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Sept haikai

Sept Haïkaï

The late 1950’s saw Messiaen developing his birdsong language in the cycle of piano pieces Catalogue des oiseaux, but the decade ended with personal sadness, in the death of his wife after along illness. In 1962 he married his one-time pupil, the pianist Yvonne Loriod, and on a holiday with her in Japan he collected the materials that were to form the basis of his Sept Haïkaï (subtitled ‘Japanese sketches’) for piano, assorted wind and brass, various percussion – so far close to the forces in Oiseaux exotiques – but with the return of the strings in the form of 8 violins: Messiaen’s wide conception of their rôle can be gauged from the fourth and central movement where, playing on the bridge, they imitate the Shô, the mouth organ found in the music of the 7th Century Japanese Imperial Court. Overall, perhaps the most puzzling aspect of the work for the listener is Messiaen’s treatment of pulse, which is continually fragmented. The result is an unsettled atmosphere, in which at times disintegration is seemingly averted only by the strength of the work’s colouring and of its ritual gestures.

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