Jon Gillock, renowned for his writings and performances of Messiaen’s organ music, completes his cycle of the complete organ works of Messiaen with this 2-CD Volume 6 in his 9-CD cycle. This volume includes the first recording of a recently discovered and unpublished, 13-minute work from ca. 1937,Vie pour Dieu des Ressuscités.
The entire program on 2 CDs:
Verset pour la Fête de la Dédicace
Offrande au Saint Sacrement
Apparition de l'Eglise éternelle
Vie pour Dieu des Ressuscités
As in all of the volumes, Jon Gillock plays the comprehensive 111-rank pipe organ at The Church of the
Ascension, New York, built by French organbuilder Pascal Quoirin in 2011
with both electric and tracker-action consoles, optimized to play
French repertoire and especially Messiaen, and capable of playing most
Livre d'Orgue / Organ Book, 1951
Livre d'Orgue very quickly followed Messe de la Pentecôte (1950), and, at least in 1967 in Conversations with Olivier Messiaen by Claude Samuel, Messiaen considered it one of his best pieces: "I arrive at my three best organ works: Les Corps glorieux of 1939, Messe de la Pentecôte of 1950, and Livre d'Orgue of 1951." The first performances of this piece were given by Messiaen himself: the premiere in Stuttgart, Germany, for the inauguration of the organ in the Villa Berg in 1952 (a 4 manual E. F. Walcker organ in the concert/broadcasting hall), and then in Paris at La Trinité on March 21, 1955.
On February 2, 1977, Messiaen wrote in my score, "This is a very difficult composition!… I hope that you have been repaid for so much work by your beautiful performances." Now, I only include that because they are two, enormous understatements! First of all, the work is much more than very difficult on all levels: the very complex manner of composition, virtuosic technique, and, above all, musical understanding. Second, to arrive at a beautiful performance has taken me a lifetime of thought and reflection, which I hope will be audible in this recording.
Perhaps, because of the isolation imposed by Covid-19 allowing time for much contemplation and meditation, I somehow arrived at a point where I was able to see a new, clearer vision of the Livre d'Orgue. In fact, in relearning this work to record it, I felt invited by the music to enter into its mysteries and secrets. That, I always felt when learning the other Messiaen organ works, but never before by this one.
This piece is without doubt the most difficult of the Messiaen organ works to understand and appreciate on an aural level. It is easier on the intellectual side and studying the score. It is Messiaen's venture into serialism, very complex rhythms, and time (with endless counting, often in 32nds), but it is also much more than that. Beyond those obstacles, there is very profound music contained behind (or in between) all of those complexities, which are indeed very complex. The result is that I have found a work really almost like a new work to me that I find I love very deeply. It is my hope that others will find and hear some of that love in this performance.
Père Jean-Rodolphe Kars - an Austrian living in France, a Catholic priest, born Jewish, a former concert pianist (first prize laureate of the Messiaen Piano Competition in 1968), who in recent years has given a number of lectures about the music and the spirituality of Messiaen, and who is also a great friend - sent me a message, when I expressed the hope of finding inspiration to interpret this piece, just as I was beginning my most recent journey with it. Here is part of what he wrote:
"I would say that this work is a sort of night. Not a spiritual night as such, as Messiaen never doubted his Catholic faith; his faith was monolithic, without any fluctuation up to the end of his life. The spiritual night is a phenomenon experienced by a large number of Saints at some step in their lives, and it has been splendidly described by St. John of the Cross in two of his major works: La Nuit obscure and La Montée du Carmel. For St. John of the Cross (1542-1591), there are principally two sorts of night: the night of the senses (feelings), la nuit des sens, and the night of the spirit, la nuit de l'esprit. Some Saints felt during those moments that they were on the edge of atheism. Messiaen did not experience that. But he went through an analagous night, not spiritual, concerning his work and his creativity, with deep doubts about the value of his experiments and compositions, maybe the uselessness of all his achievements. In this period he was also very much invaded with all the contemporary experimentation of his time: integral serialism, electronic music, even musique concrète (see his essay Timbres-durées from the very early fifties). After the Turangalîla Symphony, the Cinq rechants and a lesser known piece Canteyodjaïa, Messiaen plunged into his most speculative period, exploring diverse aspects of serialism, already a bit obsessed by birdsongs and by very elaborate rhythmic inventions and structures, etc. After his unsuccessful essay on musique concrète, he was in a sort of night, but he was never without inspiration. Soon he will discover (around 1954 or 55) that birdsongs are a new and definitive source of inspiration. They gave him the desire to compose again: les oiseaux mont redonnéle goût de composer. The Livre d'Orgue stands exactly on that border between doubt, anxious exploration, and a sort of new spring, the genesis of a resurrection in inspiration. In this work, speculative experimentation is still very much present with a sort of anxiety, not wanting to abandon (Thanks be to God) his discoveries contained in the four études de rythme (see mainly the first and last pieces of the Livre d'Orgue); birdsongs are present in a very simple, pure, sober way (piece 4 and again in the last piece); creation is again a source of inspiration, the abyss and mountains (pieces 3 and 5); biblical sources are again expressed (pieces 3 and 6 mainly) … As it is at night, things become excessively exaggerated and they convey sometimes a frightful dimension, like in fairy tales. The birdsongs of the last piece are surrealistic with their heavy registration, especially in the bass register. Also in the night, there are various kinds of obsessions. When you cannot sleep you begin to count endlessly, every mathematical detail begins to be an obsession. You have something of that in the systematical journey of 64 durées and in the very first piece. That belongs also to the mystical experience. We have also in the Bible entire books of endless counting as in Numbers (livre des nombres) and Chronicles (livre des chroniques), and this belongs also to the Revelation of God. So to put it in short: the Livre d'Orgue is a true and giant masterpiece, but strange (like the stigmas in the opera St. François d'Assise). It is fully and purely great Messiaen, but Messiaen in a sort of darkness, crossing a new, narrow path, not yet fully perceiving the glorious future which will emerge and be the substance of his coming, giant masterworks. May those notes be a bit of help to you in exploring this utterly fascinating masterpiece. In closing, I would like to quote this sentence of Harry Halbreich (1931-2016), pupil and friend of Messiaen, a great and famous musicologist, about Soixante-quatre Durées, the last piece of Livre d'Orgue: This rigorous construction reveals itself as one of Messiaen's most moving, mystical meditations, a long and peaceful ascent in a mysterious and soft light."
