Born in Avignon to Pierre Messiaen, a Shakespeare scholar, and the poet Cécile Sauvage, Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992) exhibited a rare musical talent from an early age. He was admitted to the Paris Conservatory at age eleven, where he won five First Prizes—notably in classes with Marcel Dupré (organ), Maurice Emmanuel (music history), and Paul Dukas (composition). In 1930, he was appointed Organiste Titulaire of Sainte Trinité Church in Paris, a position he held until the early 1970s. At the outbreak of World War II, he became a French army hospital attendant, and in 1941 was taken prisoner and held in a POW camp in Silesia (where he composed Quartet for the End of Time). Upon his repatriation in 1942, he was appointed Professor of Harmony at the Paris Conservatory. During his lifetime, Messiaen was famed as an organist and pianist and frequently performed his own difficult compositions in concerts around the world.
Messiaen’s music differs from much Western music through the use of invented scales (“scales of limited transposition”)— he only rarely used the traditional Western diatonic scale. He also integrated complex Indian (Hindu) rhythms, serial compositional techniques, and methods intended to suspend the perception of time. Because of its “non-evolving” quality, Messiaen’s music has often been compared with mediation— that is, as something not to be thought through from beginning to end, but merely allowed to be. This characteristic is at the heart of his music, and, once recognized, it enables the listener to experience the dancing, illuminating quality to be found there.
He was also greatly aware of the role of color in his music; he once stated that “when I hear music, I see colors, not through my eyes, but through my intellect,” and there are many allusions to color in his works. As the notes about the pieces on this recording demonstrate, Messiaen occasionally described in his scores the colors he saw depicted by various combinations of sounds.
Finally, Messiaen was innovative in his interest in and use of birdsong. He spent a lifetime cataloging birdsongs from all over the world, and diligently incorporated elements of those songs in his music. He wrote, “Among the artistic hierarchy, the birds are probably the greatest musicians to inhabit our planet.”
In other, equally striking ways, Messiaen was rooted in the past, both in his faith and in his music. He continued in the tradition of many of the greatest Western composers, especially in his deliberate attempt to incorporate the “spiritual truths of the Catholic faith” into his music. In fact, along with the titles of his works, Messiaen often included biblical passages alluding to the images and affects he was attempting to evoke in the music (the appropriate citations are contained here). Finally, and most significantly for this recording, Messiaen’s organ music perpetuates the style of the great French organ tradition that began with César Franck and the instruments of Cavaillé-Coll.
Prélude was discovered in 1997 by Messiaen’s wife, Yvonne Loriod Messiaen, and was published by Leduc in 2002. It is thought that the piece dates from the time when the composer was studying at the Paris Conservatory, around 1929. It calls for an organ with a pedal compass to high G and a manual compass to high A (not standard for Cavaillé-Coll organs). It opens meditatively, with very little motion. The next section introduces the theme of the piece, and the central section seems influenced by Dupré, both in its compositional complexity and technical difficulty. Over the course of several minutes, this section uses varying timbres, and culminates in a massive crescendo to full organ. Finally, the opening theme is again presented, this time in its full splendor, ending in a massive E-major chord. After a pause, the music closes as it began, in stillness and humility.
from L’Ascension (The Ascension):
2. Transports de joie d’une âme devant la gloire du Christ qui est la sienne
(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 made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus. Colossians 1:12; Ephesians 2:6 This is the first of a series of ecstatic fantasia movements that occur in many of the composer’s main works between the years 1934 and 1948. It is made up of immense chords, thundering pedal themes, and brilliant toccata-style passages—much like the style of an improvisation. Indeed, it is so idiomatic of organ playing that it is the only movement that is not transcribed from the original orchestral work, but is composed entirely fresh. “Outburst” is an apt description of the movement, as heard from the opening three chords: simultaneously an outburst of joy, of thanks, and of light. The concept of being “raised up . . . to the heavenly places” is aurally depicted in the close with its upward sweep to a brilliant F-sharp-major chord. The organ seems to come alive and dazzle our very ears with these sonorities. “The Resurrection and the Ascension of Christ are the prelude to our entrance into heaven. This truth fills us with joy. Joy which expresses itself in a new, exuberant Alleluia—and uniting all the brilliance of the fortissimo of the organ.” (Messiaen) from Les Corps Glorieux (The Glorified Bodies)
3. Joie et Clarté des Corps Glorieux (Joy and splendor of the glorious bodies)
The righteous will shine like the sun in the Kingdom of their Father. Matthew 13:43
In this piece we can detect the way Messiaen was inspired by the unique timbres of an orchestra: the color combinations that he requests in various parts of this movement are orchestral in nature. The movement opens and closes with an ecstatic melody that depicts the shining quality of the righteous. The single-chord accompaniment to the melody seems to shimmer all by itself 6 (“highly spiced, with reflections of gold and flame”), while the melody, evoking Gabriel’s trumpet, adds a patina of brilliance and power to the work. A contrasting section, with its interplay between two different timbres, seems to recall the former, earthbound body. Ultimately, the “Gabriel’s trumpet” sound is again heard, seeming to leap out into the cosmos itself. “Splendor or glory is the first quality of the glorified bodies. Each resurrected one has his own light, his singular illumination. These different splendors are conveyed by changes of timbres.” (Messiaen)
