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En souvenir......Olivier Messiaen 1908-1992

Gillian Weir

Many obituary notices have dealt factually with the career of Olivier Messiaen. With her international reputation as a great Messiaen interpreter, however, we asked Gillian Weir to let us have a more personal view of the composer and to share some of her memories of a long association with his music.

It is April 28, 1992, and I am in America, in the middle of my spring tour. The telephone rings, and an unfamiliar voice says “This is the BBC calling from London. I wonder if you would give us a few words for our tribute to Olivier Messiaen?” An era has ended.

I had been in Paris only a few weeks before and knew that Messiaen had been ill for some time, but an operation was thought to have been successful and somehow one hoped that he would go on forever. I remembered the crisis at the time of his 70th birthday. I was to play a recital at the Royal Festival Hall that evening to mark the anniversary, and it was announced in a news bulletin that he had been rushed to hospital. (This prompted Stanley Sadie, who opened the door to me as I arrived at a party after the recital, to announce wickedly, “I can see the headlines now:  Great composer dies as G.W. plays his music!” in a distinctly unwelcome reference to the famous Malcolm Sargent story.) He had not only recovered splendidly but had gone on gradually to take up the role of enthusiastic world-traveller, having always been reluctant previously to face the rigours of jet-setting. Suddenly, to everyone's delight, he was everywhere, encouraging, listening intently, and taking a childlike delight in the outpouring of homage and affection that rained down on him wherever he went.

This reached its culmination in Australia in 1988. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation had been trying for many years to persuade him to come to Australia for a festival of his music, and with his new intrepidity he finally agreed, in his 80th year. To celebrate the milestone birthday the ABC (in conjunction with Expo, hosted that year by Australia) mounted a huge Festival in which nearly everything he had written was performed, by their own fine State/ABC orchestras and a bevy of international soloists and ensembles. I was honoured to be invited to play all the organ works, and the ABC named Olivier Messiaen and myself “Artists-in-Residence” for the period. The project was huge, for with the great man himself came his wife, the marvellous pianist Yvonne Loriod – his inspiration and unfailing support for nearly five decades; her sister Jeanne Loriod, famed exponent of the Ondes Martenot; the conductor Marc Soustrot, and several other distinguished French musicians; their visit generously assisted by the French Government who dubbed Messiaen “a national treasure”.

Expo was mounted by the northern city of Brisbane. Anyone visiting Brisbane 10 years ago and again in Expo year would not have recognised it. The small colonial town had given way to a thriving modern city, the jewel of which is a startlingly beautiful performing Arts Centre. The art gallery is flooded with light and its airy splendour is exhilarating; the opera theatre has elegance and magnificent acoustics. The concert hall is a favourite of mine. In recent years the Australian States have vied with one another in erecting arts complexes of international standards and often exceptionally imaginative design; Melbourne's subtle gold and pastel beauty sets a standard hard to beat. But Brisbane's hall is a model of warmth, to both the eye and the ear, and just 12 months earlier I had had the pleasure of opening its superb new organ. Built by Klais of Bonn (his biggest at that time) and designed in collaboration with the city organist Robert Boughen, it is a near-ideal concert instrument, full of colour, beautifully voiced, and conceived so as to serve magnificently the solo and concerto repertoire as well as functioning perfectly within the orchestra and as accompanist. During the opening celebration I had put it through its paces with solo recitals and several concertos, and now, in May '88, I began my three months' ABC Residency by playing the Messiaen cycle there in collaboration with EXPO '88, rejoicing in the organ's powerful reeds and wealth of mutation stops.

Meanwhile Messiaen and his entourage had arrived in Australia and he had been whisked off to rest after the arduous flight in the spectacular countryside outside Sydney, where he set off immediately to look for the bellbird. The Sydney performances of the organ works were to take place on the Beckerath organ in the Great Hall of the University of Sydney, whose organist, Norman Johnston, did much for French music. Messiaen had agreed to accept an Honorary Doctorate from the University, and the ceremony was performed on Sunday, May 29, the first day of the organ series. I played L'Ascension and the Messe de la Pentecôte at 4 pm, and the degree was then conferred in a touching and impressive ceremony at which Messiaen, though looking a little tired and stooped, spoke out strongly in his speech of acceptance. (Typically, he began, “Thank you... I am sure I don't deserve it”.) La Nativité followed, and the other recitals on the succeeding days. The organ, although rather beautiful, has undergone some changes and is not an entirely typical Beckerath; the reeds in particular were a little underpowered for music intended to overwhelm both emotionally and dynamically. One missed a 32' or two, also. But Messiaen was as gracious as ever, and stood smiling and happy receiving the crowd's tumultuous applause, patiently signing autographs and posing for photographs at length. The audiences during the whole week were rapt; a very special atmosphere was abroad and I still receive letters from people commenting on the intensity of the emotions aroused at those performances. The composer was charming, talking of the first time we had met and reminding me of the LPs he had of my recordings of his music made when I had not long left College. “You must record it all, again”, he said; “CDs are all the rage now, you know!” We had met in Washington D.C. I had first heard the music of Messiaen on a recording by Arthur Wills, one of the first to play what was then new and strange; the young Simon Preston soon followed. It was a fascinating new language for me and as a student at the RCM I devoured these brilliant, joyous and heartfelt sounds. In my second year I was urged to enter the St. Albans competition by my professor, Ralph Downes, and he suggested playing Combat de la Mort et de la Vie. I recall long hours of practice to master the difficult technical challenges of the first section. I wondered about the long, slow second movement – was it the right thing for a competition? Never mind – I loved playing it. On the day, there was silence as it ended and the last notes shimmered in the air within St. Albans Cathedral. All five of the jury members were in tears, moved by the ecstatic, singing lines and their serene confidence. I became inextricably associated with Messiaen's music, and although I have always played all the differing styles and schools of organ music, and revel in changing character as I go from the elegance of the French baroque to the grand sweep of the 19th century, or from the stirring rhythms of the Renaissance and baroque to the challenges of the many premières I give, the music of Messiaen has run like a rainbow-coloured thread through my career.

