Olivier Messiaen – The Composer I Know; The Man I Knew

On the occasion of her 80th birthday (17 January 2021), Dame Gillian Weir reflects on her working relationship with French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908 – 1992), with illuminating insight and amusing anecdotes. Their special relationship is now celebrated in a new 22-CD Limited Edition Box Set on Eloquence, in which Messiaen’s work features on seven on those discs.

Gillian Weir with Olivier Messiaen at the National Shrine, Washington DC, 1972

Born eight years after the dawn of the 20th century and dying eight years before its end, Olivier Messiaen reflected the spirit of the century itself. The curve of his career mirrored first the century’s departing Romanticism, then its restless quest for novelty, and finally its fall back into a comfortingly familiar simplicity. After outdoing his innovative disciples in his experimentation with increasingly complex rhythmical theories and harmonic invention (reinvigorated perhaps by the challenge from such former pupils as Pierre Boulez), he could proudly state in 1982: “I fear nothing, not even the common chord!”.

That is not to say that there was not an immediately recognisable thumb-print on all that he wrote, right from the earliest published work (Le Banquet Céleste); and a consistency of style, as he developed his compositional techniques to the point where they were so natural to him that their seemingly effortless expression could give a misleading impression of naivete, when in fact the underlying power of his music comes from their distillation and total absorption.

LE BANQUET CÉLESTE (The Celestial Banquet)
(CD 11, Track 1)

“A very charming, tender, sweet and spring-like piece” said Olivier Messiaen of his first published work, Le Banquet Céleste. Written at the age of seventeen, it shows several of what would become defining characteristics of this composer; notably the very slow tempo, which redefines the common notion of movement. While seeming to suspend time, it nevertheless does not preclude motion. Messiaen’s hero was Debussy; he studied and memorised every note of his music and referred often to his techniques with the greatest admiration, even refusing to use the pentatonic scale except in disguised form out of respect for the composer who had made it a hallmark. One reference was to Debussy’s phrase “the experience of the sensory moment”, which has relevance here. This piece is not simply a harmonised, slow-moving melody. Rather, each chord is to be experienced in itself, as one might contemplate the rich colours of a mosaic. Having savoured them one moves on to the next, and similarly Messiaen gradually allows the harmony of the first chord to shift to the next light-soaked resting-place. (Messiaen’s analogy of a prism also has application here, radiating rainbow colours as light flows through its facets.) Thus without any overt metrical pulse the line is propelled with a gentle but inexorable force, until the composer chooses to halt its slow progress and supplies a concord on which it can pause. The registration, voix celestes with supporting colours, also serves to give the sensation of movement, since its natural out-of-tuneness throbs insistently. The notes are long, but when the listener is attuned to the mood there is movement within each chord, as each note strives to find its resolution like the tendrils of a flower waving slowly in the air; the tension comes from the delicious with-holding of the longed-for resolution.

At the start of Le Banquet the composer quotes from St John: “He that eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood dwelleth in Me and I in him”. It is a piece for the Festival of the Holy Sacrament, and marked “ecstatic, distant, mysterious”. At its still centre drops of water fall slowly through space, Messiaen’s infallible sense of colour surrounding each one with an aura of light.

DIPTYQUE – ESSAI SUR LA VIE TERRESTRE ET L’ÉTERNITÉ BIENHEUREUSE (Diptyque – Essay on earthly life and eternal bliss)
(CD 18, Track 2)

Diptyque dates from 1930, and was dedicated to “my dear teachers Paul Dukas and Marcel Dupré”. Dupré’s influence is evident in the first of its two panels, with its unrelenting chromaticism; the second, a long, seamless melody against a background of purring string sound, is quintessential Messiaen. The piece compares the turmoil of earthly life, restless and discordant, with the serenity of Paradise. The theme of the first part twists and turns and finally collapses into fragments; it is then reborn, transformed into the floating melody of the second section, a melody which Messiaen was to use again a decade later in his Quartet for the End of Time.

APPARITION DE L’EGLISE ETERNELLE (Vision of the Church Eternal)
(CD 11, Track 9)
(CD 18, Track 3)

Already in the Apparition de l’Eglise Eternelle, the first piece he wrote after his appointment as titular organist at the church of La Trinité, his feeling for rhythm as the prime motivating factor in the music is apparent. “I am a rhythmicien”, he stated, and his study of the meaning of rhythm was lifelong, culminating in an extended tome containing his thoughts and discoveries. Above all, he emphasized the gulf between rhythm and meter. The first gives life and freedom; the second imprisons the music in a static, lifeless beat. The marches of John Philip Sousa, he pointed out, are an example of merely metrical pulse, whereas rhythm, like the waves of the sea, is constantly in motion, supplying ebb and flow, tension and release, action and reaction. From the Greek principles of arsis and thesis came his later ideas of using the rhythms of Greek poetry.

The central idea for the Apparition comes from the text for the Dedication of a Church, a part of the liturgy to which Messiaen returned in 1960 for his Verset pour la Fête de la Dédicace and again in the last two big cycles for organ; he used it too in the orchestral work Couleurs de la Cité Céleste. The text reads: “Scissors, hammer, suffering and trials, perfecting and refining the chosen ones, the living stones of the spiritual edifice”. The work is a crescendo and diminuendo on an immense scale. The church comes gradually into sight; at the climax the Vision is briefly in full view while a stark C major chord is held on the full organ, to shattering effect. Slowly it recedes, and the vision fades.

But for Messiaen there were always two levels of meaning: the literal, or pictorial, and the spiritual. Thus the vision is of a great cathedral, but it is also of the Church triumphant, composed of its individual members past and present; the hammer blows in the pedal build the physical edifice but also mark the strokes of Grace that shape and mould the pilgrims and supplicants. Messiaen wrote that the nature of the Church eternal is “appalling, awe-inspiring … mysterious, harrowing, glorious and sometimes terrifying”. All of that is conveyed overwhelmingly in this hypnotic work.

Gillian Weir at Royal Festival Hall

L’ASCENSION – QUATRE MEDITATIONS SYMPHONIQUES (Ascension Day – Four Symphonic Meditations)
(CD 12, Tracks 2-3)
(CD 18, Tracks 4-7)

In 1931 Messiaen’s orchestral work Offrandes Oubliées was given its premierè, in Paris. It was a huge success (in 1978 the composer recalled ruefully “My first, and indeed my last!”), but not long afterwards Messiaen’s music was attacked by both critics and public, and labelled ‘scandalous’. Used as we are today to the performance of sacred music in the concert-hall, from Passions to Masses, it is interesting that the practice was a novelty then, the juxtaposition of sacred text with secular space no doubt contributing to the critical unease that led to frequent condemnation. When in 1933 Messiaen wrote L’Ascension, a suite of four movements for orchestra, one critic wrote, “Its ambivalent nature offends certain sensitive believers, who reproach him for its pseudo-religiosity and who see in the work disorder and an impure atmosphere”. It must have been satisfying for the composer when the piece achieved great success later especially under Serge Koussevitzky, who played it often and included it in his last concert at Tanglewood in front of a frenzied audience.

