precision from an ensemble with all three is complicated. Learning this piece I found myself relying on visual cues even more than usual to stay together.  

Stephanie: Why did you choose to work on the first and sixth movements for the class on April 7?

Ken:  Only four of the eight movements are scored for all four instruments.  The sixth movement, with the four instruments playing mostly in unison, with retrograde rhythms and dynamic ranges from pp to ffff, lives up to its title – Dance of Fury for the Seven Trumpets – and is in my view a highlight of the piece. 

Skip: I was disappointed that we didn’t work on the other movements.  The cello with piano sections are gorgeous long-lined beautiful melodies stretched over severely controlled piano ostinati.  The very last movement, which is for violin and piano, is a gorgeous inexorable ascent to the heavens achieving musical ecstasy. Alas, for the piano, there is not much melodic material to play in the whole work.  Messiaen took on the role of accompanist for three expert musicians.  

Yolanda: It was really a question of logistics that we chose to work on two movements that we all play.  Some of the most beautiful movements are scored for only two instruments.  We just need more time to work on them!

Stephanie: Do you have any advice to offer other ACMP clarinetists, violinists, cellists or pianists who might be interested in learning this piece themselves?

Ken: Set aside enormous individual practice and rehearsal time and acquire a good metronome app. 

Skip: The pianist should have a substantial reach. The massive (often delicate) chords lose their crystal character when you have to roll them (quickly arpeggiate them.) The solo clarinet movements require enormous breath control and a wide dynamic range without ever sounding like you’re forcing.  All three instruments (not the piano) have tremendous intonation challenges.  Luckily for me I don’t have to worry about that. As our coach, Cal, said, “The piano is always right.”

Ben: While it’s generally true in chamber music that you have to know each part to understand how you fit in, this piece absolutely demands it. I’d also say you’re going to need quite a bit of time to learn your part as initially just about every note feels unexpected. Oh and cellists should be prepared for a full embrace of false harmonics. 

Yolanda: Learn your part well, listen to the piece, study the score, and you will be rewarded with a rich experience!  

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