In addition to the musical and artistic doubts recounted by Père Kars, we also know that Messiaen was in the middle of an emotional crisis. His wife, Claire Delbos, was becoming more and more ill, slowly losing her memory, which had already begun several years earlier. Thus, by 1951, her malady had worsened and she was eventually placed in an institution for care, leaving this world in 1959. Messiaen produced very few works during the 1950s, and those two facts go a long way to explaining why.
Nevertheless, they both have great bearing on this work, and it is my feeling that both are explored simultaneously and in parallel. Messiaen does this mainly by testing three compositional techniques: serialism, complex Hindu rhythms and their transformations, and the transcription of birdsongs, and by allowing those three experimental ideas to let him speak of very deep feelings. It is very tempting to emphasize the mechanical aspect of this work, but the great artistic merit of it is how that aspect becomes expressive, evocative, and revelatory.
Of his seven cycles for organ, this is the only one which does not meditate on a certain feast or mystery of the church year. In fact, Livre d'Orgue is of quite a different type for it is seemingly largely technically centered. It brings to a pinnacle Messiaen's research into time up to that point as well as his experimentations into serialism.
Serialism, a system of using the twelve tones of the chromatic scale equally, is a device with which Messiaen experimented very briefly and used only fragments of thereafter. Messiaen's usage, however, was not confined only to 12-note rows but extended also to systematically ordering colors and dynamics.
In his own commentary, Messiaen goes to great lengths to explain the techniques he used to create these seven pieces. They are all very interesting but they do not really help to lead the listener (or the performer) into the message of the music. In turn, I feel that those explanations may lead performers into believing that those procedures are the point of this music, a sort of exercise in composition. They are not. They simply explain how the pieces were conceived, and that information is very interesting and necessary for a performer to become an interpreter of it. But, those may be reasons why this work is little performed and even less understood. Understanding those techniques is just the beginning.
I find that the technique employed in Messiaen's music is complicated, but I also find that his message is direct and without complications. When we are willing, we can enter his world very easily. Here, in Livre d'Orgue, the technique is even more complicated than usual and the message, the movements lacking subtitles, is not so easy to discover. The reasons for that could be because of its serial nature (often thought of as cold and mechanical) or it could be that the personal feelings of Messiaen dominate here and are hidden as an enigma perchance to be discovered.
The overwhelming feeling I received, when studying this music for recording it, is that of searching, a very important, inner search for God. Messiaen once told me that his life was of no interest to anyone. He was a private person. Here, at a crossroads in his life, the substance of the artist is perhaps very subtly revealed without wishing it. Yet, it vividly describes a state that most humans find themselves in at one time or another. Moreover, is it possible for an artist to produce artistic works of the highest caliber without revealing the inner most self at the same time. After learning the Messiaen works when I was young, I felt like I knew the man intimately. When I finally spent some time with him in Paris in 1977, I was not disappointed. I found the man I already knew from his music. The Livre d'Orgue adds another aspect to that, one which I feel I am just now discovering.
While the Livre d'Orgue may seem technically centered, I believe that is not its ultimate goal. It is perhaps in that guise, in its outward appearance, that Messiaen has disguised his most private thoughts. I believe it is deeply personal. Messiaen liked complicated compositional techniques, exploring them to their limits (the Charm of Impossibilities, the Modes of Limited Transpositions, Hindu Rhythms, and later Communicable Language, etc.), but they were always used as a means of expression. In other words, using those techniques was not the purpose of his compositions. They were a way of setting limits and provided the path for transmitting his message. That is no different in this work.
Finally, and perhaps my greatest discovery, is that this piece produces the same effect as all of Messiaen's other cycles, but kind of turned upside down. First of all, there is no title to inform us about the general theme of the work. Second, there are no subtitles that tell us the exact subject of each movement. The subtitles that are present in a few movements don't lead us very far. Those things are perhaps missing because this piece does not meditate on a particular sacrament of the church. Instead, it speaks about humankind's search for God in times of distress. As Messiaen said, and which I always quote in my program notes, Everyone is searching for God. For me, this is Messiaen's search for God during a period of his life which was in crisis. Many go through the same experiences at various points in their own lives. The piece is organized in such a way that we still go on a spiritual journey with Messiaen. Each movement leads logically to the next. And, at the end, we arrive at a conclusion, where we discover and accept the peace that will allow us to be led …
The work is masterfully conceived and executed; its imagination virtually staggers the mind. In the middle of this complex, strict, calculated, sometimes seemingly austere writing (whose complexities can only be hinted at here) is Messiaen's very first piece for birdsong (real birds for the first time) alone in an organ work, Chants d'Oiseaux (IV), full of freedom and allure, centered in naturally found beauty.
The order of the pieces, as always, is perfectly calculated. We begin by proposing a puzzle, progress through various stages of questioning, meditating, searching, and finally arrive at the end in peace and towards acceptance.
The registrations are also perfectly chosen to produce the desired effects. What unusual sounds Messiaen found to express these inner most thoughts, sounds that we do not find in any of his other organ works. But, we can say the same thing about his registrations for all of his organ pieces. I cannot think of registrations that are repeated except for the voix céleste/flûte harmonique color that symbolizes Love and the voix céleste/16 and 2 registration in dialogue, so prominent in his Livre du Saint Sacrement and introduced in his Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité. All of Messiaen's sounds come out of an organ of moderate size but full of color and, of course, Messiaen's infinite imagination.
The technical information, given below, is found directly in the score. In addition to that, I have described many of the feelings and intuitions that I have had as an interpreter while studying this work.
I. Reprises par Interversion / Repetitions by Inversion
Presentation and Revelation As with many of Messiaen's opening movements for a large work, the first movement serves to draw the listener into Messiaen's own musical world and language, letting us know that we cannot listen with the same ears we are accustomed to using in the music of other, classical composers. This movement definitely fulfills that purpose. It may seem stark, strange, and even shocking, but it definitely introduces the tone that this work is going to take, that of deep complexity on all levels. While some of its techniques were hinted at in Messe de la Pentecôte, here we are definitely entering into Messiaen's first uses of extended serialism, which was a very prevalent practice at that time, and into experimentation. After those explanations are considered, then there is the message of the work to discover.