Perhaps there was some justification for the critical view in the third movement. Entitled Alléluia sur la trompette, alléluia sur la cymbale it is an orgiastic dance, at odds with its companions. In 1934 Messiaen arranged the suite for organ, but replaced this movement with another specially-composed; more idiomatic, it is also stronger musically. However he felt that the last movement remained better when played by the orchestra, the sound “more deeply moving” (it is scored for strings alone) than the organ’s “somewhat conventional Voix Céleste”. On the other hand the organ’s ability to sustain its sound infinitely comes into its own here, producing a hypnotic unbroken line of great intensity.

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 of Christ, Gospel according to St John)

Solemn and magnificent, the first meditation exploits the organ’s power to overwhelm. The litany of Christ’s petitions (“Let this cup pass from me!”) unfolds in phrases and shapes familiar from plainchant, reaching its climax in the final cry of acceptance: “Not my will, but Thine, be done”.

II. Alleluias sereins d’une âme qui désire le ciel (Serene alleluias of 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 suggests inspiration from plainsong’s melodies, rather than its forms. On heaven’s golden pavements angels dance before the throne of God, their movements flowing, supple; dreamily mingling with the prayers of the faithful and with plumes of incense, and singing in “an endles [sic] morn of light”.

III. 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.” (The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Colossians and to the Ephesians)

Transports is an apocalyptic toccata. Its energy expresses the soul’s rapturous joy as it is brought into the Light; the extravagance of the emotion echoes that of the metaphysical poets – “Batter my heart, three-personed God … for I Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free, Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.”

IV. Prière du Christ montant vers son Père (The Prayer of Christ ascending toward His Father)

“And now, O Father, I have manifested Thy name unto men … now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world and I come to Thee.” (Prayer of Christ, the Gospel according to St John)

In the last meditation time is transcended. Each chord in the slowly-moving progression is to be reflected on, savoured, for itself, rather than to be heard merely as the harmonisation of a melody. As in Le Banquet Céleste the life is in the pulsing of the harmonies within the chord, giving a series of sensuous events. The Bhagavid Gita supplies an apposite phrase: ” … like a flame that burns in a windless place, but does not flicker”.

(CD 19, Tracks 1-9)

La Vierge et l’Enfant. Les Bergers. Desseins Eternels. Le Verbe. Les Enfants de Dieu. Les Anges. Jésus accepte la Souffrance. Les Mages. Dieu parmi nous.

This, Messiaen’s first major organ cycle, is his best-known work, and the perfect expression of his musical ideals. In his preface to the work he states his personal philosophy: “Emotion and sincerity above all – at the service of Catholic theology … but transmitted to the listener by distinct and infallible means.” He gives also a detailed explanation of his ‘modes of limited transposition’ – the ordering of tones and semitones so as to produce new scales which are used to create his distinctive harmonies and which, honed in years of improvisation during the Sunday services at La Trinité, act as a basis for the technical construction of his music. He describes, too, the specific colours he sees in the harmonies created, and the way in which they change – “like those in a stained-glass window or a rainbow” – as the modes are transposed. In collaboration with the painter Blanc-Gatti Messiaen studied the correlation between colours and sounds; when he first made known his synaesthesia he was surprised to find that it is not an ability common to all. The cycle has nine movements “to honour the Virgin”, and four further principal theological ideas are expounded: the three births – the temporal birth of Christ, the eternal birth of the Word, and the spiritual birth of Christians (La Vierge, Le Verbe, Les Enfants de Dieu); our predestination fulfilled by the Incarnation of the Word (Desseins Eternels); God living among us, God suffering (Dieu parmi nous, Jésus accepte la Souffrance); and finally the description of some of the characters who give to Christmas its special poetry – the angels, Wise men and shepherds (Les Anges, Les Mages and Les Bergers).

La Nativité’s gallery of pictures presents first a triptych: its first panel shows the Virgin sitting in the stillness, cradling her baby. A gentle shower of caressing grace-notes falls to begin the piece, and sets the mood of its tenderness. The melody is one Messiaen used frequently; he said it derived from Moussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, but it needs no pedigree. In the second panel a carillon of bells, played by the pedals, peals distantly, while above the rocking of the cradle a disguised form of the plainsong hymn Puer Nobis – Unto us a Child is born – shapes a high-pitched song. The third panel ends with the mother’s voice lifted in a rapturous cadenza, rising out of the candlelight and drifting away again into the silence.

Next come the shepherds; the text for Les Bergers is: “having seen the Babe lying in a manger, the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God”. Light shimmers on the snow around the manger; inside, the shepherds are kneeling before the Crib, and the holy light shines on the Child, symbolising the spiritual illumination Christ brings. They rise from making their obeisance; outside, their flutes and pipes call to one another, and they set off on the journey home, singing a joyous, carol-like melody which is again a diffusion of Puer Nobis.

The text for the third movement, Desseins Eternels, or Eternal Destinies, is: “God, in His Love, has predestined us to be His adopted Sons, through Jesus Christ”. Shimmering chords slowly shift their harmonic base, just as the colours pouring through a stained-glass window will reflect changes in the light; the static effect combined with the pulsing of the sustained harmonies creates an atmosphere of timelessness.

Le Verbe – The Word – bursts into life. Two ideas are present. First, the turbulent travail of the Word made Flesh – the pedal theme marks God descending to earth; then a long, slow melody transmitting the divine utterance: “The Lord said unto me: Thou art my Son … I am the Word of Life”.

The fifth meditation concerns the Children of God; Les Enfants de Dieu opens with a surging, throbbing figure that explodes like a shower of fireworks; we are spiritually reborn. The energy falls away into the calm and confident call of the Children to their Heavenly Father.

Then come the angels: “… A multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, Glory to God in the Highest!” They fill the sky with the beating of their jewel-studded wings. They circle lower and lower over the Crib, and for an instant are still, in homage, then soar into the heavens again, circling ever higher until, in a cascade of trills, they are lost to view.

With the seventh meditation, Jésus accepte la Souffrance (Jesus accepts Suffering) a shadow falls over the scene. The text is: “When Christ cometh into the world, he saith to his Father: Sacrifice and offering Thou wouldest not, but a body hast Thou prepared Me … Then said I Lo, I come to do Thy Will, O God”. The drama expresses powerfully the agony of the sacrifice the Son is being called on to make: to take human form and come to Earth to redeem mankind. First is heard the voice of God, with its implacable demand; then the indecision and torment of the Son. Christ’s hands reach out to accept the cup of suffering, and three times fall back, but at last the sacrifice is made; the voice of God comes again in joyous commendation of the Son and the movement ends in a blaze of glory as “the divine victim rises to the skies”.

