Sketches of France

Peter Hill , concert pianist, Emeritus Professor of Music at the University of Sheffield, and expert on Messiaen
Peter Hill , concert pianist, Emeritus Professor of Music at the University of Sheffield, and expert on Messiaen

A new work by the late great French composer Olivier Messiaen will receive its premiere at Music in the Round on Saturday.

It will be performed by Peter Hill who studied with the composer while recording all his piano music and only last year discovered the piece among Messiaen’s sketches.

“This is an immensely exciting find – a substantial 15-minute piece for piano in the composer’s birdsong style that dates from 1961,” says Hill, the academic, founder member of Music in the Round and lifelong Messiaen scholar.”

Professor Hill made the discovery when looking again through photocopies of Messiaen’s 209 birdsong notebooks which he had made on a research visit to Messaien’s widow in France in 2001.

“What emerged from deciphering the sketches is a work in an advanced state of completion, while the few passages still in composer’s shorthand I was able to complete by cross-referencing to the birdsong notations Messiaen made in the spring of 1961.’

“Very possibly the new piece – which is called La Fauvette Passerinette, or Subalpine Warbler – was intended as the start of another cycle of piano pieces to match the earlier Catalogue d’oiseaux,” he continues.

“But by the end of 1961 Messiaen found himself with three commissions for orchestral works; the piano project was never fulfilled, and the sketches for La Fauvette Passerinette put away and forgotten. Musically, the piece shows considerable differences with the style of Catalogue d’oiseaux, particularly in the rich harmonisation of the birdsong. There is also an extraordinary passage of rhythmical repeated chords (representing a flock of ‘coucous géais’) quite unlike anything else in Messiaen’s music.”

The world premiere of La Fauvette Passerinette will be performed at Upper Chapel on Saturday and will be recorded for future broadcast by BBC Radio.

It clearly has historical significance but how will it be received by the audience?

“That’s the 64 dollar question,” admits Prof Hill. “I have given private performances to three or four people and they have either been enthusiastic or very polite.

“It’s an incrediblly difficult piece - right up there with anything he wrote but I am convinced it’s an exciting piece and very beautiful. There’s so much inventiveness going on.

“I am not an ornithologist but I have to say when I was studying with him you saw how much he loved the subject and you couldn’t help be moved by that and the inspiration he got from birds. He believed it was music that was almost divine creation.”

Can we expect more gems from Messiaen to emerge posthumously? Prof Hill thinks it unlikely from the present source but wonders about papers which the composer’s first wife deposited in a bank vault. “All these pieces from the 1930s have never been published, so it might be possible.”