I am delighted to host this wonderfully reflective post by the brilliant young pianist Iyad Sughayer, which touches on the nature of musical engagement:
Guest post by Iyad Sughayer
Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time is perhaps one of his most celebrated works. Written during his time as a war prisoner at the Nazi Stalag VIII-A camp after the German invasion of France, it is the most intense religiously inspired work I have ever come across.
Despite coming from a Muslim background, having grown up in Jordan, I was still able to understand the strong Catholic Liturgy behind the work. Indeed Messiaen’s Catholic beliefs are clearly and beautifully portrayed throughout the work.
The first time I heard the Quartet in concert was a few years ago at the Chetham’s Summer School in Manchester. It was an inspired performance played by Kathryn Page, Ben Holland, Rod Skipp and Fiona Cross. I remember admiring the playing but finding absolutely no emotional connection with the piece. Murray McLachlan, my piano teacher, asked me what I thought of the piece; so I told him my honest opinion.
Puzzled yet understanding, he encouraged me to listen to it again and give it another chance. I didn’t.
A few months ago, I received an invitation to perform the quartet with the principals of the Manchester Camerata as part of an exciting new series of concerts. I was delighted and honoured to have been invited but slightly concerned about their choice of the Messiaen. Having heard the Camerata on many occasions during my 8 years of study in Manchester and performed Mozart’s K. 491 with them in the finals of the Manchester International Concerto Competition, I couldn’t contain my excitement at working again with such amazing musicians.
Naturally, I told my all my friends about the concert! I found it interesting that all of them expressed their love for the piece. However I was still not convinced, although determined to learn the work for this wonderful opportunity. My repertoire choices in the past had been very ‘conservative’ and Messiaen’s was a language that I had always found somewhat alien.
So, I began my journey of tackling the quartet and almost forcing myself to like it, or at least enjoy working on it. At the start, I found the two solo violin and cello movements the most tolerable. So I learnt them first and after a short while found myself humming the melodies on my walk home from College.
Whilst listening on my phone I always skipped the third movement where the Clarinet plays unaccompanied. One day, purely out of curiosity, I decided to listen to it. I will never forget how I was stunned and so deeply moved by the music. I found myself rushing to college to learn and practise the other movements. I spent hours experiencing the transcendental beauty of the music. Leaning on chords and replaying some bars over and over again, the music became less complicated and I started seeing genius uses of patterns and musical ideas.
This has been one of the most eye opening experiences for me. For the last week I have been listening non-stop to his other works and it is safe to say that I am officially a Messiaen convert!
This raised a very big question in my head; how much music is out there that I previously dismissed or ignored simply because I did not understand it?
How many other great composers have I avoided? Is it this particular work that has unlocked the door into the Messiaen sound world or am I growing up as a musician and becoming more open? How many other pianists have been on the same journey as me?
I look extremely forward to performing this magnificent work along side Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross in Manchester Cathedral.