The Wise Men enter; they have seen the Star and are following it across the desert. In Les Mages Messiaen evokes the hypnotic swaying of their caravan and a dream-like sensation of wonder and awe. For good measure he adds a characteristically re-shaped version of the plainsong hymn “Veni, Creator Spiritus” – Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire.

With Dieu parmi nous – God among us – all is gathered together in a triumphant close. First comes a great descending theme: the Word is come to Earth. Then follows a brief reflection on “the sweetness of union with Jesus Christ”. The soul bursts forth in exultation, and the music becomes more and more impassioned as the whole of Christendom joins in the worship and praise, until a huge toccata celebrates the Incarnation.

LES CORPS GLORIEUX – SEPT VISIONS BRÈVES DE LA VVIE DES RESSUSCITES (The Bodies in Glory – Seven Brief Visions of the Life of the Resurrected)
(CD 11, Tracks 2-8)
(CD 20, Tracks 1-7)

Les Corps Glorieux is much less well-known than Messiaen’s suite for the Nativity; curiously perhaps, since in many ways it is the more satisfying work. It is structurally richer: without La Nativité du Seigneur’s wide range of moods, certainly, but more subtly compressed and much more unified, by many delicate thematic cross-references and by related colours. Its essence is more intense, its energy more completely contained within a symmetrical frame. Unlike La Nativité, whose nine meditations follow one another in no particular order – that is, there is no logical sequence theologically or musically – this cycle unfolds with an overall shape, beginning and ending with an emphasis on mystery and pivoting on the central and longest piece, the Combat de la Mort et de la Vie (the Battle between Life and Death). While La Nativité may be said to be the perfect consummation of Messiaen’s musical ideals, the one in which his new technical language is clearly defined and brought to perfection, Les Corps Glorieux is the most important expression of his purely religious ideals.

In 1977 Messiaen presented to a conference held at Notre-Dame a paper * in which he discussed the nature of Sacred Music. This comprises, he said, (1) liturgical music, (2) religious music, and (3) sound-colour and ‘enrapturement’ (or ‘dazzling’ – éblouissement). “Of liturgical music there is only one kind: plainchant, the only music to possess the purity, joy and lightness necessary for the flight of the soul towards Truth.” Religious music he defined as “any art which attempts to describe the divine Mystery”, citing painting (from Fra Angelico to Chagall) and architecture (Chartres, the pyramids, Japanese temples) as well as musical monuments such as Bach’s B minor Mass, the Ligeti Requiem et al. He then made clear the importance he ascribes to sound-colour relationships. After giving a minute analysis of the colours he sees in specific sounds and describing some of the great stained-glass creations of the Middle Ages as “a kind of catechism enclosed in circles, shields, trefoils, obeying a colour symbolism with a thousand purposes”, Messiaen summed up by saying that in this hierarchy of sacred music he put coloured music above liturgical and religious music for “it does what the stained-glass windows and the rose windows of the Middle Ages do: it brings to us rapture. Reaching at the same time our most noble senses – hearing and sight – it moves our sensibility, excites our imagination, enhances our intelligence, pushes us beyond limited concepts, to approach that which is higher than reasoning and intuition, namely Faith.”

All three ideas are clear in Les Corps Glorieux, together with what may be seen as a counterpart to plainchant, the raga of Indian music, which shares with plainsong its flexibility of rhythm and a similar outward purity that contains within it a simmering sensuousness. The work was finished in August 1939 at Petichet, nine days before war broke out and Messiaen joined the army; it had to wait until November 1943 to receive its première, given by the composer at La Trinité. The listener is thrust immediately into the world of plainchant; the first movement, Subtilité des Corps Glorieux, is a stark monody. “The body, sown as a natural body, will be raised a spiritual body. And they will be as the angels of God in heaven.” (St Paul, 1 Corinthians XV, 44; Matthew XXII, 30.)

Although the words used in the titles of the movements are also found in contemporary French, they have always been the traditional words employed in French religious poetry to describe the attributes of the Resurrected ones. Not easily translatable, they have in some cases a special meaning; “subtilité”, for instance, implies a rarefied state in which all the senses are quickened, more acute; all-seeing, all-knowing. The opening theme, based on the plainchant “Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of mercy”, demonstrates Messiaen’s claim that the forms and general melodic shape of plainsong are what concerns him. The plangent litany unfolds with a hypnotic, unearthly imperturbability, rising and falling in accord with an inner rhythm and shaped in the periods of an antiphon, but evoking a timelessness that reinforces the sense of mystery and of unity with the Universe.

II. Les Eaux de la Grâce (The Waters of Grace)

“The Lamb, which is in the midst of the Throne, shall feed them, and shall lead them into the fountains of living waters.” (Revelation VII, 17.) As always, Messiaen’s imagery is on two levels, pictorial and theological. The waters of Grace give spiritual nourishment, the fountains in the beautiful gardens of Paradise intoxicate the senses.

III. L’Ange aux Parfums (The Angel of the Incense)

“The smoke of the incense formed of the prayers of the saints will rise from the hand of the angel before God.” (Revelation VIII, 4.) Technically, this movement develops Messiaen’s growing use of Indian forms. The opening phrase echoes a Hindu melodic formula which was used, as the composer uses this, as a basis for later complexities. The hypnotic mood established at the outset of the cycle is continued, and after the initial solo comes a section in which Messiaen plays with a mathematical formula, a game conducted to strict rules and one producing the most complicated music found thus far in his organ works. As justification and inspiration Messiaen has pointed to the designs of butterfly wings, the veins of leaves, the human face, and other evidences of mathematical formulae in nature, and oriental philosophies are recalled again; “The sounds used in music are those whose mutual relations form an image of the basic mathematical laws of the Universe.” But for the listener the magical atmosphere of this movement, its interweaving sections painting a picture of shadowy figures glimpsed through the exquisite curtain of slowly rising clouds of incense, is what will settle in the memory.

