Olivier Messiaen: Abîme des oiseaux
This piece entitled ‘Abyss of the birds’ is from Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time’ and is written for solo clarinet. The opening is quiet, marked ‘desole’ (which means ‘sorry’) and played very slowly, setting a depressive and almost hopeless mood. The first two bars use the notes E, F, G, G# and A# which form the first five notes of the Middle Eastern 8 note minor scale. I think the flattened second, fourth and fifth (as compared to the Western melodic minor scale) give it a particularly tragic sound. A noticeable omission on the score is the time signature and the bars contain differing numbers of beats, seemingly written to coincide with the melodic phrases. The score also includes commas to indicate the phrases and where the clarinettist should breathe, though I am not sure if these were the composer’s original markings.
After the first section there is a crescendo from a hardly audible ppp to fff, where you can hear the quality of the clarinet change from quite a pure tone to a much harsher sound. This is repeated at the end to an even louder dynamic, ffff. The crescendo gives way to a passage marked ‘capricieux’ (capricious), containing fast runs and trills – perhaps a reference to bird flight? These extreme dynamics add to the tragic and disturbing mood.
There is then a change in tempo to ‘moderato’ and a phrase which consists of only 7 notes but with very large jumps encompassing three octaves, creating a very unsettling effect. This is played loudly and then repeated quietly as an echo, which again shows the significant change in the sound quality of the clarinet when played at different dynamics.
The next section repeats the opening an octave lower, sounding even more tragic and hopeless. The piece finally closes using the same notes as the opening, but played fortissimo and accented. To me, this structure suggests the anticipation of sorrow or tragedy at the start of the piece, followed by a brief struggle or reprieve and an ending which underlines the opening, despairing phrase – seemingly confirming the tragedy.