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Messiaen: Les Corps Glorieux/Colin Andrews
Les Corps Glorieux/Andrews

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Program and Notes
Les Corps Glorieux
Olivier Messiaen
Colin Andrews, organ
The Perkins and Wells Memorial Organ
C.B. Fisk Opus 126 (2005)

Each of the seven movements of this powerful work presents a musical and theological statement, expressed in Messiaen’s unique musical vocabulary. The haunting opening creates a mystical, mantra-like atmosphere that lays the path for an hour of extraordinarily compelling music.

Colin Andrews, a large Fisk organ, and the acoustics of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Greenville, NC, are the ideal ensemble for Messiaen’s mystical masterpiece.
Program Notes

Les Corps Glorieux: Sept Visions brèves de la vie des Ressuscités
1 | I. Subtilité des corps glorieux 7:17
2 | II. Les eaux de la grâce 3:42
3 | III. L’ange aux parfums 10:53
4 | IV. Combat de la mort et de la vie 16:02
5 | V. Force et agilité des corps glorieux 4:19
6 | VI. Joie et clarté des corps glorieux 6:41
7 | VII. Le mystère de la Sainte Trinité 8:07

8 | Verset pour la fête de la Dédicace 12:22


Les Corps Glorieux: Sept Visions brèves de la vie des Ressuscités(1939)
(The Glorious Bodies: Seven Brief Visions of the Life of the Resurrected)

Messiaen frequently said of his organ music “I wished to accomplish a liturgical act, that is to say, to transfer a kind of divine office, a kind of communal praise to the concert hall.” This description could be applied to “The Glorious Bodies,” as the various movements could provide musical commentary at various points in the liturgy, while at the same time evoking more subliminal tenets of Christian faith.

The work is in seven movements and follows a “fan formation” in that the opening three movements culminate at the fourth movement, while the concluding three seem to fall away from the central movement; we see this concept and design also in the Livre d’Orgue of 1951. Complimenting this symmetry, there is also an inner relationship, both musical and spiritual, between movements I & VII, II & VI and III & V.

Movements I and VII are both built on plainsong; movements II and VI discuss the leading of the righteous to life-giving waters and the joy and ecstasy of their souls at their arrival; in movements III and V, the opening themes of each are related, but given different character as inspired by the texts; contemplative and mantra-like in movement III and disembodied and exuberant in the fifth movement. The fourth movement focuses around one of the central themes of Christianity; the battle between good and evil/life and death, and the soul finding peace and redemption in heaven.

Movement I: Subtilite des Corps Glorieux (Refinement of the heavenly bodies)

“Their bodies, sown as natural, will be raised as spiritual. And they will be pure as the angels of God in heaven.”

Messiaen always regarded monody as representing purity, especially when referring to the Virgin Mary. Here, the Marion antiphon “Salve Regina” is presented in several expanding and contracting panels in Messiaen’s “mode 2” from the modes of limited transposition. The contour of the expansion of both melody and rhythm flavor the music with a prayerful, mantra-like atmosphere that reflects the mysticism hidden within the text.

Movement II: Les eaux de la grâce (The Waters of Grace)

“The lamb, who is the center of the throne will lead them to springs of life-giving water.”

In this piece, we hear one of Messiaen’s favorite compositional devices, the super-imposition of three different modes; the rarely heard Mode 1 in the pedal (the whole-tone scale), with Mode 3 in the right hand against Mode 4 in the left. The sinuous lines of sixteenth notes in the left hand, coupled with the constant flowing eighth notes in the pedal and the floating chords of the right hand, all conspire to project the sense of travel and forward motion. Meanwhile, the harmonic confluence of the various modes clothe the movement in mystery.

Movement III. L’Ange aux parfum (The Angel with Incense)

“The smoke of the incense, formed from the prayers of the holy ones, rose before God from the hand of the angel.”

This piece unfolds in panels that are repeated, reordered, recapped and modified; typical devices of Messiaen’s compositional technique where the developmental processes from sonata form are isolated and form the substance of the entire work. The four main panels are as follows:

· Hindu rhythmic/melodic formulae known as “Jatis.” This represents chanting during the liturgy.

