Fréderic Mompou (1893-1987)
Música Callada (1951-1967)
Lilit Griigoryan (piano)
ORCHID CLASSICS ORC100178 
The score of Mompou’s Música Callada contains a number of literary ‘keys’ (no musical pun intended) to its nature and significance. One is in the work’s very title, Música Callada or ‘Silent music’. What to most modern eyes and minds might seem a merely empty, because self-contradictory, statement comes from one of the major works of mystical literature, the Cántico espiritual (Spiritual Canticle) by St. John of the Cross. Of course, mystics and poets have long known that what others regard as meaning-devoid self-contradictory statements can actually convey important truths. Consider, for example, these lines from Shakespeare’s great poem ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’:
Reason, in itself confounded,
Saw division grow together,
To themselves yet either neither,
Simple were so well compounded,
That it cried, How true a twain
Seemeth this concordant one!
The Spiritual Canticle is a kind of poetic meditation on/rewriting of, parts of The Song of Songs. The writing of it began while Juan de la Cruz was imprisoned (by those who opposed his desire to reform the Carmelite Order) in a monastery in Toledo from early December 1577 until he escaped in mid-August 1578. He was repeatedly whipped and kept in a stiflingly hot and windowless cell. He had no books (which mattered little, since he had interiorised extensive passages of the Bible) save his breviary, and for a short time each day he was able to read that when a small hole in the wall admitted some sunlight. The friar who guarded his cell gave him some paper. In the Spiritual Canticle the ‘bride’ (representing the soul) is in dialogue with an absent ‘bridegroom’ (Christ), the two eventually being reunited. Mompou’s title-phrase comes from lines addressed by the ‘bride’ to the ‘bridegroom, ‘seeing’ him as, metaphorically:
La noche sosgada,
en par de los levantes de la aurora,
la música callada,
la soledad Sonora,
la cena que recrea y enamora
The tranquil night,
when dawn’s rising approaches,
the silent music,
the sounding solitude,
the supper that gives new strength, kindling love anew.
After his escape from imprisonment in Toledo, Juan completed the poem and was subsequently persuaded to write a commentary on the completed poem. It is, I think, worth quoting from what the commentary has to say of this stanza:
“In [the] tranquillity and silence of the night … the soul is able to see a marvellous fitness … in the diversities of all its creatures and works, all of which are endowed with a certain response to its harmony of sublimest music surpassing all the concerts and melodies of the world. The Bride calls this music silent because … it is tranquil and quiet intelligence, without sound of voices”
(translated by E. Allison Peers, The Complete Works of Saint John of the Cross, 1934, Vol. II, pp. 88-89).
There is much in the Cántico espiritual and in Juan de la Cruz’s ‘Exposition’ of it, which throws light on how Mompou viewed his Música callada and how he hoped it might be played, and how it might be listened to. Indeed, in a note at the end of Book I, he expanded on that same verse of the Cántico spiritual quoted earlier, in a passage in French on the Frontispiece of Book I (I quote the English version included in Antonio Iglesias’ notes to the 4-CD set Fréderic Mompou: Complete Piano Works, played by Mompou himself (Brilliant Classics 6515) thus: “It is rather difficult to express the real meaning of ‘Musica callada’ in any language other than Spanish. The great mystic poet, San Juan de la Cruz, in one of his fine poems, sings of ‘La Música Callada, ls Soleda Sonora’, in an endeavour to express the idea of music that was the very sound of silence. Music keeps its voice silent, that is, does not speak, while solitude has its own music.” The phrase Mompou chose as the title of what is his greatest work has continued to attract other authors, one such case being William Johnson’s much respected book of 1974, Silent Music:The Science of Meditation.
But St. John of the Cross is not the only poet to whom Mompou alludes in the score of Música callada. The second piece in Book I, ‘Lento’, is prefaced by the last two lines of a poem, ‘Le Pas’ by the French poet Paul Valéry: “Car j’ai vécu de vous attendre, / Et mon coeur n’était que vos pas.” It is worth putting those lines back into context, for which purpose I quote an English translation of the whole poem by Camille Chevalier-Karfis (Frenchtoday.com):
Your footsteps, children of my silence,
Saintly, slowly placed
Towards the bed of my watchfulness,
Approach, muted and frozen.
Pure one, divine shadow,
How gentle, your cautious steps are!
Gods! …all the gifts that I can guess
Come to me on those naked feet!