IV. Combat de la Mort et de la Vie (The Battle between Life and Death)

“Death and Life have engaged in a stupendous battle; the Author of Life, having died, lives and reigns; and He says, My Father, I am risen, I am again with Thee.” (The Sequence and Introit for Easter Day.) During the early years of his career, Messiaen was often bitterly criticised for the apparently profane nature of his music; it was felt to be overly dramatic, too sensuous, impure. In a conversation with Antoine Golea the composer defended himself vehemently, passing as he said ‘to the attack’: “Those people who reproach me do not know the dogma and know even less about the sacred books … They expect from me a charming, sweet music, vaguely mystical and above all soporific. As an organist I have been able to note the set texts for the office … Do you think that psalms, for example, speak of sweet and sugary things? A psalm groans, howls, bellows, beseeches, exults and rejoices in turn.” Combat thunders and throbs with an apocalyptic energy. Death enters, snarling as he pursues his prey. Battle is at once enjoined. The death theme rises as Death forces Life back, who again fights desperately; Death grows ever more confident and the combat becomes frenetic – a last stand. Life’s vital force is ebbing but he gathers himself together for one last, heroic sword-thrust. Silence follows: Death it seems has won – but then comes revelation. In a sublime meditation “in the sun-drenched peace of Divine Love”, the death theme is seen to have been transformed – into a major key and into a message for our understanding: Death is metamorphosed into Life. Let John Donne have the last word: “Death be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadfull … One short sleepe past, we wake eternally, and death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die!”

V. Force et Agilité des Corps Glorieux (The Strength and Agility of the Bodies in Glory)

“The body, sown in weakness, is raised in power.” (1 Corinthians XV, 43.) The serene theme from L’Ange aux parfums becomes a whirling, thrashing entity, leaping across the sky, twisting and turning in a jubilant display. Freed from their earthly bodies the resurrected ones are revelling in their power.

VI. Joie et Clarté des Corps Glorieux (The Joy and the Brilliance of the Bodies in Glory)

“Then the righteous shall shine like the sun in the Kingdom of their Father.” (Matthew XIII, 43.) “God dazzles us”, said Messiaen, and here a sunburst of brilliant colours flashes forth. The mood is ecstatic, powerful rhythms sweep us into a dimension of boundless freedom and joy. The spirits seem to be riding the sky; the long slow plainsong melodies of earlier movements have become dynamic, swooping solos that a virtuoso jazz player might improvise, from his delight in the moment.

VII. Le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité (The Mystery of the Holy Trinity)

“O almighty Father, who with Thine only Son and the Holy Spirit art one God, one Lord; not in the unity of one person, but in the Trinity of one substance.” (Missal: Preface of the most Holy Trinity.) The concluding movement is symbolic in a number of ways. It honours the Trinity and is a trio – three voices. Furthermore it divides into three sections each of which divides again into three, so that overall form is that of a nine-fold Kyrie. Three principal Hindu rhythms are used. There are seven phrases in the melody relating to the Holy Spirit; seven is the perfect number and there are seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, and many other groups or concepts of seven. The pedal voice repeats a rhythmic ostinato five times; five is symbolic of Shiva, the third God of the Hindu Trinity.

The movement focuses on the Son, represented by the middle voice; the end of the theme is familiar from the first movement. The alternate measures, where the music assumes the word ‘eleison’ – have mercy on us – is always the same. The distant, shadowy pedal part – the Father – moves slowly in the depths, while the upper voice, the Holy Spirit, drifts in ethereal arabesques down to the lowest reaches and floats up again. The intertwining of the voices and pitches reflects the mystery of the Trinity, three in one but one in three. By remarkable techniques and by an unerring manipulation of mood and emotion Messiaen has brought the cycle back to the place of eternal calm where it began.

* (A paper entitled “La Musique Sacrée”, given as part of the conference “Recherches et Experiences Spirituelles” held at Notre-Dame de Paris on 4 December 1977)

(CD 21, Tracks 1-6)

It was to be eleven years before Messiaen again wrote for the organ. From the early 1940s the piano dominated his writing, after the appearances in his Conservatoire classes of the brilliant young pianist Yvonne Loriod, later to become his wife. When he returned to the organ in 1950 it was to provide a liturgical work for the first time. In this, a new world swam into view. If La Nativité revealed Messiaen the poet and Les Corps Glorieux expressed his religious aims, the Messe was the vehicle into which he poured his developing rhythmic ideas.

The work is in five movements that supply the Mass with an instrumental counterpart, and it was intended to be used in the service. For two decades Messiaen had been honing his techniques through improvising, using a different style for each Sunday Mass. For the 10 o’clock High Mass he played only plainsong, for the next service established repertoire such as Bach or Romantic works, at noon his own music; and at the 5 o’clock Vespers he improvised, often in pastiche but always developing his own techniques. In the 1950s he said: “One day I realized [these improvisations] tired me out and that I was emptying all my substance into them. I then wrote the Messe de la Pentecôte, which is a resume of all my collected improvisations.” The work is indeed a collage of his techniques and obsessions, with birdsong, waterdrops, plainsong, imaginative registrations, serialization in various forms and Greek and Hindu rhythms treated in new ways. The effect is to reinforce the idea of Messiaen as neither neo-Romantic nor modernist but impressionist, even though for a long time the piece was regarded as impenetrably ‘modern’.

I. Entreé: Les Langues de Feu (The Tongues of Fire) – “And there appeared unto them cloven tongues as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.” (Acts of the Apostles, II.3.)

The first movement comments on the tongues of fire that came upon the Apostles at Pentecost. The pedals have the melody on a pungent 4′ Clairon (a forceful trumpet sound); on the manuals three combinations juxtapose a high Mixture and the 16′ Bourdon with other combinations that stress the harmonics inherent in their sound. This registration creates an uncertainty of pitch that heightens the bizarre, eerie nature of the timbres. The manual parts repeat patterns whose angularity vividly suggests forked flames, darting, flickering and surging. The effect is of immense energy and brilliant colour, with simultaneously a kind of lofty remoteness that is far removed from the tender caresses of La Nativité. It is the work of a painter, splashing paint on to his canvas with exuberant confidence. Classical Greek rhythms (iambic, trochaic etc.) as well as Hindu are used, but in an innovative way; highly organized they nevertheless do not rule the structure but propel the action in bursts by pulses of energy that alternate weak with strong.

II. Offertoire: Les Choses Visibles et Invisibles (Things visible and invisible) – (the Nicene Creed).

For Messiaen, rhythm was the antithesis of metre, with its strict regulation of the beat; rhythm meant freedom, metre a prison. All his devices were designed to allow him to express freedom, always his philosophical aim. At first, the complication of the rhythmic techniques seems to constrict rather than set free, but in performance the effect is to liberate the music from earthbound metrical patterns and set it soaring. The self-imposed disciplines act as a spur, much as the fugal form did for Bach. At first Messiaen had used groups of prime numbers (Les Anges, Dieu parmi nous) and begun to explore Hindu ideas (Les Corps Glorieux) but in the Turangalîla-symphonie and the four studies for piano he had become even more abstract. Techniques from these two works appear in the Mass. One is a formula in which three rhythmic figures are used simultaneously: one repeats constantly unchanged, one methodically increases the value of each of its notes, and the third diminishes in the same way. Poetically, Messiaen likens them to actors in a play: one is a neutral onlooker, passive; one is moving the action forward, becoming stronger; the third is being dominated, weakening.