· Three superimposed ideas; rising and falling chordal-motifs in each hand in the manuals, single notes in the pedals, all in different Hindu rhythms, conjuring an image of the “liturgical action” of the priests at communion.

· Chordal blanket providing an atmospheric backdrop to the reiterated opening melody in the pedals; we can picture here the people walking reverently to the communion table to receive the host.

· Duet in running sixteenth notes with 16' and 2' in one hand and an 8' flute in the other; very convincingly portrays the invisible imploring of the spirit rising symbolically with the incense.

Movement IV. Combat de la mort et de la vie (The battle between life and death)

“Death and life have contended in a stupendous battle; the Prince of Life who died, reigns immortal; and He says: “Father I have risen, I am with you once more.”

Again, the first section of this piece unfolds in panels. There are two themes; the first growls in the depths of the organ, while the second is an aggressive tumultuous chordal toccata portraying the blows of the battle. These two themes reappear, each time expanding, developing and becoming progressively more intense until, in the final panel, they rhythmically collapse in upon themselves in a truly terrifying climax. At this point, we experience the extreme suffering of the crucifixion and our own anguish as we identify with our struggles with the forces of evil.

In the peaceful oasis that follows, theme one is transformed into a ravishingly beautiful aria as the soul finds rest in heaven.

Movement V. Force et Agilite Corps Glorieux (Strength and agility of the heavenly bodies)

“Their bodies, sown in frailty, are raised full of strength.”

This piece takes the opening melodic/rhythmic formula from movement three and transforms it into an ironic dance of joy, where the raised leap and bound for joy at their liberation. This imagery is conjured through ever repeating, contracting and expanding “jatis” formulas common in ancient hindu musical formulae. The concluding series of “jettez” dissolve into a moment of suspended animation and contemplative joy.

Movement VI: Joie et Clarte des Corps Glorieux  (Joy and brightness of the heavenly bodies)

“Then the righteous shall shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”

Messaien always vehemently denied that there was any jazz influence in his music; it is likely that he never heard any jazz, other than to satisfy an academic curiosity. Detractors of his music labeled this movement especially as jazz-inspired to provoke the composer. In fact, the main source for the rhythmic expansions and contractions stem from his very early days at the Paris Conservatoire where he was introduced to Greek rhythms by one of his composition professors, Maurice Emmanuel.

The souls’ delight in reaching their spiritual home is conveyed in this piece through the ecstatic, reiterated rhythms and improvisatory right-hand melismas. A contrasting, more meditative panel conjures up the music of the Far East with its pentatonic scales and Hindu rhythmic procedures.

Movement VII. Le Mystere de la Sainte Trinite (The Mystery of the Holy Trinity)

“O Father all powerful, who, with your only Son and the Holy Spirit, are one God, not in the unity of a single person, but in a Trinity of one substance.”

In the final movement of this cycle, the Trinity is represented by three voices; the pedal as the Father, the left hand as the Son and the right hand as the Holy Spirit. The Kyrie IX from the Roman Gradual forms the entire musical inspiration for this piece, which unfolds the phrases of the chant in delayed sequence and translates into Messiaen’s modal sphere. (There are five phrases in the pedal, nine phrases in the left hand and seven phrases in the right hand). How appropriate that the meaning of the text should be so cohesive, with Messiaen’s interlocking of the modal system and the purity of chant presented in single lines in three voices.

Verset pour la fete de la Dedicace (1960)
(Verse for the Feast of the Dedication)

This work was written as a test piece for students of the Paris Conservatoire. Later, as the title suggests, it was used at the ceremony for the dedication of a church. Here, the plainchant “Alleluia for the dedication” is presented in Messiaen’s own inimitable fashion; the notes of the original chant are deflected into the modes much the same way as light is diffused in a prism . . . all the more to convey the mystery of the divine.

Again, this piece is presented in panels, the third section being an expanded version of the first, and the sixth a contraction and ethereal coda. The fourth panel treats the chant in a more dramatic and intense fashion, providing a central climax to the work. The remaining second and fifth panels reveal one of Messiaen’s other obsessions, namely the notation and representation of birdsongs. Here we sense the elements of God’s creation offering commentary in the joyful outbursts of the musician thrush.

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