Project 6 – Clarinet

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.

Project 6 – Flute and Recorder

This post is a short analysis of two pieces: ‘Syrinx’ and ‘Lizard’, written respectively for flute and recorder.

Debussy: Syrinx (solo flute)

This short piece makes significant use of the flute’s lower register, making it sound quite mysterious.  Rhythmically it uses grace notes with accented down beats which give it a kind of swaying dance feel; quite appropriate for the ‘syrinx’ title (I believe this refers to a legendary nymph).  The piece starts with a descending chromatic passage, ending with the diminished fifth and minor third which sounds unresolved and in keeping with the mysterious feel.  Then the melodic line leads us upwards with an arpeggio to a briefly major transition – this is a nice change in colour in the flute’s higher register, before repeating the initial chromatic passage an octave lower.

The middle section changes to a pentatonic scale (with an added 7th) which sounds much brighter and less ominous, though this quite quickly changes to a more chromatic passage again.

Structurally the piece feels complete as we return to the initial chromatic passage at the end, this time played louder and with more vibrato, with a gradual descrescendo.  The piece ends with a whole note scale passage which is quite ambiguous in terms of major/minor tonality.

Alun Hoddinott: Lizard (solo recorder)

I think I have only ever heard baroque pieces played on a recorder before so this was quite a novelty for me!  It makes use of some interesting effects such as sliding between notes, overblowing (making the sound slightly sharp) and rapid, articulated tonguing.

The pace at the start is quite frantic and has the recorder jumping around in pitch all over the place.  The initial section starts with a repeated note on an F (the key note), and ends with this same rhythm on a B before landing finally on an F#.  It often has the feeling of a whole tone scale but the F# minor 2nd clearly does not belong in that scale and I think it can be safely described as chromatic.

Structurally, there is a slower more explorative section in the middle, and then like the Debussy it also ends with a revisit of the opening theme.  Although the notes are bouncing around the full range of the recorder, there is often still a melodic line to be heard within. For example towards the end of the piece, before the recap, there is a clear upwards passage where the recorder plays a trill or similar effect on gradually higher and higher notes (in amongst the jumping around), giving it a sense of direction.