They come on stage in the Offertoire, where the music of the first bar (in a Hindu rhythm) never changes, that of the second augments by three demisemiquavers each time it repeats, and that of the third diminishes by one demisemiquaver. Other complex rhythmic devices follow – but for the listener it is the effect that matters. The teeming images of this movement make up a kaleidoscopic picture. The composer wrote of it:

Things visible and invisible! There is everything in these words! Dimensions known and unknown: from the possible diameter of the universe to that of a proton, durations known and unknown: from the ages of galaxies to that of the wave associated with the proton, the spiritual world and the material world, grace and sin, angels and men, the powers of light and the powers of darkness, the vibrations of the atmosphere, plainsong, birdsong, the melody of waterdrops and the growling of the monstrous Beast of the Apocalypse – finally, all that is clear and tangible, and all that is obscure, mysterious and supernatural, all that goes beyond science and reasoning, all that we cannot uncover, all that we will never understand …

The Beast growls on a powerful Basson; its low C recurrently emerges from the sea of images. There is birdsong and plainsong, shimmering colours, ominous throbbings and the splashing of waterdrops. In conventional terms the movement seems fragmented, but it stands outside the flow of time like a great mural, to be viewed as a whole or to be savoured in detail.

III. Consecration: Le Don de Sagesse (The Gift of Wisdom) – “The Holy Ghost shall bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.” (St John’s Gospel, XIV, 26.)

Messiaen writes:

Wisdom, Intelligence, Counsel, Strength, Learning, Piety, Fear: these are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit makes us comprehend the hidden meaning of the words of Jesus, and to penetrate the mysteries that he taught us: that is the gift of Wisdom!

This central movement consists of a plainsong theme (almost exactly the second Alleluia of the Whitsun Mass) in alternation with two chordal passages. These stay the same each time, but the plainsong changes and grows. The pedal has an angular melody on a strident 4′ Clairon in the first motif, and each of its notes is coloured by the shifting harmonies and timbres of the chord accompanying it, so that the linear melody has a ghostly partner: what Messiaen calls a ‘melody of resonance’ and a ‘melody of timbres’.

IV. Communion: Les Oiseaux et les Sources (The Birds and the Springs) – “O all ye fountains, bless ye the Lord; O all ye fowls of the air, bless ye the Lord.” (Daniel, III, 77,80. Apocrypha.)

A bird calls from the depth of a wood; its song ends in a flurry like the rustle of wings when it is startled from a tree. Fountains sigh and the cuckoo and nightingale call, and then there is a rapturous cantilena for the birds, chorused against a background of waterdrops falling from different heights (and therefore of constantly shifting lengths). These sounds of nature spring from the liturgy; it is customary after the Communion to recite the canticle of the Three Young Men who were thrown into a burning fiery furnace but not consumed, and who sang there a hymn of praise on behalf of all creation. The movement ends with the waterdrops ascending in pitch to the highest note possible on the organ, while the pedal supports them on the lowest note: the symbolism is the all-embracing nature of the love of God.

V. Sortie: Le Vent de I’Esprit (The Wind of the Spirit) – “A rushing mighty wind filled all the house.” (Acts of the Apostles, II, 2.)

The Holy Spirit sweeps into the upper room where the Apostles are sitting – sudden, overwhelming; “the wind of a tempest” says Messiaen. A breathtaking toccata makes clear the physical power of the Holy Spirit; implicit is the “irresistible power of the spiritual life”. After this first furious blast an ecstatic chorus of larks, chosen because they fly higher than any other bird and so symbolize the greatest freedom, celebrate the message that liberates the Apostles, singing over two lines that respectively diminish and augment by one unit at a time: in the left hand the first note is 23 semiquavers long, the next 22 and so on down to one, with in the pedal the reverse, from 4 to 25. Messiaen compares this process to kinematics -the science of moving bodies – and to two streams of time, flowing in different directions at different speeds. The larks’ song is the Alleluia “a vocalise to all Paradise”, soaring and leaping in an ecstasy of joy. A final tempestuous blast, with the pedal recalling “things visible and invisible”, brings the work to a passionate end.

LIVRE D’ORGUE – SEPT PIECES POUR ORGUE (Organ Book – Seven Pieces for Organ)
(CD 21, Tracks 7-13)

Livre d’Orgue is a classical French term, used often to describe a collection of suites or smaller pieces by the 18th century school of organist-composers. Never one to reject the past, but rather to possess and store all that it has to offer to be poured out eventually in a new form, Messiaen gave the name to a collection of seven pieces summing up all his rhythmic techniques in a magnificent synthesis. The cycle was conceived during a summer holiday in 1950 when Messiaen had taken refuge in his favourite hideaway in the mountains of the Dauphiné. He said “The whole work is under the sign of the mountains of the Dauphiné”, and it is obvious that the immensity of his surroundings, the noise of the waterfalls and the wind, the cracking of the crevasses and the brooding presence of the great peaks all had a profound effect on him. Messiaen has always been associated with mountains and once compared himself with Berlioz, saying that he too was “a man of the mountains”. Indeed, he now has one of his own: in 1978 a mountain in Utah, USA, formerly called The White Cliffs and also known as Lion’s Peak, was renamed Mount Messiaen in his honour. It is now a state monument commemorating his 1973 visit to the canyons of Southern Utah, the visit that inspired his symphonic work Des Canyons aux Etoiles.

The premierè was given in Stuttgart in 1953 by the composer, inaugurating the organ at the Villa Berg; the second performance was at his own church of La Trinité for one of Pierre Boulez’s Marigny concerts, to an audience of some 2000 people. (The composer was almost lost in the crush; he had to protest that there would be no performance unless he could gain entry, effected eventually by a side door, and the performance began forty minutes late. Messiaen lost two buttons from his overcoat and the chief of police, attending privately as an enthusiast, was crushed in the crowd.) The work is worlds away from the Livres d’orgue of duMage and Raison, or the Orgelbüchlein of Bach. Working within stringent formal strictures Messiaen engages in a kind of musical isometrics – a strengthening of the muscles by pushing them against an unbending framework. But Messiaen’s test of strength is made against more than superficial musical structure; taking up the ideas he had probed in the Messe de la Pentecôte he carries them to their ultimate conclusion, affirming that intensities, timbres and note-lengths have an importance equal to sounds. Except in the overtly dramatic movements such as the Hands from the Abyss this has its difficulties for the listener, since the complex patterns are not at first discernible except to the most highly-trained and sophisticated ear.