If, with your lips advancing,
You are preparing to appease
The inhabitant of my thoughts
With the sustenance of a kiss,
Do not hurry this tender act,
Bliss of being and not being,
For I have lived for waiting for you,
And my heart was only your footsteps.
The affinity between Mompou and Valéry is made even clearer when one reads the words of Brian Simpson (Paul Valéry and Music, Cambridge University Press, 1984, p.1) “at the height of his successful literary career, Valéry could wish that he had been a musician rather than a poet … music was the lodestone of all his efforts”. (Simpson’s book makes no mention of Mompou, though it does have chapters on Valéry and Wagner and Valéry and Stravinsky). Valéry’s poem was first published in his volume Charmes ou Poèmes, which appeared in June of 1922. By one of those coincidences that make one believe in the existence of the zeitgeist, Mompou was, more or less simultaneously, preparing and publishing a collection of piano pieces under the very same title, Charmes (1921-22). The pianist and musicologist Antonio Iglesias, who worked with Mompou, tells us that at this time, the composer did not know Valéry’s work. By the 1950s, he obviously did. One might, indeed, see Valéry and Mompou as complementary opposites. Valéry found in music models for what he wanted his poetry to be (see the book by Simpson mentioned above) and Mompou, above all in Música callada, used poetical texts both to stimulate his music and, in some ways, to ‘define’ it.
Mompou was, by all accounts, a very shy, decidedly introverted man. His ‘silence’ was, that is, temperamental as well as philosophical and spiritual. His use of the poem by Valéry is particularly interesting in this regard. His desire for the visitation of the “ombre divine” (divine shadow) took the form of humble waiting. It is the “waiting for God” of which so many mystics have written.
From these various allusions and the contexts they suggest it can be seen, I believe, that Mompou’s Música Callada was intended as a sustained act (it was published in four books, dated 1951, 1962, 1965 and 1967) of prayerful meditation, the enactment of a kind of waiting for the Presence of God, by a man whose heart (cœur), to use Valéry’s word, and skills as a pianist-composer were devoted to articulating his experience of waiting for what he sensed as the approaching ‘steps’ of the divine.
The very titles/markings of the 28 pieces which make up Música Callada delineate some of the many stages in the spiritual journey, moments in the ‘waiting’ for God, whether they be joyful, calm or painful, for example – ‘Angelico’, ‘Placide’, ‘Severo-serieux’, ‘Semplice’, ‘Luminoso’, ‘Lento-plaintif’, ‘Calme’ and ‘Afflitto e penoso’.
Lilit Grigoryan’s account of Música Callada is not the most profound I have ever heard, but there is much to admire, nevertheless. Her control of dynamics is impressive throughout, subtly varied and shaded with a clear sense of purpose, and her use of pauses is often very effective. She draws some beautiful tonal effects from her instrument; listen, for example, to the pealing of the bells at the beginning of No. XXI. The excellent recorded sound allows us to savour her sense of pianistic colour. Occasionally, however, things seem to be misjudged – she seems to miss, rather badly, the ‘mood’ of No. XIII. Such ‘details’ matter, but what matters more is that there is less sense of a larger arc of meaning governing the work as a whole than there is in either Mompou’s own recording (made when he was 81, and not without some occasional inaccuracies) or Herbert Henck’s reading (ECM 1523) – though Henck is sometimes a little hurried.
That ‘arc of meaning’ is an aspect of Mompou’s creation of what one might describe as not so much a meaning as an ineffable presence – a presence made up of absences – the absence of elaborate counterpoint, of thematic development, of almost every kind of formal complexity. I am unable to define it more precisely, unless by quoting Mompou himself: “Music is written for the inexpressible; it should seem to come out of the shadow in order to move back into the shadow”. While much of Lilit Grigoryan’s playing on this disc is very beautiful, it seems to me that she doesn’t access this ‘spiritual’ dimension of the music as consistently as the aged Mompou does in his recording of the work, or as Javier Perianes does in his recording (Harmonia Mundi HMI 987070). I find it unsurprising that Mompou’s work should have attracted the interest of a figure such as the French (though Russian-born) philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch (1903-1985), Professor of Moral Philosophy at the Sorbonne from 1951 to 1979, who in addition to such works as Traité des vertus (1949), L’Austerité et la Vie Morale (1958) and Les Vertus et l’Amor (1970), was also the author of La Musique et l’Ineffable (1961) and La presence lontaine: Albeniz, Séverac, Monpou (1983).
