Interview with Kristoffer Hyldig in Fanfare
April 7, 2023
The Magic of Messiaen: A Discussion with pianist Kristoffer Hyldig
BY PETER BURWASSER
Danish pianist Kristoffer Hyldig is a 2010 graduate of the Royal Danish Academy of Music. He has a keen interest in contemporary music, and a special devotion to the work of Olivier Messiaen. He has even formed a quartet named for the great French composer, Messiaen Quartet Copenhagen (consisting of piano, violin, cello and clarinet) . We spoke on the occasion of the release of his recording of one of the Everests of the solo piano repertoire, Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jesus.
I see from your biography that you have a sizable amount of Messiaen's music in your repertoire. How did you first become interested in his music, and what in particular attracts you to it?
I was introduced to Messiaen’s music when my teacher Tove Lønskov suggested Noël, the 13th movement of Vingt Regards, as an audition piece to the music academy. Immediately, I resonated with this new musical language, and without yet knowing about his modes, rhythmical theory or new pianistic techniques, I began to discover the movement. At first the immense powers and sudden change of mood and sound did attract me. And besides all the percussive effects, having to sing in the mystical melodies was also intriguing. What strikes me now is the endless possibilities in the musical system he created quite early in his life. Though you always can recognize Messiaen the music is never repetitive and in Vingt Regards every single bar is a new idea or a new variation of the handful of motives and themes he uses throughout the work.
The score for Vingt Regards has a reputation for ferocious difficulty. I once read that Peter Serkin spent a year playing almost nothing accept this music before he presented it in public. More recently, I heard a recital by a wonderful young pianist from Georgia named Natalia Kazaryan that included two of the Regards, L'Esprit de joie and Premiere communion de la Vierge. She told me that this was as far as she had gotten in learning the music (and by the way, her Bach and Brahms were superb!). How did you approach the technical challenges of the score?
When I first got the complete score in my hand I actually could not imagine I would be able to learn the whole piece. But having played Harawi and the other song cycles, the Quator pour the fin de temps, the violin pieces and Turangalila, his modes somehow found a way into my hands and made the approach more natural. Besides this, I had the luck to work with dramaturg Mette Borg on the piece. To get very clear ideas and images of the meaning of the music helped a lot in solving the technical difficulties. If the mind is set with a clear direction or an imagination of an effect, the hands are more willing to follow the technical demands Messiaen put in the score. Messiaen is helping a lot by giving marks in the score such as ‘like bells’, ‘like the lightning’ that points out a direction.
This is fascinating. As a pianist myself (not professional), I find some composers, Mozart and Chopin, for example, to write in a way that falls naturally under the fingers. When I looked at the score to Messiaen's early work, Preludes (beautiful, under-played music) it seemed relatively simple, but when I started to read it, the harmonies and the rhythms felt like an exotic foreign language. I can only imagine that musicians who play Messiaen well, such as yourself, have a natural affinity for the technical structure. Is this your experience?
When playing Messiaen you have to adjust to a whole new system of scales and patterns. And for the hands that very well know the traditional major and minor scales it is a new language to become acquainted with. I am working on the Preludes these days. It is wonderful music, and he is exploring the possibilities of all his new modes, also those he doesn’t use a lot later on. So it is still a challenging work, even though I have played this much Messiaen by now. The rhythm is also a topic on its own. There are no fixed meters throughout Vingt Regards, so you have to be quite flexible in the understanding of timing.
You mention that you worked with a dramaturg, Mette Borg, while learning Vingt Regards. Can you tell me about her approach, and how a dramaturg would be useful in this way?
Mette Borg possesses a huge knowledge about performing history and basic topics reaching back to the early theater in, for instance, ancient Greece. And besides this she has impressive practical experience as an instructor and teacher. To get an insight into the dramaturgic world that is highly used in plays and movies is very useful when shaping and understanding a work like Vingt Regards. For instance, it helped me sharpen the contrast between the near to earth movements, like movement 16, where we meet the shepherds and Magi, and the abstract, intuitive topics, like the 5th movement, where the paradox about Jesus being both divine and human is investigated. The awareness of these different spheres creates a lot of ideas for variation and coloration throughout this massive work.
It has always struck that as original and complex as Messiaen's music is, it conveys extremely powerful emotions, on a scale similar to Beethoven and Mahler. Do you hear it that way as well?