As we begin to enter this work, we feel somewhat hesitant and intimidated. It seems like such an enormous departure from the Messiaen we have come to know in his other organ works. Because of the techniques described below, we feel disoriented, as if the timbres, rhythms, and notes seem very disorganized, while the fact is they are ultra-organized.
The most shocking element of all may be the choice of sounds, which are extremely contrasting. One purpose for that is to be able to easily hear each of the rhythms that the piece uses and then manipulates. Some may find these colors unconventional and exaggerated, but one reason for that is so the listener can easily hear each rhythm as it returns and is transformed. I also find two other reasons: 1) the color also expresses the character of the rhythm, giving a clue as to how it should be performed, and 2) it gives us a sense of thought organization, darting from here to there, as the rhythms are cut-up, which also affects their performance.
This piece has no religious implications. It is a statement with three transformations. Every element of this statement has been conceived in a very special way. The following explanation describes how this movement was composed. It is all helpful in listening, even if it is complicated.
First of all, the piece consists only of melody, there is no harmony. The notes of this melody (the entire first section) are six different 12-note series or rowsthe 12 notes of the chromatic scale arranged in different orders.
Rhythmically, it is made-up of three Hindu rhythms. Its timbres use four colors (corresponding to three keyboards and the pedalboard of the organ) which identify the three rhythms. The first rhythm always uses an oboe-like sound, a medium-loud sound; the second rhythm always uses two sounds a very low, very loud, trombone-like sound contrasted by a very high, bright, flute/piccolo-like sound; the third rhythm always uses the quietest sound, which has a round flute-like tone at several pitches.
Although the entire theme is composed of only these rhythms, they are heard in various orders after their first hearing. Furthermore, they are treated as rhythmic characters: the first rhythm is augmented (its note values become progressively longerslowereach time that rhythm is heard); the second rhythm is diminished (its note values become progressively shorterfastereach time that rhythm is heard); and, the third rhythm never changes. Theatrically speaking, the first rhythmic character (because it is augmented) controls the action; the second character (because it is diminished) is transformed by the first; and, the third (because it does not change) is only an observer to this interaction.
First, we hear the theme and then its metamorphoses, which are also conceived in a very special way. First Transformation: we hear the same music again, but this time like a fan closingin other words, by taking the first note of the piece and following it by the last note, then the second note and following it by the next to the last note, and continuing to alternate notes in this fashion until all of the notes have been used, arriving in the center of the theme. Second Transformation: we hear the original music again, but this time like a fan opening following a similar procedure to the first variation, but this time starting from the center of the original and alternating notes on either side of the center until we reach the beginning and the ending notes. It is, in fact, the preceding variation backwards. Third Transformation: finally, we hear the original music exactly backwards.
Messiaen says that the music of the first two transformations produces some surprising results: The garment of the rhythms, through their timbres, is found fragmented, scattered, in an unexpected puzzle. The rhythmic characters are cut up, dismembered, and have become a continually changing monster which is put together by pasting to the arm of this one the hand of that one, to the scent of this one the color of that one. That is a form of rhythmic and color serialism.
This is the easiest movement of the work to understand theoretically. It may seem cold and very calculated, but Messiaen does leave the performer an element of expression by including various kinds of accents and many breath marks. This breathing interrupts the flow of the melody and, in the two retrograde variations, they do not come in the expected places.
Thus, at the end of the piece, we have heard four different versions of the same music presented from four different vantage points. It is presented like a puzzle, which has been taken apart and put back together in three different ways, one solution not being better than the other. This is confirmed in the next piece.
Little by little, as Livre d'Orgue progresses, we discover how deep the problems (emotions) are. I believe this piece was a way for Messiaen to start to look at his own life through musicboth as an artist and also as a human, feeling that his path to inspiration for composition had reached a stopping point and knowing that his wife was very ill and would not recover. It is a way for him to confront these difficult situations in music, even if it might have been unconscious on his part. Perhaps that is the monster Messiaen was referring to in the above quote.
II. Pièce en TrioPiece in TrioFor now we see through a glass, darkly... 1 Corinthians 13:12
Intermingled, obscure Visions While the first piece left us with a feeling of being confused, this piece definitely confirms the confusion. We now contemplate that through a looking glass.
Written in trio form, Messiaen says, It speaks about a great mystery that we only understand very imperfectly: that of the Holy Trinity. It is presented like a maze of mirrors, where we are perplexed about all that we see (hear) or think that we see (hear). Are they real or distortions?
This is expressed in three ways: 1) the colors of the organ used to portray this shadowy vision are complex, very unusual, all sounding in the same register, creating this mysterious, cloudy illusion not clarifying itmaking it difficult for the listener to clearly distinguish one voice from another, 2) complex rhythms17 different Hindu rhythms, only one of which is repeated, always being re-interpreted in all three voices simultaneouslyanother symbol of the Trinitycreating a disoriented effect, and 3) many sets of 12-tone groups, twenty altogether, negating any tonal center. All that is used to express the message of St. Pauls text: Now we see only puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we shall see face to face. My knowledge now is partial; then it will be whole, like Gods knowledge of me (New English Bible). When the piece ends, we are still in confusion, nothing resolved, searching… The mirror remains out of focus. That is the desired effect.
This movement also confirms the uncertainty the puzzlegoing on within Messiaen. As much as this piece is about the mystery of the Holy Trinity, I believe it is also an expression of Messiaen's own doubt and hidden mysteries in his own life as an artist, as related above by Père Kars, and also in his family life of three members (himself, his wife Claire Delbos, also a musician, married June 22, 1932, and their son Pascal, born July 14, 1937), as a sacred sacrament of the church.
III. Les Mains de l'AbîmeThe Hands of the AbyssThe deep uttered his voice, andlifted up his hands on high. Habakkuk 3:10
An Outward and Inward Cry Here we find even more confirmation of the seriousness of this work. An intense prayer is offered up in the form of human sorrow which is answered by divine understanding: an impassioned supplication in the outer sections contrasted, in the central section, with an inner prayer.