What is certain is that the work represented something of a watershed for him; all his rhythmic techniques are summed up in it and his next major work, the Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité, brought an almost complete turning away from complexity as though he had achieved his ideal synthesis and was content now to pour his ideas into a simpler mould.

I. Reprises par interversion (Repetition by inversion)

Organisation reaches its apogee in the first piece. It is in four sections: the 4th is a palindrome of the first, and the third is a palindrome of the second. Messiaen poetically describes his device for the middle sections as akin to a fan opening and closing. As the fan closes, the music of the first section is repeated from the outsides to the centre; that is, the first note from Section 1 is played, then its last note; then the second note followed by the penultimate, and so on until the middle note of the first section ends the second section, turning it inside out, so to speak. Section 3 presents the fan opening – the process is reversed, so that the central note from Section 1 begins Section 3 and the music works its way outwards again. Within all this, Messiaen uses what he calls “rhythmic personages”, that is, rhythmic patterns, two of which systematically become longer and shorter in length respectively, and the third of which remains unchanged. Messiaen explains that he took the idea of the fan from examples in ancient art, gothic and romanesque cathedrals and even modern art, where the decorative figures ornamenting the pediments of the portals are nearly always two symmetrically inverse figures framing a neutral central motif. In nature the wings of a butterfly supply a similar example of symmetry, and he takes the concept further: the eternity that lies on either side of our every movement. The result is uncompromisingly ascetic; Pierre Boulez, once Messiaen’s follower, has spoken in puzzlement of Messiaen’s separation in his mind of technique and the music, and here the technique does seem to have replaced the music rather than to be serving it. It may be that Boulez himself had a role in pushing Messiaen in the direction of such extremes; as the fruits of Messiaen’s teaching ripened, especially in the works of Boulez, so he must have been newly stimulated himself to test his theories to the limit. In the ’50s he said that the questions of the young composers “compel me to new researches of which I might not have dreamt without them”.

II. Pièce en Trio (Trio, for Trinity Sunday)
“For now we see through a glass darkly.” (1 Corinthians XIII.12)

The three voices of the first of the cycle’s two Trios, both dedicated to the Trinity, superpose a succession of Hindu rhythms. The composer’s comment is intriguing: “Here I utilized the different moving lines not only melodically but rhythmically, which permitted me, like the hero of HG Wells’ time machine, to remount the stream of time and also to detach myself from it”. The detachment may alienate, especially the listener used to riding the leaping rhythms of Vivaldi or coasting on the soaring emotions of the Romantics. But I can attest that this piece does become a living entity, with a deeply satisfying sense of movement; and that the mood perfectly conveys the mystery of the text. Referring to the virtues of Asiatic thought, the philosopher Romain Rolland said that from it Europeans could “learn the virtues of tranquility, patience, manly hope, unruffled joy”; again the image of the unflickering lamp, (referred to in the note on the final work of L’Acension), is exactly right for this apparently static movement in that there is no overt movement but it is in fact alive, vital, breathing.

III. Les mains de l’Abîme (The Hands from the Abyss) – for the time of Penitence
“The deep uttered his voice and lifted up his hands on high” (Habbakuk III.10)

Now comes a remarkable evocation of the mountains, in what for Messiaen was musically the work’s best piece. The full organ howls in anguish, hands stretch up from the gorges in the Romanche valley, imploring deliverance from their terror. In between their cries, slow-moving counterpoint in bizarre tone-colours powerfully conveys the chill of the ice, the cracking of a crevass, the desolation of great spaces.

IV. Chants d’Oiseaux (Songs of the Birds) – for the time of Easter

With the fourth movement Spring has returned. It is the only one in free rhythms and consists almost entirely of an aviary of birdcalls, singing of Eastertide. Messiaen names both the birds (blackbird, robin, thrush, nightingale) and the places where he heard them, and tells us it is afternoon.

Even before his teacher Paul Dukas had adjured him, “Study the birds. They are great masters”, Messiaen had been obsessed with birdsong; asked to describe himself he would say “I am an ornithologist and a rhythmist”, and would compare his study of the science of birdsong with landscape painters going into the woods and beside the rivers to take lessons in design, colour and lighting. Punning on les corps glorieux he called the birds les corps enseignant – the teaching profession. But although birds had winged their way through the Messe they were still being used there as just one of the sounds of nature. In the Chants d’oiseaux they become the whole composition just as they had comprised most of his great piano works of the fifties. Messiaen threw scorn on those ignorant of their song: “Most people think birds just go pi-pi-pi!” Revelation lies in the discovery that the songs are highly elaborate, with choruses and sequences that change according to the season or time of day or mood; that there are love-songs, frightened calls and many others, that the young ones are taught their calls, even that some specialize in faking other birds’ calls. He used them all, “in counterpoint or solo, in duos, trios, semi-choruses, grand tuttis – just as they are in nature, in fact”.

It is of course impossible to translate the extremely high pitches and infinitesimal intervals exactly. Instead Messiaen gives the shape of the call, transposing its pitch, rationalizing the microtones, transmitting its essence. As always, there are two levels of involvement. The complex songs provide a vast supply of rhythmic and melodic material to use as building-blocks, but the birds were also for him the symbol of liberty and epitomized his philosophy of freedom. “We walk, he flies; we make war, he sings”, he said, calling them “servants of immaterial joy”. He found the calls full of emotion; of the grey curlew’s song he said: “Slow, sad tremolos, chromatic scales, savage trills, and a glissando call tragically repeated express all the desolation of the marine locations.” Chants d’oiseaux begins at about four o’clock in the afternoon; then night comes, signalled by the long solo of the nightingale, fading into the growing darkness.

V. Pièce en Trio (Trio)
“For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things, to whom be glory for ever ” (Romans XI.36)

Messiaen accorded this second trio the accolade “my greatest rhythmic triumph”. The Hindu rhythms that shape the symbolic three voices undergo complicated permutations. Messiaen passionately defended the lengths to which he carried his rhythmic experimentation in the Livre d’Orgue, accusing those who questioned their musical worth of arrogance, and citing the experiments of Bach (the Musical Offering), Beethoven (the sonata Opus 106) and Schonberg, Berg and Webern as others engaged on the same path.

The fifth movement was composed while Messiaen contemplated a trio of glaciers (Meiju, Rateau, Tabuchet), and its dramatic effect reflects their character; the hard brightness of the registration brings visions of sun on snow and the angularity of the mountain peaks. Antoine Golea’s words illumine the cycle, which he said was suffused with “clarity, luminosity, the transparence of a snow-covered mountain beneath the blue of the sky”. All this is implicit within the intricacies of the trio as it sails through the solitary grandeur of its setting.

