There’s a certain pride associated with rising melodic lines — in much nineteenth-century music. Singing soars, and in soaring affirms something very positive about being human. As pitch rises, we might get louder, more tonally intense, more emotional.
In other music, high registers are thin. Earlier instruments and techniques may corroborate this thinness: no steel “E” strings on eighteenth-century violins, singing voices differently “supported.” Eighteenth-century pianos and harpsichords are paler higher up; high notes sustain less well than notes in their lower registers. High notes are up there — where God is? Where Heaven is? A place a human might aspire to, but not confidently occupy. In a lot of older European music, gestures that rise into high registers don’t just go up — they “ascend.”
Last year, I played Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” with several different groups of excellent musicians. As the cast of players changed around me, the music changed too.
The final movement, the slowly unfolding “Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus” (“Praise to the Immortality of Jesus”), is a poem for violin and piano. It goes up very high on the fiddle. It’s hard to play. It’s hard to ascend …
In a performance in Boston in Jordan Hall with James Buswell, I became overwhelmed. Was it the intensity of playing this very emotional music in a big room for a thousand people, built up through the whole hour-long piece? Was it Buswell’s magnificent mastery? The physical sound of the sustained line rising higher and higher above the impossibly slow heartbeats (bum-baaaa, bum-baaaa) of the piano, repeating, and repeating, and repeating? Was it the recollection that Messiaen heard this music played in the hall decades before? Or thinking of the memorial event for a friend that took place on the same stage the day before our performance?
After we finished playing, after the last thin sounds entirely dissipated, after I rose from my seat, and as we bowed, my eyes filled with tears.
Mr. Buswell is a very accomplished collaborator and complimentary (when due), though not effusive. The next day when I ran into him, he asked a slightly oblique and rather plaintive question:
“Have you been in the chair again?”
I had not.