It is important to imagine yourself in the same setting where Messiaen composed this piece, because this geography, in addition to the Habakkuk text, inspired him. Picture yourself in the DauphinéMountains of the Alps (near Petichet, where Messiaen spent his summers composing), in a valley of the Romanche River near some rapids. From that point, you can look down into the Infernet Gorges and up into the majesty of the mountains and the heavens. As you look down into the chasms and the mazes that the river created, it makes you dizzy; as you contemplate crossing the gorges by their narrow passes you are terrified. Thus, Messiaen says, two abysses one down below, representing desolation, the outcry of humankind for mercy, death; the other on high, representing consolation, the divine response, life. You can experience this dramatic scenery driving from Grenoble to La Grave on routes N85 and D1091.
Arent those exactly the same circumstances where Messiaen finds himself and in which we all find ourselves at various times in our own lives!
The piece, in three sections, opens with a great lament from the abyss down below on full organ. It employs the same kind of rhythmic character device that was used in the first piece. Again, three rhythms are used: the first one never changes, the second and third rhythms are augmented each time they are heard. Each has its own sound, but they are all different intensities of the same sound, that of full organ: the first, fortissimo; the second, played by the pedal alone in single notes; the third, crescendoing back to the first sound. The piece ends, in the third section, with a continuation of the same process (not a re-statement), as if it had simply been interrupted.
In the center of the piece, the lowest and highest sounds of the organ are juxtaposed, giving a feeling of dizziness, a sense of vertigo, that one often feels when perched on a precipice. The low sounds (on the voix humaine with tremolo and 32), coming up out of the bowels of the earth, are supplications of the deep. The high sounds, their pitches sometimes almost indistinguishable, are the divine response of consolation, elevated sweetness, distant and hidden tenderness, says Messiaen. These are sometimes accompanied by different 12-note rows. A sweeping, rhapsodic passage, beginning at the bottom of the keyboard and rising to the top, brings back the continuation of the lament.
This outcry is very easily understood in its musical presentation. It is a very dramatic piece, similar to ones that we are accustomed to hearing from Messiaen. And, it is Messiaen, as Père Kars alluded to, on the border between despair and salvation.
IV. Chants dOiseauxBirdsongsAfternoon of birds: the black robin, red-throated robin, musician thrushand, when night comes, the nightingale…
A Private, Improvised Concert This central, pivotal piece brings reassurance and a rest from the great intensity of the three previous pieces. It is the calm side of night rather than the frightening. While it is full of aural contrasts, as was the first movement, they are now more reasonable and logical. We explore a gamut of emotions through several different birdsongs, ranging from tenderness, to authority, to whimsy. When we finish this avian virtuosity, night has fallen. It is not the darkness of fear and exaggeration. Its allure makes us wonder if our problems are really as serious as we were previously thinking.
Although this piece contains no religious subtitle, Messiaen says that it is appropriate for the Easter season because it coincides with springtime, the time of the year when the birds begin to sing again. It brings to my mind this passage from the Song of Songs 2:10-12 (New English Bible): Rise up, my darling; my fairest, come away. For now the winter is past, the rains are over and gone; the flowers appear in the country-side; the time is coming when the birds will sing, and the turtle-doves cooing will be heard in our land. Perhaps it is Messiaen praying that his wife Claire be restored to health.
Again, it is helpful to imagine yourself in the same place where Messiaen composed this piece. This time we are in the middle of the Saint-Germain-en-Laye Forest (in the western suburbs of Paris) beginning at about 4 oclock in the afternoon. Then, we begin to hear a succession of various birds that sing in the late afternoon and into the evening, birds that inhabit this forest, and also the Perrin Meadow in Fuligny (Messiaen was a frequent visitor in this area with family residing in nearby La Chaise) and the moor at Gardépée (where Messiaen first transcribed some of their songs). Thus, we hear the Black Robin in its whimsical stanzas, the powerful, clear calls of the Musician Thrush like incantations, the sweet virtuosity of the Red-Throated Robin, intermingled with the tender notes of the Nightingale. As night comes (at around 9 oclock), in the growing darkness and a starry sky we hear an extended solo of the Nightingale, its refrain on a battery of two disjointed soundsti-ko-ti-ko-ti-koits attack joined and plucked, which Messiaen describes as the timbre of a damp harpsichord haloed with gongs.
The birdsongs are introduced and divided into sections by a refrain on an ancient Hindu rhythm, miçra varna. As the piece opens we hear it in its original form. At each successive hearing it is treated in a manner similar to that of the first piece: in retrograde order, a fan closing, and finally a fan opening. Here, in these last two treatments, Messiaen alternates measures instead of alternating notes.
There is yet another musical theme in this piece a two-note motif, one with a grace noteon a cello-like sounda sound that was also present in the forest, but which Messiaen was unable to identify. Nevertheless, he retained it in his composition. It appears often.
Thus, we hear in order:RefrainBlack Robin, Cello, Nightingale, Cello, Musician Thrush, Cello, Black Robin, CelloRefrain in retrogradelong solo of the Black Robin Refrain fan closingMusician Thrush, Cello, Nightingale, Cello, Musician Thrush, Cello, Black Robin, Cello, Musician Thrush, Cello, Black Robin, Cello, Musician Thrush, Cello, Nightingale, Cello, Black Robin, Cello, Red-Throated Robin, CelloRefrain fan opening long, concluding solo of the Nightingale.
This is Messiaen's first piece for organ where he quotes real birds, and it is a real tour de force. It falls exactly in the middle of the work and gives a less serious and ingenious relief to the other movements. Its composition is also far less encumbered with serial technique. It seems free as the birds themselves are free. It ends in darkness where we are transported by the magical sound of the Nightingale. This is just a hint at what Messiaen is slowly discovering to be his new path of compositional inspiration, birdsong, that which will eventually lead him forward.
