I first heard Messiaen’s “Quartet for the end of time” in a live performance at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY many years ago. If you don’t know the piece, it can be difficult listening for the first time. Written in a POW camp during WW II, it is scored for violin, clarinet, cello and piano and is an eight movement meditation on passages from the Book of Revelation. I remember reading in the program notes at the time that Messiaen composed the piece with that scoring because those were the instruments and players available at the time. The result is quite an accomplishment.
This morning’s prelude at our 11 AM Eucharist was “Quiet City” by Aaron Copland. Copland composed the piece as incidental music for Irwin Shaw’s play of the same name. The play was a flop and never made past the previews, but Copland rewrote the music originally scored for trumpet, sax, clarinets and piano and created an orchestral version for trumpet, English Horn and strings that has become a mainstay of the repertoire.
While we have many fine musicians who play regularly at our Sunday Eucharists, including a fine oboist who doubles on English Horn, we don’t have a trumpet player with the technique or stamina to tackle “Quiet City.” We do however, have a fine clarinetist and a great pipe organ, so several years ago, we decided to work with the players we had on hand and substitute the clarinet for the trumpet and the organ for the orchestra. Once again, the result is quite an accomplishment.
My point here is that as Parker Palmer says, you have to wait for the “way to open” if you want to get anywhere. Would it have been better to substitute a different piece? Easier, perhaps, but not better. The music draws people in, whatever the instrumentation, the same way that the organ music of Bach draws people in despite differences in organs and registration. I have a happy congregation and two happy wind players. Life is good.
Coming soon: Ballade for English Horn and Organ by Leo Sowerby