Remembrance of Things Past: Turning Pages for Messiaen

Yvonne Loriod and Olivier Messiaen sign autographs at the Cleveland Museum of Art
Yvonne Loriod and Olivier Messiaen sign autographs at the Cleveland Museum of Art

There are some events that you remember for the rest of your life. One of those occurred for me almost exactly 30 years ago, October 13, 1978, when Olivier Messiaen and his wife Yvonne Loriod played a concert at the Cleveland Museum of Art.  I was living on Long Island at the time, but my friend Bruce Shewitz, who was working in the Musical Arts Department of the museum at the time, asked me if I wanted to come back for the concert.  Not only that, would I be interested in turning pages for the major work on the second half of the program, Messiaen’s “Visions de l’Amen” for two pianos, which Messiaen and Loriod would perform together.  Loriod played Debussy and solo Messiaen (excerpts from “Vingt regards”) on the first half.

Bruce turned for Loriod; I turned for Messiaen.  We met briefly prior to the beginning of the concert, Messiaen showed me his tattered score of “Visions.”  He did not speak English, and my French was rudimentary at best.  But he was cordial.

The performance went off without a hitch, despite my terror of making a mistake.  I confess that during the last movement I became lost in the very repetitive music, but the composer carried on. (It was a work that I had heard before, but I had never seen the score before.)  About midway through the performance of the 45-minute work, I looked down at the piano keyboard and saw smudges on the keys which I almost immediately determined to be blood.  Messiaen had cut himself on the keyboard while he was playing.  But he didn’t miss a note.

After the concert, we were in the green room behind the stage, and the composer disappeared.  Karel Paukert, Curator of Music and host of the event, went looking for Messiaen and found him, with a damp paper towel, back out on the stage cleaning the blood off the piano keys.  Messiaen’s comment was, “It’s a good thing my wife didn’t see it, because she would have stopped the performance.”  Lucky for all of us.

After the backstage congratulations and greetings (and clean-up), Messiaen and Loriod spent time in the museum lobby signing autographs.  He signed my program, “with thanks to the page turner.”  There were pictures taken, which you see above.  The Messiaens are seated with their backs to the camera.  I am at the far right, with the light-colored suit (and considerably more hair than I have today).  Bruce is to my left.  Karel Paukert is kneeling in front of Loriod and in the center is Paukert’s (now former) wife Noriko.  The only other person I recognize in the picture is (I think) the organ builder Charles Ruggles (with the bald head and beard.)

It seems hard to believe that this was thirty years ago, for Messiaen’s 70th birthday tribute.  This year we celebrate his 100th anniversary.  On November 2nd, I’ll be playing a recital at my church (Euclid Avenue Congregational Church in Cleveland) including three of Messiaen’s more austere organ works in his memory and honor: Apparition de l’Église Éternelle, Monodie, and Chants d’oiseaux (from Livre d’Orgue).

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