V. Pièce en TrioPiece in TrioFor of Him, and through Him, and to Him, are all things.
Before the glaciers Le Rîteau, La Meije and Le Tabuchet
The last three movements of Livre d'Orgue are the most difficult to understand and interpret. In this piece, I find very deep and heartfelt emotion, expressed in romantic terms pushed to the limit. I hear a very personal kind of bittersweetness that one can hear in late Mahler and early Schönberg, concerning great loss. Perhaps it is Messiaen, before the three glaciers, beseeching the Trinity to lead him out of this period of doubt and despair. The fact that a photograph of La Meije appears on the cover of the published score leads me to believe that this is a very important piece for Messiaen because it is cited in the subtitle. Then, the fact that it is not identified at all in the score and is printed in the color blue (remembering that Messiaen was extremely sensitive to color) adds even more to the mystery to this great work as a whole.
A Song of Farewell, Adieu Here, the message is expressed by exploring the total range of three unusual colors, each going from the bottom of the keyboard (and pedalboard) to the top. We are led through the piece by pushing upward to the top with great intensity and then subsiding to the bottom in great release. The piece is developed by oscillating between those two extremes in very long phrases. It is imploring and passionate, reflecting the deep, inner feelings conjured up by the photo at the beginning of this booklet. I cannot think of other pieces whose melodies explore such an immense range.
Representing the Holy Trinity, this is another piece in trio, illuminating the above text which Messiaen tells us is read on Trinity Sunday, the three references to Him referring to each personage of the Holy Trinity. It is again helpful to imagine yourself in the place where Messiaen conceived this piecein contemplation of Le Rîteau, La Meije, and Le Tabuchet glaciers during a trip to the Oisans region of the French Alps (near Petichet). Messiaen says, Their rough and nostalgic character is reflected in the principal melody; the geometry of the mountains, the rocks, the peaks, in the rhythm; and, the reflections of the sun on the snow in the hard brightness of the registration.
The two voices played by the hands were composed using 12-tone (serial) techniques. The principal melody, played by the feet, is chromatic.
The first voice to enter (left hand)really the bottom voice (even though it begins on a high B) of the trio in a long, tender soliloquy introduces the three different Hindu rhythms to be developed. They are treated like rhythmic characters: the first is augmented at each repetition, the second never changes, the third is diminished. These are labeled in the score and are easy to identify when reading the music. However, they are not rhythms that the ear will easily retain.
The second voice (right hand) the top voice continuing the mood of the first voice with a little more urgency and with a brief agitation (panic) interjected (the Hindu rhythm caccari) uses three other Hindu rhythms treated like rhythmic characters: the first is diminished at each repetition, the second is augmented, and the third never changes.
Finally, the third voice really the middle voice (but visually on the page, on the bottom)and the principal melody, played by the feet, enters in a completely different register with a deeply inner passion. While the two manual sounds are based on 16 pitch, the pedal begins at 4, soaring above the others. It uses the first Hindu rhythm of the first voice in very long augmentations, and the second Hindu rhythm of the second voice in very short augmentations.
The greatest interest in this movement theoretically, for Messiaen, seems to be the rhythms and their treatments. Messiaen says, One must listen for the rhythms transformed in rhythmic characters rather than the melodies which are subordinate. Obviously, this is all very complex from both a compositional viewpoint but also for aural perception, if not impossible.
In his Traitéde Rythme, de Couleur, et dOrnithologie, Tome III (Leduc, 1996), Messiaen says, ... Even if one finds the music of this piece long, ugly, and pointless, it constitutes one of my greatest rhythmic victories.
Gazing at these three, majestic glaciers with Messiaen, symbolic of the Trinity, as the sun is beginning to set, one sees all sorts of marvelous reflections on the ice and rock, with many brilliant red-orange hues as well as green and blue-violet tones. Contemplation, longing, loneliness, nostalgia, doubt, melancholy, searching…
While it is interesting to know how the piece was put together, the performer must not only concentrate on that, but also principally be concerned with the feelings it communicates. I find in this piece Messiaen imploring the Holy Trinity to be led forward in his life and, at the same time, it is a song of deep love and farewell to the holy sacrament of marriage and marital happiness (as expressed in his Poèmes pour Mi and Chants de Terre et de Ciel) that Messiaen found vanishing because of his wifes illness. The three voices could also be symbolic of Messiaen's own family of three, as they are all affected by this critical period. Yes, it is long (although it doesnt seem long to me), and I find it to be quite beautiful, touching, and haunting. Messiaen is also saying farewell to his compositional techniques, which, in his thinking at that time, have come to an end, and is searching for others.
VI. Les Yeux dans les RouesThe Eyes in the WheelsAnd their [wheels] rings were full of eyesround about them four, for the spirit of theliving creature was in the wheels. Ezekiel 1:18, 20
A Nightmare Messiaen's subtitle is only a small part of Ezekiels vision. Here is more of his description of this unbelievable scene: the creatures appeared out of fire in human form, each had four faces and four wings; the appearance of the creatures was as if fire from burning coals or torches were darting to and fro among them; the wheels sparkled like topaz; above the heads of the living creatures was a vault glittering like a sheet of ice stretched over their heads; when they moved the noise of their wings was like a great torrent; above the vault over their heads there appeared, as it were, a sapphire in the shape of a throne, and high above all, on the throne, a form in human likeness; I saw what might have been brass glowing like fire in a furnace from the waist upwards; and from the waist downwards I saw what looked like fire with encircling radiance. Like a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day was the sight of the encircling radiance; it was like the appearance of the glory of the Lord, (New English Bible). Messiaen tells us that all the above is symbolic of the Divinity.
This piece is much more than a toccata. It is a fantastic and intense dream, almost like a creature feared in the night, a night of exaggerations. It is in perpetual motion from beginning to end, depicting this awesome image as told by the prophet Ezekiel. The music played by the hands, always in swirling motions and always in two voices, represents the spinning of those wheels within wheels and the flapping of wings. The pedals theme represents the eyes of the four spirits peering out from within the wheels. These gaping eyes are awe inspiring and shocking.