3. Le Banquet Céleste (The Celestial Banquet)
He that eats my flesh and drinks my blood dwells in me, and I in him. John 6:56
Messiaen’s first published organ work, written in 1928, employs the opposite driving force to that of “Apparition”; namely, its longest chords are dissonant, and its shortest are consonant. This work was intended to be a second theme of an orchestral work called Le Banquet Eucharistique (never finished), and is a meditation on the Eucharist, expressing the external reality of Christ’s sacrifice, represented continuously in the offering of the Mass. The piece is extremely slow (its 25 measures take over 9 minutes), and juxtaposes beautiful chords of color— representing the love God shows the world by offering His Son for remission of sins—with notes sounding like drops of water (in the pedal line), representing the drops of Christ’s blood from the cross. This imagery is enhanced by the composer’s use of his “modes of limited transposition” and by slow-moving chords that create a sense of “other worldliness.” Time seems completely suspended in this glimpse of the heavenly banquet.
5. Apparition de l’Église Éternelle (Vision of the Eternal Church)
Written in 1932, shortly after Messiaen became Titulaireat Ste. Trinité, Apparitionis driven by the way the harmony seems to dictate its repetitious rhythmic scheme. The chords of greatest harmonic tension are of the shortest duration. The use of open fourths and fifths lends an ancient character to the music, which in its density seems to bespeak the powerful monolithic medieval French cathedrals. As the work builds up to full reeds, the rhythmic propulsion creates a great sense of unity; this may reflect the unity of the Eternal Church. It is not surprising that Messiaen would choose harmonies that are both backward looking and forward looking, as this is precisely what the Eternal Church aims to do—encompass people of all generations. “Chisel and hammer, sufferings, and trials, cut and polish the elect—living stones of the spiritual edifice (expressed by the incessant pulsation of the bass). Established slowly, it will take a long time to disappear . . .” (Messiaen)
from Livre d’Orgue (Organ Book)
6. Chants d’Oiseaux (Songs of the Birds) For Easter.
An afternoon of birds: a blackbird, a robin, a song thrush, and a nightingale when the darkness comes.
This work represents the first time— 1951, at the end of his “experimental” period—that Messiaen wrote a piece made up almost entirely of birdsong. Specifically, it was written in the midst of the birds of the forest of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. The centerpiece of the seven-movement Livre d’orgue, the character of “Chants” is one of complete freedom and jubilation, both common themes for Easter Sunday. It employs no conventional structure, but rather moves ecstatically between birdsong and the Hindu rhythm miçra varna (which starts the work), described by Messiaen as the “timbre of a damp harpsichord crowned with a halo of gongs.” In listening to (or performing) this music, one is reminded of Messiaen’s own words: “ In my hours of gloom, when I am suddenly aware of my own futility, when every musical idiom—classical, oriental, ancient, modern, and ultramodern—appears to me as no more than admirable, painstaking 8 experimentation, without any ultimate justification, what is left for me but to seek out the true, lost face of music somewhere off in the forest, in the fields, in the mountains or on the seashore, among the birds.”
from Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité (Meditations on the Mystery of the Holy Trinity):
7. Le Fils, Verbe et Lumière (The Son, Word, and Light)
In him was life; and the life was our light. - John 1:4
The Son being the brightness of God’s glory! - Hebrews 1:3
In 1967, to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of Ste. Trinité as well as the reopening of the organ there (which had undergone a five-year rebuilding), Messiaen improvised a series of movements at a gathering that included talks about the “Mystery of the Holy Trinity” by the great preacher from Sacré-Cœur, Monsignor Charles. These improvisations formed the main ideas that would later be assembled as Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité, in nine movements. It would be another five years before the finished work would be heard by the public (performed by Messiaen at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, in Washington, D.C., March 20, 1972), and another year before it was finally published. The sixth movement is about the light that came into the world with the birth of the Christ, also the light that led the Magi to Jesus, and Jesus as Light of the World. The work opens with a plainsong theme, the Offertory antiphon of Epiphany (which is the manifestation of the divine light), presented simply and in octaves. On the Swell, colored chords oppose this starkness and come to rest on the “white and gold light” of a C-major chord in first inversion. This is followed by a second plainsong theme, the Gradual of Epiphany, and eventually a third plainsong theme, the Alleluia of Epiphany, presented in open fifths on full organ. The piece then seems to become brighter and more luminous as it goes on, finally concluding with a brilliant C-major chord with an added sixth. The volume is astounding: the low C, played in the pedal in this final chord, is by far the loudest note of the Bombarde reed. At Ste. Trinité, where Messiaen was organist, the organist faces the high altar and all the white that bathes the interior of the church, and is surrounded by stained-glass windows. The volume of the last chord, combined with the whiteness of the building and the dazzling, multi-colored stained glass which surrounds the organist—all seem to be invoking a glimpse of the eternal majesty of the Holy Trinity itself.