Yes, I don’t have any doubts that Messiaen’s music represents a very strong belief with immense emotions attached to it. Not being religious myself, I find it a gift through his music to get access to the wonders, mysteries and excitement a belief can provide. And to realize that Vingt Regards is a contemplation of the Catholic mysteries rather than an explanation of or a solution to these, fuels the imagination and intuition while playing and listening to his music.
In your thoughtful notes about the music, you speak about the purely religious inspiration for Messiaen versus a more generally spiritual quality that the listener, or the performer for that matter, can take away from the music. You state that "even thought I do not share the fervent religious enthusiasm of Messiaen, this exploration can lead me to an understanding that fuels my own enthusiasm." Can you elaborate?
I can give an example from the 18th movement, which is one of the most challenging pieces, especially after almost two hours of playing. The piece is a description of the word of God becoming a human nature. Messiaen mentions a tapestry depicting the word of God in the shape of Jesus riding a horse. He also refers to Psalm 45, which is an epic wedding song also talking about battles. Following these references, with inspiration from Mette Borg, I was led to the baroque theater where sudden changes of scenography, sound effects and other scenic techniques were essential in underlining the often religious content. The piece has this relentless, majestic choral quality that gets interrupted all the time by cascades of tones. With knowledge of Messiaen’s inspirations and the theater in mind these interruptions can express wedding bells, theatrical thunder, or the riding of horses. And I created a stage for the majestic choral music to be presented and discovered. In this way, the religious enthusiasm that Messiaen is generously sharing has led me to a personal image that fuels my own enthusiasm. I do not wish for the audience to think about baroque theater when I play the movement, but I think it is an interesting way to pass on the powerful emotions and inspire listeners to search for their own enthusiasm.
I think some of the greatest music ever written was directly informed by Christian theology, and yet I do not share the faith. When I listen to Bach's St. Matthew Passion, for example, I am inspired by Bach's inspiration, so to speak, and of course the overwhelming humanity of the music. I hear Vingt Regards in the same way. I sense from what you have just said, as well as in your notes for the album, that you might have similar feelings. Am I getting that right?
Yes, for sure. The basic themes for Vingt Regards I see as quite universal, and not bound to the Catholic belief. But the Christian theology. and also other religions and mythologies, contains so many amazing and well known symbols and stories, that a very few hints are needed to guide the thoughts towards huge topics and immense feelings. So by using religious content and passion I think the composer gets a very strong and rare concrete foundation to be even more abstract and experimental in the musical language.
I have always been struck by the jazzy rhythms of much of the faster sections in Vingt Regards," which are especially vivid in your playing. I know that you have also performed the piano parts in the Turangalila Symphony and Oiseaux Exotiques, music that is also filled with syncopated rhythms. Do you hear the jazz influences as well (a notion that was, I believe, dismissed by the composer), and do you have experience as a jazz performer?
Certainly. And jazz performers have also borrowed Messiaen’s modes for improvisations later on. Sadly, I do not have experience on the piano as a jazz performer, but I did play the trombone both in jazz and classical orchestras earlier on. Especially in the 10th movement, where Messiaen captures the joy, the feeling of jazz is present. I even hear the theme of I Got Rhythm in the piece. But still there is alway a very great seriousness present. I can imagine Messiaen would be afraid of losing this, if the connection to jazz was verified.
I love that you hear Gershwin in this music! I have also read that Messiaen did not care to have his music associated with jazz, which is strange on a number of levels. Certainly, jazz had long been embraced as a legitimate art form by other European (and especially French) composers by the time Vingt Regards was written, and the joy that he reaches for in much of his music is so easily expressed in the jazz idiom. Any thoughts on this question?
I think when, for instance, Debussy wrote Golliwogs Cakewalk or Ravel wrote Blues from his violin sonata, they did not only find inspiration in the blue harmonies of jazz, but also in the silliness, and a not too serious approach to life. When you hear Gershwin play it is an invitation into this playful world. Messiaen for sure had humor, but he is very serious and never wants to be silly about his beliefs. The 16th movement is pointing a bit in that direction though. Here the peasants, shepherds and the Wise Men are celebrating the birth of Jesus. You can almost hear an uneven ride of a camel, and the party gets more and more intense. But Messiaen never gets silly. Peter Burwasser 07.04.2023