The eye theme is itself a series of 12 chromatic notes. But, it is more than that! It is also a series of 12 chromatic durations. In other words, each of the twelve chromatic notes also has an exact rhythmic value coupled to it, a rhythm that is always the same each time that note is heard. The shortest of these rhythms is one 16th-note long and the longest is equal to twelve 16th-notes. Messiaen called this procedure sound-durations. In addition, this theme is treated in a similar manner to that of the first movement: we hear it a total of six times: first, in its original form; second, fan opening; third, fan opening in retrograde; fourth, fan closing in retrograde; fifth, fan closing; and sixth, the original in retrograde. Thus, each repetition is a different series of 12 notes. One can identify each repetition by counting twelve very loud, low notes. Then, the next repetition begins after a short silence in the bass.
Besides all this, the two parts for the hands are each based on different 12-note series. They are not just a constant series of 16th-notes from beginning to end played quickly. They control the movement of the piece, that of the wheels in motion. Within their organization is hidden the untamed movement of the creature. All of this causes the performer (at least this one) to feel that he is playing random notes but, very specific random notes! At the conclusion, this breathtaking vision ends very abruptly.
This is one of Messiaen's shortest pieces for organ and one of his most demanding. From beginning to end it is just as fiendishly difficult to perform as the picture described is overwhelmingly awesome to fathom.
We feel, see, and hear this powerful image the whirling wheels, the rustling wings, and the piercing, menacing eyes. Again, the emotion of searching is overwhelming, even fierce. We can imagine feeling haunted by this living entity (at night while we sleep). At the end, the music unrelenting, we suddenly wake up from the cauchemar…!
But why does Messiaen show us this picture which could be interpreted as frightening (maybe even like a nightmare) and scary, only quoting a very small part of Ezekiels vision. I believe it is because making and accepting important changes in our lives can be terrifying and full of doubtand that was the place he found himself. Conceivably, it was a stage in healing that he (we) must go through to reach the other side of acceptance and hope. Perhaps the powerful and fantastical vision of eyes in wheels gave him (and could give us) the strength, courage, and trust to continue, to move forward.
VII. Soixante-Quatre DuréesSixty-Four DurationsA Field in Petichet
A Response of Peace After the extraordinary dreamin a night of exaggerationscomes the peace and calm in response to the searching expressed in this whole work. It puts into focus the entire vision of Ezekiel in the preceding movement, including the end: it was like the appearance of the glory of the Lord, that which can save us, comfort us, and reassure us.
Like the first piece, the last piece contains no specific religious implications. It is a coup de maître in the study of the passage of time. Simultaneously, while referring to nothing particularly religious, it leads us to an exalted, spiritual plane of deep reflection and serenity, a kind of out-of-body experience where we (with Messiaen) are able to look at ourselves from afar. Messiaen transports us there slowly, and we fully arrive in this lofty atmosphere at 1:44.
First of all, the piece is built on sixty-four chromatic durations. Here, the 64 durations comprise all the note values within the range of durations from one thirty-second note to a single note equal to that of 64 thirty-second notes (a series of notes whose values proceed very, very quickly and very, very gradually become slower and slower until they are, indeed, very, very slow) AND the reverse. But, that in itself is nothing!
The piece is constructed in this fashion:
The part on top (played by the right hand, always two notes) manipulates these chromatic values in this way: beginning at the end of the series, it first takes the last four values in forward order 61, 62, 63, 64; then, beginning where the series commences, it takes the first four values in retrograde order4, 3, 2, 1. It continues to alternate in this manner until it arrives at the centeranother closing fan.
The part on the bottom (played by the feet, always two notes) does just the opposite: it is a retrograde canon of the first, an opening fan. Beginning from the center and always approaching either end, it begins with values from the left of center in forward order29, 30, 31, 32; then, from the right of center in retrograde order36, 35, 34, 33.
Just for fun, lets look at the entire series:
Top part: 61, 62, 63, 644, 3, 2, 1 - 57, 58, 59, 60 8, 7, 6, 553, 54, 55, 5612, 11, 10, 949, 50, 51, 5216, 15, 14, 1345, 46, 47, 4820, 19, 18, 1741, 42, 43, 4424, 23, 22, 2137, 38, 39, 4028, 27, 26, 2533, 32 35, 3632, 31, 30, 29
Bottom part: 29, 30, 31, 3236, 35, 34, 3325, 26, 27, 2840, 39, 38, 3721, 22, 23, 2444, 43, 42, 41 17, 18, 19, 2048, 47, 46, 4513, 14, 15, 1652, 51, 50, 499,10, 11, 1256, 55, 54, 535, 6, 7, 860, 59, 58, 571, 2, 3, 464, 63, 62, 61
You will see that the bottom part is the top part backwards. These rhythmic durations are heard in the background on quiet, flute stops. That is one world unto itself. In a way, it is the rhythm of the universe which is in constant motion, but movement of which we are barely aware. It is unending. The sounds of the right hand and pedal are very similar so, in reality, it is very difficult to actually hear this technique. In reading the score, it is very obvious.
To help perceive these rhythms, Messiaen has superimposed another world on top of all that: birdsongs which inhabit the piece (and the field) from beginning to end. These birds are mostly imaginary, but occasionally one hears the Titmouse, the Green or the Great Spotted Woodpecker, Black Robin, Musician Thrush, Nightingale, and the Blackcap Warblerall birds which inhabited a field in Petichet where Messiaen tells us that he composed this piece. These are identified in the score so the performer easily recognizes them, but they are also quite obvious to the listener. The contrast between the imaginary and real birds is immediate and startling. They are played on two contrasting sounds which are louder than the rhythm sounds, thus placing them in the foreground: one, the clarinet and two, a combination of flutes. Thus, harmony (produced by the four sustained notes of the rhythms), timbre (produced by the four different registrations), and, birdsongs, all color these sixty-four durations.
We spend quite a long time in the peaceful atmosphere of a field, perhaps the field before Messiaen's own house in Petichet on the edge of Lake Laffrey or near Lake Petichet (the two only separated by a small strip of land), surrounded by the high, majestic Alps, where time unfolds in stillness, almost unconsciously, the ever-present rhythm of the universe in the background. Dominating that passage of time are the all-pervasive birdsongs, which remind us of the living rhythms of its inhabitantsthe birds but also humansand the beauty of nature. As we listen in quiet solitude, we are witnessing Messiaen discovering/exploring the inspiration that will lead him forward into his next creative periodbirds, but real birdsongs! Peaceful, calm, suspended in time, contemplative, searching… We also get the feeling of the beginning of acceptance.
