When I checked out the program of the 19th Washington Music Jewish Festival (WJMF), I noticed that the Levine Music faculty were/are performing Messiaen’s “Quartet to the End of Time,” a work composed inside a prisoner of war camp in 1940. I wondered what a piece written by a Catholic composer, and inspired by the Book of Revelations and the Apocalypse, had to do with the Jewish festival.
I got very curious and decided to attend the concert and interview one of the members of the band, percussionist Manny Arciniega. Manny explained that while inside the prisoner of war camp, Messiaen met with two other world famous musicians: violinist Jean le Boulaire and cellist Étienne Pasquier. Messiaen loved to listen to natural sounds like birds singing, and added these sounds into his composition.
The other band members presented an innovative version of the piece by re-scoring and playing it with electronic instruments and percussion. What resulted was a mesmerizing performance.
By the end, I had an answer to my question: why was this performance included into the Jewish music festival? Well, in addition to one of the three musicians who played it, Étienne Pasquier, being Jewish, the piece is a work expressing liberation and the possibility of hope — sentiments which are very close to our Jewish history.
Enjoy my interview with Manny Arciniega!
Daniela: I hear you are on faculty at Levine Music. Tell us more about that!
Manny: Levine Music is a community music school that serves the area around DC for students of all ages and abilities. It provides a welcoming community for children and adults to find lifelong inspiration and joy through learning, performing, listening, and participating in music.
Daniela: Why did you decide to commemorate Messiaen’s Quartet to the end of time at this year’s WJMF?
Manny: Each year, Levine Music chooses a theme for its concert series that faculty participate in. The theme for the 2016-2017 Levine Presents series was “The Power of Music: Protest, Propaganda, Promise” – and I immediately thought of the “Quartet for the End of Time.” The story of the piece’s conception, having been written in a Nazi prisoner of war camp during WWII, perfectly intersected with the proposed theme. Messiaen drew his inspiration from the Book of Revelation but its message is far from Apocalyptical. It was an offering from Messiaen to the other prisoners in the camp. The music, composed of birdsong and sounds no one in that camp had ever heard before, allowed each individual to remove themselves from the temporal and into peace.
The work is a testament to the power of human will to overcome the darkest of circumstances. It’s message of hope, perseverance, and love.
This seemed appropriate topics for the WJMF. Recent political events have necessitated a fresh look at Messiaen’s timeless masterpiece.
Daniela: How do electric instruments and percussion add to/change the original piece?
Manny: I loved the “Quartet for the End of Time” since my first encounter with it as a graduate student in the UK. I used to drive around listening to it in my car and imagine what it would sound like with percussion behind it. Messiaen was an avid composer for percussion instruments, and many of his birdsong compositions use a percussion or lesser known instruments such as the Ondes Martenot.
Changing the orchestration provided a variety of challenges from an arranging standpoint. I tried to find parallels between the original instruments and their modern counterparts. My goal was to find moments where I felt Messiaen was trying to maximize a particular timbre or sound and see if we could dial it up.
My hope was to just strike a chord with the individual. Whether that is one of contemplation over the cacophony of sound, or complete disgust for the destruction of revered music, we just want to invoke an emotional response.
After the premiere of the re-orchestration this past January, one individual just came up to me, gave me a hug and then thanked me with tears in his eyes. It’s a moment I will always remember.
Daniela: Does this piece give you an experience of oppression or liberation while you play it, knowing that it was composed and performed in a Nazi camp?
Manny: As for the history of its composition, knowing its origins strengthens its meaning of hope and liberation. Each time I play that 8th movement, I get goosebumps.
I can’t help but think about how beautiful the world is, despite all of the hatred and lack of empathy around us — music is inspiring — it’s an escape from the ‘now.’
Daniela: How has playing this piece changed the relationship between the musicians?
Manny: If it weren’t for the other individuals in this performance, it most likely would have never been realized. As a result of this project, we have all found ourselves in vulnerable positions, both musically and emotionally, from the stress that comes with working such a challenging work and that has served to bring us closer together. Everyone has put their heart and soul into learning this music, its story, and the language of Messiaen’s unique composition style. I will admit, there have been moments of doubt that some of the tasks before us might be impossible to pull off, but in the end no one backed down from the challenge.
About the Author: Daniela is a part of our “Gather the Bloggers” cohort of talented writers who share their thoughts and insights about DC Jewish life with you! She is a “retired philosopher” who works as an executive assistant and loves to write about Italian and Jewish events happening in DC. She was born and raised in Sicily (Italy) in an interfaith family and moved to D.C. with her husband after studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where they met. They have a wonderful Siberian cat named Rambam! Daniela loves going to work while listening to Leonard Cohen’s songs and sometimes performs in a West African Dance group