This disc came my way at an oddly appropriate time, just as I had bought, and was starting to read, a second-hand copy of Lucy Winkett’s book Our Sound is Our Wound: Contemplative listening to a noisy world (Continuum, 2010). Winkett is an Anglican priest, a theologian and formerly a professional soprano (she worked with both John Rutter’s Cambridge Singers and Stephen Layton’s Polyphony). The range of musical reference in her book is wide, from Hildegard of Bingen, Byrd and Beethoven to Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin and Freddie Mercury. Though she makes no mention of Fréderic Mompou, more than a few passages in her book seemed relevant as I thought about this review, as when she writes (p.134): “One of the best-loved descriptions of God in Scripture, popularized in the well-known hymn, is the ‘still, small voice’, most recently translated as ‘the sound of sheer silence’ (I Kings 19.12). God was not in the earthquake, nor in the fire or the wind, but God was to be found in the still, small voice”.
Another possible approach to Música Callada is that explored in the late Wilfrid Mellers’ book on Mompou, Le Jardin Retrouvé (1989). I read this book only once and that fairly quickly at some point in the 1990s, when staying in the house of a friend who had a copy. I remember making some notes but can’t now find the relevant notebook. Almost enough is, in any case, implied in the book’s title, which one might translate not only as ‘the garden re-found’, but also as ‘Paradise Regained’. Looking up reviews of the book to refresh my memory, I find Richard Langham Smith writing (The Musical Times, 1330, No.1788, February 1992, p.77) “What Mellers finds in Mompou is a like-mind. As he puts it, the book is ‘a tribute from one old Edenicist to another’”. Mellers sees this as the key to most of Mompou’s music, but if the Lost Garden is anywhere regained it is in Música Callada, surely the central statement of Mompou’s musical vision.
A performance of Música Callada along lines such as this would need, I believe, to discover the full weight and significance of such pieces as nos. IV, ‘Afflito e penoso’ (Afflicted and painful), XVII, ‘Lento’ (which has a sense of solitude, shot through with unexpected sweetness), XXII, ‘Molto lento e tranquillo’ (full of yearning for that which is lost), XXIII, ‘Calme, avec clarté’ (a kind of clear-sighted melancholy) and XXVII, ‘Lento molto’ (controlled nostalgia, with hints of hopefulness). Some of the most beautiful playing in Lilit Grigoryan’s recording is to be found in several of these pieces, which mitigates, in part, the reservations I expressed earlier.
While I wouldn’t make Lilit Grigoryan’s my first choice amongst recordings of Música Callada, it is certainly one to which I shall return in the future (for its sensitivity and tonal beauty), along with those of the composer, Javier Perianes and Herbert Henck. Mompou’s has the advantages of being the composer’s own interpretation and the disadvantages of being the work of a man of 81, whose fingers sometimes show their age. Of the other recordings of Música Callada with which I am familiar that by Perianes seems to me the most satisfactory.
William James included two chapters on Mysticism in his famous – and still rewarding – book The Varieties of Religious Experience (first published in 1902); in them he makes several references to music. I close with one such passage, which seems pertinent to Música Callada: “Music gives us ontological messages which non-musical criticism is unable to contradict, though it may laugh at our foolishness in in minding them. There is a verge in our mind which these things haunt.”
(The Varieties of Religious Experience, New York, Longman, Green & Co., 1922, p.421). Música Callada certainly haunts my mind for several subsequent days whenever I listen to it.
Book 1 (1951)
1 I Angelico
2 II Lento
3 III Placide
4 IV Afflitto e penoso
6 VI Lento
7 VII Lento
8 VIII Semplice
9 IX Lento
Book 2 (1962)
10 X Lento – cantabile
11 XI Allegretto
12 XII Lento
13 XIII Tranquilo – très calme
14 XIV Severo – sérieux
15 XV Lento – plaintif
16 XVI Calme
Book 3 (1965)
17 XVII Lento
18 XVIII Luminoso
19 IXX Tranquilo
20 XX Calme
21 XXI Lento
Book 4 (1967)
22 XXII Molto lento e tranquilo
23 XXIII Calme, avec claret
24 XXIV Moderato
26 XXVI Lento
27 XXVII Lento molto
28 XXVIII Lento