VI. Les Yeux dans les Roues (The Eyes in the Wheels) – for Whitsunday
“And the rims of the wheels were full of eyes all around, for the spirit of life was in the wheels” (Ezekiel XVIII.20)

The sixth movement is a tumultuous toccata of great difficulty to play. Analysis reveals its six sections (twelve-note tone-rows are thoroughly exploited and the durations in the pedals serialized) but it is heard as a spectacular evocation of the flashing eyes in the wheels of Ezekiel’s prophecy, and an explosive Wind of the Holy Spirit descending on the disciples in the Upper Room.

VII. Soixante-Quatre Durées (Sixty-Four durations)

The last movement is a masterpiece of complexity. It is described in the score as “64 chromatic durations, from 1 to 64 demisemiquavers – inverted in groups of four, from the extremes to the centre, forwards and backwards alternately – treated as a retrograde canon. The whole peopled with birdsong.” The rhythmic series consists of sixteen groups of four note-values each, augmenting and diminishing in sequence, alternately. The manuals begin the series as (in demisemiquaver values) 61, 62, 63, 64; 4, 3, 2,1; 57, 58, 59, 60; 8, 7, 6, 5 – and so on. On the pedal two voices are presenting the pattern in retrograde. Some licence is taken, as when a cadenza whose note-values total the necessary thirty-eight takes over from the note itself.

At first it strains credulity to believe that the listener is meant to hear the minute differences in duration as the piece unfolds. Indeed Messiaen said that in this piece he had “pushed to the extreme limits of human perception very long and very short durations. And, something even more difficult, the perception of very small differences between very long durations.” However he also said that he deplored the weakness of human perception in this respect and, concerning the 64 durations: “If I can think them, read them, play them and hear them, all 64, with their differences, others should be able to.”

An intimidating, though fascinating, exercise in mathematical ingenuity. But there is wonderful music here. While the analyst may focus on the intricacy of the rhythmic devices, the real fascination lies in the way a sense of movement as gentle as the forming and reforming of clouds but as implacable as the pull of the tides is driving the music. To experience this it is not necessary to be able to deconstruct its elements but only to capitulate, and allow the music to refine the ear to its subtleties. The birdsongs scattered through the piece transform it into a landscape again, albeit lonely and cold. The unbroken succession of chords create slowly shifting patterns of light that form a stark backdrop for the strange and remote calls of birds; there are two extended flurries when they are disturbed and beat their wings in agitation, while the accompaniment flows gravely on, dispassionate, detached – a glacier moving infinitely slowly but inexorably amidst the menacing splendour, across the cold and ageless landscape.

VERSET POUR LA FÊTE DE LA DÉDICACE (Verset for the Feast of the Dedication)
(CD 12, Track 1)
(CD 21, Track 6)

The Verset was written in December 1960 as a test-piece for the Paris Conservatoire, and published in 1961. It exceeds the compass of all the other works, which were written for Messiaen’s own organ, and calls for sub- and super-octave couplers, to extend the compass further, for the bird-calls. The piece is based on the Alleluia and its Jubilus and a part of the Alleluia versicle from the Proper of the Mass for the dedication of a church.

The opening Alleluia and Jubilus begin the piece, but distorted so that they appear as though seen through the facets of a prism – a favourite device of Messiaen’s. After this follow five slow measures of note clusters under which the middle section of the versicle ad templum sanctum tuum is stated by the pedals; then comes the opening phrase of the versicle Adorabo, sung in the treble over more note clusters. Then the song-thrush bursts into a virtuoso solo (in a section marked “rhythmé, avec une joie étrange”). After a repetition of the Alleluia and Versicle comes a fervent supplication, in swooping phrases that suggest birdsong as much as the plainsong Strophicus. The song-thrush sings again and the work falls to rest with an ecstatic codetta.

MÉDITATIONS SUR LE MYSTÈRE DE LA SAINTE TRINITÉ (Meditations on the Mystery of the Holy Trinity)
(CD 22, Tracks 1-9)

Messiaen’s handwritten notes on the Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité

In 1799, during Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt, a detachment of the Imperial army was given the task of digging trenches near Rosetta, an ancient city in the Nile delta. An extraordinary object was discovered – a slab of black basalt covered with three inscriptions in three languages: Greek, everyday Egyptian, and ancient hieroglyphics. The first two revealed that the stone had been set up in 195 BC, but the hieroglyphics defeated the scholars. It was not until 1822 that a young Frenchman, Jean François Champollion, solved the puzzle of the Rosetta Stone.

150 years later the story of this feat greatly impressed Olivier Messiaen, already fascinated by numbers and patterns and mysteries of all kinds, and he set about devising a secret code in music. Intrigued by the idea that a message could be sent down through the centuries, to be received and deciphered without prior knowledge of its language, he invented a ‘communicable language’. Each letter of the alphabet was allotted its own note, with a fixed pitch and duration; brief motifs denote each person of the Trinity, and a set musical formula before each noun indicates its case, as in the Latin system. “It’s a game!”, he said – a stimulus to invention as was the fugal form, say, to Bach.

For twenty years Messiaen had forsaken the organ for other instruments, in particular the piano, inspired by the brilliant pianist Yvonne Loriod who became his wife in 1961. During the ’60s however his organ at La Trinité was enlarged and the action electrified, supplying the impetus for a major new organ work. The result was the nine-movement set of meditations on the Trinity. In it he not only introduced his new language, using it to spell out quotations from St Thomas Aquinas; he also developed his use of birdsong. “Study the birds! They are great masters” he had been told as a student by Paul Dukas, and by the 1950s he had become such an enthusiastic ornithologist that he declared he would devote the rest of his life to collecting the songs of birds and writing music based on their calls. He was a serious birdwatcher, patiently tramping through the woods before dawn to add to his collection. The songs had a dual importance for him, first as an infinitely varied source of melody on which to base his compositions and secondly as a philosophical expression of freedom. “Birds fly! We are bound to the earth; they sing – we make war.”

Plainsong, too, plays an important part in the work, and for the first time Messiaen presents it unadorned and unconcealed. In La Nativité the chant is deliberately distorted, as though seen through a prism, its shapes employed as he might use the shape of a bird’s song.

But here it is allowed to sing out majestically, to stunning dramatic effect.

The cycle’s individual movements carried no separate titles in 1972. However in 1986 Messiaen decided to add his own titles; they have been published in the appendix to Theo Hirsbrunner’s Olivier Messiaen: Leben und Werke (Laaber Verlag).

A page from the manuscript of Messiaen’s Méditations

I. Le Père inengendré (The unengendered Father)

The full organ declaims the song of the stars to launch us into space. The middle section of the meditations spells out a quotation from St Thomas Aquinas in the communicable language: that God is “unengendered” – has always existed, has not been born. Messiaen’s original note talks also of “The Father of the Stars”, and their song returns in a passage brilliantly evoking the wheeling of the stars as they turn in their orbit. To end, the pedals roar the word “unengendered!”