1952 and Beyond
During the following eight to nine years (the period between Livre d'Orgue, 1951, and the next piece in this recording, Verset pour la Fête de la Dédicace, December 1960) Messiaen only wrote four pieces: Réveil des Oiseaux, 1953; Oiseaux exotiques, 1956; Catalogue dOiseaux, 1956- 58; and Chronochromie, 1959- 60. As described in the commentary on Livre d'Orgue, this small output can be explained by Messiaen's enormous doubts about his compositions and his abilities as a composer, and also about the illness of his wife and trying to raise a young son.
All four pieces and Verset are built around extensive birdsongs, seeming to indicate that he was discovering that new path to composing, the transcription of real birdsongs to be used as major material in his works, as related by Père Kars.
On the emotional side, two sad events occurred in the late 1950s that affected him: Pierre Messiaen, his father, died on May 28, 1957; and then, on April 22, 1959, his wife, Claire Delbos, died, which ended the sacrament of marriage he had pledged to her. Those events were followed by a happy one, two years later, on July 1, 1961, by the marriage of Messiaen and Yvonne Loriod, after a very long friendship and musical collaboration.
Owing to those dramatic changes, Messiaen entered into a period of great creativity and summarization. From that point onward, he regularly created major masterpieces. In 1969, an important organ piece, Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité, appeared, and many felt that might be his last masterpiece for that instrument. All culminated with his opera St. François d'Assise, 1983, and the Livre du Saint Sacrement, 1984, for organ.
Verset pour la Fête de la DédicaceVerse for the Feast of Dedication, 1960
In the time between the composition of Livre d'Orgue in 1951 and Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinitéin 1969eighteen yearsVerset pour la Fête de la Dédicace is the only piece that Messiaen wrote for the organ. It was composed for the annual organ competition at the Paris Conservatory, which explains the names of stops required but are not found at La Trinité. Also, the range of the Paris Conservatory organ key compass exceeded that of Trinité.
Verset is based on two themes: the Alleluia from the plainsong Gradual for the Dedication of Churches (Locus iste), a chant which Messiaen later used again in Méditation II sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinitéand also Movement XIV of Livre du Saint Sacrement, and solos of the Song Thrush.
The piece divides itself into six sections:
First, a refrain which is composed of three different elements1) the Alleluia sung by the cromorne (Messiaen says with a feeling of reverence) with intervals and rhythm altered; 2) continuation of the chant, now sung by string-like stops accompanied by the voix céleste, slowly and lullaby-like; and 3) a shimmering, consoling response on the flute stops (Messiaen says with a feeling of sweet trust).
Second, the first virtuoso solo of the Song Thrush, rhythmic, expressing a strange joy. Its song features short calls, often repeated three times in a row, in the manner of an incantation. The strange jubilation of its timbre is produced by its unusual registration and by the way it is harmonized in two voices: flute 4, tierce 1, coupled at 16 and 4.
Third, the second appearance of the refrain. The first and third elements are repeated. The second element, instead of repeating, continues the Alleluia chant at the point where it had previously ended and finishes it.
Fourth, an insistent, pleading, and expressive development of the consolation element of the refrain as a supplication which crescendos, accelerates, and finally intensely broadens.
Fifth, the second solo of the Song Thrush, slightly longer and even more virtuosic.
Sixth, the third and final appearance of the refrain. The cromorne solo is greatly abbreviated, the lullaby element is omitted altogether, and the consolation element, although abbreviated, is now heard much slower, pianissimo, ecstatic.
Offrande au Saint SacrementOffering to the Holy Sacrament,published posthumously 2001
This piece was found sleeping in a box after the composers death by his wife, and thus was completely unknown until the late 1990s. The date of composition is not known, but it is obviously an early piece, probably written in the early 1930s. Offrande au Saint Sacrement is composed of two stanzas, each formed of two parts: both unfold around the voix humaine stop with tremolo, a stop that was rarely used by Messiaen. (Nevertheless, we hear it three times in this volume, with and without the tremolo, here and in Movements III and V of Livre d'Orgue.) The first part is a tender, calm, luminescent chordal theme in the fore, accompanied by a perpetual-motion filigree of sextuplets, based on the chromatic scale played on a bourdon 8. In the second, the voix humaine becomes a background for a response of three different colors (quintaton 16 and flute 4, salicional, and flute harmonique), which is slower, adding the deepest sounds of the pedal.
I gave the American premiere of this piece in 1999, from the manuscript (given to me by Yvonne Loriod), during my Celebration Messiaen series at the Riverside Church, which commemorated the 90th birthday of Messiaen.
Apparition de l'Eglise éternelleApparition of the Eternal Church, 1932
Above all, this is an apparition, a very simple, but powerful picture. Imagine arriving on the Normandy coast near Mont-Saint-Michel, this towering monument to the Christian faith barely visible in the distance. As we draw closer, the monastery and spire become clearer and clearer, seeming to ascend up out of the sea. As we arrive directly in front of this shrine, imagining the incredible feat of its construction and also countless Christian pilgrims who have mounted the top on their knees in homage, listening to the ceaseless waves that beat at the base of the edifice in an almost brutal way, an image of the Eternal Church looms up before our very eyes, magnificent, majestic, victorious. As we depart, always guarding this vision within our sight, this apparition slowly begins to fade away. As we draw farther and farther away, the image gradually disappearsnow, seemingly into the seabut we are left with an unforgettable experience of awe and majesty.
It is an image similar to that description which this piece portrays. Little by little, we arrive at the full power of the organ as the vision of the Church Eternal is fully visible the bass throbbing away, ceaselessly, brutallyand then, just as progressively, this vision fades away. Brightly and richly colored harmonies alternate with the hardness and coldness of empty fifths. All of this unfolds in a slow, majestic tempo, in a simple rhythmic pattern.
In describing this piece, Messiaen quotes the following text from the hymn Cælestis urbs Jerusalem for the Dedication of Churches: Scissors, hammer, suffering, and tests, tailoring and polishing the elected persons, living stones of the spiritual edifice, saying that the incessant rhythm in the bass expresses this unending travail. Thus, this piece, like Verset, is appropriate for services dedicating new churches.