8. Offrande au Saint Sacrement (Offering to the Holy Sacrament)
Like Prélude, Offrande au Saint Sacrement was discovered by Yvonne Messiaen in 1997, and its composition is thought to have been more or less concurrent with that of Le Banquet Céleste(1928). That it should have been in hiding for nearly 70 years is amazing, as it is a significant addition to his œuvre. The opening section and the very closely related third section are counterintuitive: the very florid right hand ostinato is marked pianissimo, while the static left hand part, with its call for rather unusual stops, is marked forte. The result is a stolid and calm effect, underlined by a hint of perpetual creative motion. It is much like looking at the massive firmness of a tree, while still being aware of the gentle, continuous movement of its leaves. The second and fourth sections seem to be lost in endless contemplation and devotion to the Blessed acrament, and the piece ends enigmatically.
from La Nativité du Seigneur (The Nativity of Our Lord) (tracks 9-11)
9. Les Anges (The Angels)
The multitude of the heavenly host praises God saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest heavens!’ Luke 2:13,14
This piece uses only two voices throughout. It is a dance of paradise employing the Sharngadeva rhythm vasanta by means of augmentation, diminution, and added note values . It is full of energy and commotion. Messiaen said of the piece that it is “fast and joyous. The music evolves constantly in the high register, the rhythm is extremely free— all contribute to a lively, majestic movement, freed of all mortal impediment.” Indeed, this is nothing short of a celestial host, all moving about in total freedom and ecstatic bliss. The piece ends with their flying off into the cosmos beyond our hearing. “The ‘Gloria in excelsis’ is the earliest Christmas chant: it was taught to us by the Angels. It is a song of joy. That joy, that exultation is expressed here. But by Angels, pure spirits, invisible, incorporeal, endowed with a total liberty and subtlety.” (Messiaen).
10. Les Enfants de Dieu (The Children of God)
To all who have received it, the Word has given us the power to become children of God. And God instills in their hearts the Spirit of his children, who cry: ‘Abba! Father!’ John 1:12; Galatians 4:6
This work relies entirely on harmonic means for its effect, and takes no account of rhythmic systems or polymodal complexities. It opens and closes on a B-major chord with an added sixth. In the first section, we hear a modified French toccata that builds until it reaches a stunning climax (the “Abba! Father!” a recognition of God’s grace). If the piece depicted a summer thunderstorm, the storm could be heard brewing through the first section, erupting into thunder and lightning, and finally settling into calm, leaving one aware that there is a power far greater than ourselves. The final chord of the piece gives the feeling that it could continue forever.
11. Dieu parmi nous (God among us)
Spoken to the communion, to the Virgin, to the entire Church: The One who has created me resides in my tent, the Word was made flesh and lives within me. My soul glorifies the Lord, my spirit quivers at the goodness of God my Savior. John 1:14; Luke 1:46, 47
Theologically, this piece sums up the entire nine-movement cycle of La Nativité du Seigneur. Here we have the purpose of the Incarnation, for God to dwell among us, not just in the form of a man two thousand years ago, but alive in the present. With the opening fanfare, the Christmas declaration is proclaimed with jubilation. The pedal passage suggests God, in human form, descending from heaven to dwell among us on earth. This is immediately answered by a “theme of love” (played on the voix céleste), a soft, magical motif representing the love of Christ for the communicant, the Virgin, and the Church. We then hear a Magnificat of praise in birdsong style (style oiseaux), with interjections representing “the image of the Word coming down in shafts of Light.” In the long section that follows, the opening themes are developed with an energetic and kinetic sixteenth-note pattern underneath. Finally comes the spectacular toccata, Messiaen’s most famous organ music, with its thunderous pedal notes (in candrakalâ rhythm) echoing again the descent from heaven to earth. This is full of energy, excitement, joie de vivre. It is the statement of the soul in a state of ecstasy.
– Jonathan Dimmock