II. La Sainteté du Jésus-Christ (The Holiness of Jesus Christ)

The plainsong Alleluia of the Feast of the Dedication rings out, ushering in a succession of rapturous chords: “Thou only are Holy, Thou only art the Lord”. Then the wren sings, beginning a chorus of songs from the birds – blackbird, chaffinch, the garden warbler and the blackcap, in alternation with the colourful chords. After the third Alleluia the same plainsong is played pianissimo and harmonised: “Give us the love of Thy Holy Name!” Floating high above the last chord comes the artless song of the yellow-hammer.

III. La Relation réelle en Dieu est réellement identique à l’essence (True Relationship in God is really identical with essential being)

The brief third movement is the only one in which communicable language is used throughout. It is an extraordinary exercise in modern polyphony. Three distinct musical lines move inexorably along their course; the top part bears the message from Aquinas of the title; beneath it the left hand and pedal play ancient Indian rhythms, contributing to the hypnotic, stark power of the whole.

IV. Je suis, je suis! (I am, I am!)

Messiaen writes: “All that we can know of God is summarised in these words, so complex yet so simple: HE IS. These are words we can understand only in flashes … dazzling glimpses, instants of comprehension.” The strange cry of the woodpecker establishes an unearthly atmosphere, and the song thrush sings a long solo. The dramatic climax comes with fortissimo declamatory chords; it is the vision of God to Moses from the Book of Exodus: “And I AM passed before him proclaiming I AM, I AM!” After a great silence the owl of Tengmalm calls again from a vast distance, expressing “the smallness of man overwhelmed by the dazzling light of the sacred”.

V. Dieu est immense, eternel, immuable; Le souffle de l’Esprit; Dieu est amour (God is immense, eternal, immutable; The wind of the Spirit; God is Love)

This, the centrepiece of the set, meditates on the divine attributes.

God is immense: A bizzare, low-pitched reed stop plays the Theme of God. Messiaen writes: “He is everywhere … this total omnipresence remains a profound mystery”.

God is eternal: A scintillating radiance explodes into being to express in rapid chords a Being without beginning or end. Messiaen’s colours are “brilliant golden yellow, rays of purple violet, silver grey, and some brown, red and pale green”.

God is immutable … changeless: solemn chords, like a chorus of horns, breathe serenity and timelessness, written in the Hindu rhythms associated with beauty and peace.

“The Wind of the Spirit: A tumultuous swirl of notes – a figure which after variations on the music of the first section grows to a great toccata with stabbing manual chords. The cycle has an emotional structure corresponding to an inverted V, which rises to the long, powerful fifth movement and will gradually subside again; within this, the central meditation itself reaches a terrifying peak of energy and dramatic tension. As the storm plays itself out the shimmering light of God is eternal shines through again, “with many changes of colour: golden yellow, Chartres blue, violet-purple, green and red, orange, amethyst violet, mauve and silver-grey”. Then the solemn chords lead to God is Love – a sublime coda on the voix celestes: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends”. And above the final chord floats the remote call of the yellow-hammer.

VI. Le Fils, Verbe et Lumière (The Son, Word and Light)

The sixth meditation springs into life with exultant plainsong. It is the Offertory for the Feast of the Epiphany, when the divine light shone over Bethlehem, and honours the Son, the second Person of the Trinity. “In the Word was Life and that Life was the Light of men”. The plainsong for the Gradual and the Alleluia combine to make up all the musical material, sometimes harmonised, sometimes in unison. The climax is transcendent, marked “with great joy” and ending rapturously on a luminous C major chord: “The Son, resplendent in the Glory of the Father!”

VII. Le Père et le Fils aiment, par le Saint-Esprit, eux-mêmes et nous (Through the Holy Spirit, the Father and the Son love themselves and us)

At sunset in the ruins of Persepolis, Iran, Messiaen heard the magnificent song of an unidentified bird. For him, it is “the Persepolis bird”, and it calls to us from the mysterious depths of this haunting meditation. In the body of the movement, ushered in by four muted horns, a curious trio quotes (on the trumpet) the text from Aquinas on the Holy Spirit as the medium of love, while the Morrocan bulbul sings in the top voice and the pedal has an angular ostinato. The coda recalls the introduction; each contains an ingenious use of the Father theme in contrary motion by which Messiaen presents the idea of “two glances meeting”, suggesting the paradox of the Trinity: three persons in One.

VIII. Dieu est simple (The Simplicity of God)

God’s simplicity is expressed in the innocence of the unadorned Gregorian theme of the Alleluia for the Feast of All Saints. The composer writes: “The fifth piece meditated on the divine attributes, but one was missing, that which perhaps summarises them all – God is simple.” As he meditates on the perfection and Oneness of God a myriad effects follow. One of the most enchanting is a succession of chords folding in towards each other from the opposite ends of the keyboard “like a fan closing”; another is a group of three sets of chords in three different rhythms; the themes of each person of the Trinity are present. A fragment of melody heard low on the clarinet speaks of: “O, the depth of the richness of both the wisdom and the knowledge of God!” A repetition of the Alleluia cries: “All you who labour and are heavy-laden, come unto me.” An exquisitely serene melody illustrates the words of Jesus: “My yoke is easy and my burden light”, and an ecstatic passage carries the music up into the heavens – “O for the wings of a dove, that I might fly away, and be at rest” – and the hovering yellow-hammer sings its benediction.

IX. Je suis Celui qui suis (I am that I am)

The final movement is a riot of colour and movement and song, bringing back a kaleidoscopic medley of ideas from the rest of the work. I AM THAT I AM is the name God gave himself in the episode of the burning bush, and is the “cardinal text” that is the theme of the apocalyptic final movement. There are a myriad colours – the opening declamation of the theme of God culminates in two dazzling chords “blending violet-blue with orange-red, reddish brown and violet with a touch of green and silver” – and a chattering of birds. The Wind of the Holy Spirit sweeps all before it and the now familiar motifs and themes dance in the air like leaves caught up in a storm, its very energy seeming to hold the disparate parts together and impart a unity which defies the fragmentary nature of the component parts. At last the work comes slowly to rest; out of all the passion and tumult emerges again the innocent song of the garden warbler, fresh and sweet, and the whole work ends in peace and tender simplicity with a last call from the yellow-hammer.

Correspondence from Messiaen to Gillian Weir, during her preparation for the UK première of his Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité

© 2020 Gillian Weir

Gillian Weir with Oliver Messiaen in 1988 on the occasion of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Messiaen Festival celebrating the composer’s 80th birthday. During the festival, Messiaen was also awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Sydney