First Recording, unpublishedVie pour Dieu des RessuscitésLife of the Resurrected for GodAlive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord; charity never faileth. St. Paul, Letter to the Romans 6:11 and I Corinthians 13:8
Many will recognize this piece as the fifth movement, Praise to the Eternity of Jesus (cello and piano) from Messiaen's Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps (1941), but the quartet is actually its third incarnation! Similarly, many do not know that the last movement of the quartet, Praise to the Immortality of Jesus (violin and piano) is a transcription of the second part of the organ piece Diptyque. Messiaen was fond of making transcriptions of his own music early in his life. Three of the movements of LAscension for orchestra were also transcribed for organ.
Because very few people even know of the existence of this piece for organ, even fewer have actually heard it, (and, as far as I know, there are no plans to publish it), my notes will be more complete than for the other pieces, even though there remains much that could be written. Furthermore, because this work could not be included in my book, Performing Olivier Messiaen's Organ Music: 66 Masterclasses, published in 2009, it is not possible to go there to find this information. This piece brings the total number of pieces for organ by Messiaen from 66 to 67!
The original version of this sublime piece is Movement 4, entitled LEau (Water), from Fête des belles Eaux, (1937, Celebration of Beautiful Waters), a sextet for ondes Martenot in eight movements. The fourth movement (without the nine-measure, monodic introduction) is the part that Messiaen transcribed for both the organ and later for cello and piano for his Quatuor. It is written in four voices and only uses four ondes Martenot.
Fête des belles Eaux was commissioned for the Exposition Universelle of 1937 in Paris to be presented at a special event of son et lumière (sound and light) along the Seine (before the Trocadero, which faces the Eiffel Tower) where fountains and fireworks were used to choreograph Messiaen's music. Thus, it was to be performed outside. The number of movements and their timings had to be coordinated exactly in order for the music to accompany the action of gushing fountains, colorful displays of fireworks, and fiery rockets. The use of the ondes Martenot seemed natural to Messiaen because its sounds are emitted from loudspeakers, thus numerous speakers could be placed atop various buildings in the vicinity making it easy for the public to hear the music.
In Fête, Messiaen retakes this sublime music again in a new transformation in Movement 6, again entitled LEau, and that part was only used in Fête. It was never transcribed for organ or for cello or for any other instrument.
This piece for organ was discovered recently (while the Messiaen collection was being catalogued at the Bibliothèque National de France) within the manuscript of Les Corps glorieux on the back of the first movement (Subtilitédes Corps glorieux) and seems to have been considered by Messiaen for the second movement of that work. The date of composition of Les Corps glorieux is listed as 1939 in Messiaen's personal catalogue, making this transcription his second incarnation of this piece: 1st: Fête des belles Eaux, 1937; 2nd: for organ, 1939; and 3rd, Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps, 1941.
Ultimately, he decided not to include it in Les Corps glorieux and it is clearly marked à supprimer (delete) at the top of the manuscript, indicating just that, and then, at the bottom of the page, there is this further indication: this piece is not a part of the series of Les Corps glorieuxcette pièce ne fait pas partie de la série des corps glorieux.
I first heard of this piece in 2019, when Thomas Lacôte, the now-titular organist at La Trinité, performed it in a concert at Trinitéon March 17. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend, so I really had no idea, until recently, what the piece actually is.
On September 10, 2021, I received permission from the Fondation Olivier Messiaen to have a photocopy of the manuscript and was also given permission to perform it in public and to record it. In her answer to me, Catherine Massip (former curator of the Music Division of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France), responding for the Fondation, specified that the committee accepts my request to obtain a copy of the MS and to perform it in public and record it, but they also wish to express the fact that it is not a new piece but an adaptation, made by Messiaen, of a part of La Fête des belles Eaux before finding its definitive version in the Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps. I happily respect and express their feelings and wishes here.
Strictly speaking, of course, this is not a new piece. It is definitely a transcription from the sextet. I, myself, feel that this piece is important, an important insight into Messiaen's enormous creativity and imagination and is another example of how he transcribed his own music for other mediums, and how that transcription transforms the original into another feeling, a different atmosphere, a different meaning through color. This is not a new piece, but I think the message it transmits is totally new. It is interesting that Messiaen accepted that the same music (the same notes, rhythms, etc., at least) could mean different things in different orchestrations and settings.
In Fête des belles Eaux, it was Water with his religious meaning only given in the preface: in the most beautiful moments, that is to say when the water reaches its greatest heights, two times, we hear a long, slow phrase almost a prayerwhich makes water the symbol of Grîce et de l'Éternité, as described in this phrase in the Gospel of Saint John [4:14]: The water that I shall give him will be an inner spring always welling up for eternal life, (New English Bible).
In the organ version, Life for the Resurrected in God, it was Charity as expressed in its subtitle: Alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord; charity never faileth, St. Paul, Letter to the Romans 6:11 and I Corinthians 13:8. Continuing with Messiaen's I Corinthians quotation, we read this familiar phrase in verse 13: And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three, but the greatest of these is charity, (King James Bible).
It is my feeling that this charity is a different kind of love than that often expressed by Messiaen in the key of F-sharp major and played on the voix céleste in such pieces as Desseins éternels, the second part of Combat de la Mort et de la Vie, both for organ, and also the choral motet O Sacrum convivium with real voix. Here, the key is definitely E major and the registration completely different. Yes, Messiaen speaks often of lamour (love), but this is the only instance I know of where he speaks of la charité(the highest form of love, the immense reciprocal love between God and humankind).
In the cello version, Praise to the Eternity of Jesus, it was the Word, as explained by Messiaen in that preface: here Jesus is considered as The Word and he gives this citation: From the beginning was the Word, and the Word was in God, and the Word was God, Gospel of Saint John 1:1, reminding us of Le Verbe, Movement IV, of his La Nativitédu Seigneur.
Now, those are three very different qualities, and I feel that each is captured perfectly by the color (instrumentation/orchestration) that Messiaen found to express them. Of course, it is not just the color, but the understanding by performers of the feelings that tho