“L’Ascension: Quatre Méditations Symphoniques pour Orgue”
The Ascension suite first appeared in 1933 as an orchestral work. In the subsequent organ version of 1934, the first, second and fourth movements remain relatively unchanged. However, the third movement from the orchestral version became so difficult to adapt for organ that Messiaen decided to write a completely new piece.
I. Majesté du Christ demandant sa gloire à son Père
(Majesty of Christ praying that His Father should glorify Him)
“Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify Thee—Prayer from Christ, The Gospel of St. John
Using the foundation stops from the Grand Orgue, Recit and Positif, plus the reeds from the Recit, Messiaen recreates the choral-like effect of the original brass version. Slow-moving melodies and harmonic rhythm give the impression of an ecstatic, prayer-like mantra, which sighs in long and short phrases. The gradually unfolding panels of the movement reach two climaxes; the first, leads one to believe that the movement has come to a conclusion; it in fact signals a restatement of the original idea taking one to a climax of even greater intensity. In this manner, Messiaen portrays prayer as a never ending mantra.
II. Alléluias sereins d'une âme qui désire le ciel
(Serene alleluias from a soul longing for Heaven)
“We beseech Thee, almighty God, that we may in mind dwell in Heaven”—Mass for Ascension Day
The second movement opens with a monody in Messiaen’s mode 3. Very chant-like, its rhythms evoke the ebb-and-flow of plainsong, yet creates a new vision of chant: pliable, persuasive, haunting and seen through the composer’s unique spectacles. The second section of the piece develops the plainsong idea accompanied by filigrees reminiscent of birdsong, returning to one of Messiaen’s favorite images of heaven-and-earth praising God. In the third section, the opening theme returns in its entirety accompanied by staccato chords at 4’ and 2’ pitches. The effect of the chords is to provide an illuminating backdrop to the theme, bathing it with shafts of soft light. The fourth section takes the development of section two and kaleidoscopically shifts the surrounding textures to provide an expansion on melodic, harmonic and textural plains. The section ascends to a high point, only to fall to a lower plateau of calm, where various thematic fragments are restated in new guises. The plateau then falls still lower, using repeated melodic fragments and clothing the atmosphere with mystery. In the fifth section, the veil of mystery is lifted and the quiet ecstasy of the theme rings out in the pedal at 4’, 2’ & 1’ pitches beneath birdsong-like melismas and trilling chords; the final measures drift away into the ether.
III. Transports de joie d'un âme devant la gloire
(Outburst of joy from a soul before the Glory of Christ which is its own glory)
“Giving thanks unto the Father which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the Saints in light…has raised us up together and make us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus”—The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to the Ephesians.
This movement is an object lesson in creating a rhythmic, harmonic and emotional crescendo of immense power. This is a toccata of epic proportion, drawing on the distinctive augmented fourth harmonies of Messiaen’s mode 2. As is common in Messiaen, the piece unfolds in panels; repeated, transposed and expanded and incorporating dramatic rests. The opening chords, powerful pedal theme and F# major chord, give a fore-taste of the drama and virtuosity of this movement. The chords and cadenzas which follow certainly evoke the movement’s title, however, it is the cumulative impact of the repeated, expanded and transposed panels combined with the variety of cadenzas (runs of quintuplets/chains of staccato chords), that sets the stage for the final three pages, where the kinetic energy builds constantly toward the end. In the final portion of the piece, the opening chords are repeated in group sequences and are interspersed with the expanded pedal theme now transposed to the manuals in octaves, and filled-in with dense harmonies, which create a reinforcement of theme’s intensity. A quickening in pace signals the theme hammered-out in chords, which culminates in a frenetic cadenza, transforming the theme into a fluid entity at double tempo, leading into a triumphant and climatic cadence in F# major.
IV. Prère du Christ montant vers son Père
(Prayer from Christ ascending towards His Father)
“And now, O Father, I have manifested Thy name unto men…and now, I am no more in the world, but these are in the world and I come to Thee”—Gospel of St. John
The last movement of this cycle recalls the first in its prayer-like atmosphere. Ascending sequences of chords move inexorably toward climaxes of ever-increasing intensity. However, in this movement we also have a secondary theme of great tenderness, which also has a repetitious element, creating another “musical mantra”. The slowly ascending chords reappear in long or short phrases and are separated by statements of the second theme. Over the course of the movement, the two themes appear to subtley merge and become one, whilst the texture, harmonic intensity and tessitura become greater, until inexorably reaching the highest plateau on an unresolved dominant-seventh chord. The mystery of faith is thus summed up, as the prayer ascends, but does not cease.
“Messe de la Pentecôte”
When Messiaen wrote his “Pentecost Mass” it had been a decade since his last organ composition (“Les Corps Glorieux” (1939)). During the intervening years, Messiaen had composed the “Turangalila Symphony” and had discovered new concepts while improvising. This was also a period where serialism had found its way into Messaien’s composition class at the Paris Conservatoire, and, inevitably into his own compositions. The “Messe de la Pentecote” follows the format of many of the short masses of Tournemire (Introit, Offertory, Consecration, Communion, Dismissal) and employs some plainsong.
I. Entrée (Les langues de feu)
Introit: “The Tongues of Fire”
The tongues of fire possessed each one—Acts of the Apostles
One of the features of the “Messe” is a further expansion of Messiaen’s registrational concepts. Juxtaposed chords utilizing unusual registrations, including the Bourdon 16’ and Cymbale , and a lone Clairon 4’ in the pedal, are presented in constantly fluctuating and changing Greek rhythms , ebbing, flowing, rising and falling in “irrational values” as the composer calls them. Amongst this seemingly bizarre tapestry, emerges a very potent image of the nature of flame; constantly flickering, sometimes shooting shafts of all-consuming, vivid red, then, softer, gentler orange hues. It is a musical metaphor both aurally and spiritually.
II. Offertoire (Les choses visibles et invisibles)
Offertory : “Things visible and invisible” Nicene Creed
In this, the longest movement of the cycle, we see again one of Messaien’s favourite devices; composition by panel, constantly changing, transforming, expanding using his technique to deepen the mystery, drama and profundity of the music. The opening idea presents chords of resonance (chords which have notes added to them that, in Messiaen’s ears, “resonate” naturally with the others) and hindu rhythms using more innovative registration (e.g. 16” Bourdon + 2’). The curtain of mystery falls immediately. Next, a monody of extraordinary beauty with contracting and expanding phrases. Then, the beast of the apocalypse emerges from the depths of the organ on the Basson 16’. Chord sequences in mode 4 where each of the three parts is assigned a “rhythmic persona” from the Hindu “decitalas”as found in the “Turangalila Symphony”. Each short burst is interrupted by the beast of the apocalypse on a low C. Then a development of the monody using birdsong-like two-part counterpoint, the “beast” reappears, then the rhythmic peronae are allowed to take off, assisted by constantly moving chords of resonance, which traverse the entire compass of the keyboards (perhaps a descent into hell and rise to heaven is implied). The “beast” interrupts once again, then, we are taken to a new place, calm and ethereal, representing sanctuary and repose after the brush with the depths of hell! A fragment of the monody is stated and nature joins in the commentary with the song of an unidentified bird. The movement concludes with another panel briefly recappin g the opening of the piece, thus providing symmetry and reminding us that the “beast” and nature are never far away.
III. Consécration (Le don de Sagesse)
Consecration : “The giving of wisdom”
“The Holy Spirit shall bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.”— St. John the Evangelist
Again we return to the panel concept; three different panels are presented; resonance chords with unusual registrations, the plainsong, “Veni Creator Spiritus” adapted to Messiaen’s mode 4, and Hindu rhythms with more resonance chords. These elements return and are repeated, contracted and reordered. The cumulative effect is that the plainsong tells a story in its constantly metamorphosising nature and illumines the title “the giving of wisdom” through the bidding language of the plainsong “Come Holy Spirit. The adorning panels add commentary, and, in the case of the first, clothes the piece in mystery.
IV. Communion (Les oiseaux et les sources)
Communion: “The birds and the springs”
“The springs of water bless the Savior, the birds of the sky bless the Savior”—Song of the three children, from the Book of the Prophet Daniel in the Bible of Jerusalem in French.
Three clear sections are evident here and the title “Communion” implies both the act of worship and that of heaven-and-earth coming together in praise of God. Here, nature is very much present; in section one, we have various unknown birds and the song of the nightingale. Section two evokes a rain forest where the sounds of water droplets are accompanied by a menagerie of nameless bird songs. The final section is very typical of Messiaen; an ecstatic, yet almost naïve love song to God utilizing his favorite augmented fourths, and added-value rhythms. We also sense the added dimension of quiet joy of the act of communion expressed in the melody and harmony. The final measure further underscores the heaven-and-earth concept; the last chord employs both the lowest and highest notes on the organ.
V. Sortie (Le vent de l'Esprit)
Recessional: “The wind of the Spirit”
“The entire house was filled with a mighty wind”—Acts of the Apostles
The rushing wind of the Holy Spirit is conveyed through various figures; octave themes in sixteenth notes, manual cadenzas in chords, falling triplet figures and bursts of 32nd notes. In the second section, we see one of Messiaen’s innovative rhythmic procedures, which anticipates the “Soixante-Quatre Durees” movement of the “Livre d’Orgure” which would follow shortly in 1951. Here, slowly expanding and contracting rhythms in the left hand and pedal move toward each other in opposite directions in an almost “imploding” effect, whilst choruses of owls chirp ecstatically and noisily above. The “implosion” and birdsong merge at the conclusion of the section, creating a huge rhythmic crescendo. The movement ends with another rhythmic crescendo; slow repeated chords with a theme in the pedal/toccata figures/frenetic cadenza in serial technique which culminates in an apocalyptic dissonance.