In 1972 I was playing again at Washington's great basilica, the National Shrine, and was disappointed to have just missed the world première of Olivier Messiaen's Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité given by the composer himself. We met to have breakfast together and to discuss the new work, and he offered it to me, to première in Britain and elsewhere. With Yvonne Loriod (who, charmingly, called him simply “Messiaen”) he was now on his way to Colorado to see the Grand Canyon for the first time, and eagerly asked whether one could ride a donkey there. (On the horns of a dilemma I didn't like to say that they had been an hour late for brunch and had clearly not known about that day's changeover to Summer Time; I spent the rest of the day in agony in case they had missed the plane. Obviously they made it; Des Canyons aux Etoiles was the result.) On my return to England a parcel arrived with the manuscript of the Méditations, painstakingly marked as usual with his meticulous and immensely helpful fingering, and I played the British premièr at the Festival Hall a few months later. Alas, those were the days before he felt able to travel, but we had much illuminating correspondence. He had in fact recorded the work at the Shrine at the time of the première, but this was not in the end released; he sent me that recording made at his church. Comparing this with the manuscript it was interesting to note some interpretative discrepancies. As always when I have worked with composers the answer to my queries came back to follow the score as written; that was what had been thought out at leisure and with care. (One wrong note, however, escaped into the printed score of the Livre du Saint Sacrement, I was later to note.)

Soon afterwards we met again when I played two of the suites in a contemporary music festival in Wales, at which he was able to be present. A few hours before the recital he came to the hall; I remember his hand with its long fingers and huge stretch hovering over the top of mine above the keyboard to demonstrate some point. In the Offertoire of the Messe he surprised me by changing radically the tempo of the 2nd figure, each time it came, so that the ominous opening chords alternated with a now fleeting motif. “It's my fault, it's my fault”, he said, when I demurred at this rather significant last-minute alteration. It was intriguing to see him mixing tone-colours as an impressionist painter works on his palette (such a mistake to think of this arch-impressionist as either “modern” or “Romantic”); and his desire for clarity was evident: for the RH's floating sextuplets at the end of Alléluias Sereins he drew a larigot, and he played it staccato. There has been a general misapprehension that a cavernous acoustic is wanted for Messiaen's music. Although there should be enough resonance to give warmth and colour to the sound (it must have been very disappointing for Almut Rössler that the Detroit church in which she gave the world première of the Livre du Saint Sacrement was so dead), anything that obscures his intricate and glittering textures is absolutely not right.

Olivier Messiaen met with much opposition and lack of understanding during his early years. Similarly my myriad performances of the music met first with a myriad reactions in various parts of the world, before its language and imagery became universally accepted and loved. Memories float to the surface of...... a squeal of surprise from a startled matron in Tasmania at the end of Joie et clarté...... the hypnotic hush in King's College, Cambridge during the performances of the complete cycle there...... an incoherent letter of abuse after a Radio 3 talk I had given, from someone whose pen tore into the paper as he wrote “You can't possibly like that music; go on, admit it!”...... and the dozens of letters of thanks after the broadcasts of the BBC series I recorded in the National Shrine, chosen in tribute to his choice of that organ for a première (I also recall a letter that said would I please replace the tapes made by the writer off the air, which had been inadvertently wiped by a member of his family!)...... the Australian première of the Méditations given in the middle of an air strike, phone strike, train strike, and electricity strike (and finally a thunderstorm), so that no preparation time at all had been possible...... the summer course given in France, when I discovered that the French students knew only the most popular works, and became aflame with the joy of discovery of the others...... the course at the famous Haarlem Academy, where the students were again almost breathless with the intensity of their concentration...... the initial bewilderment and gradual total involvement of the audience at a public lecture given in NHK Hall in Tokyo – I had had misgivings about accepting the invitation, comparing Messiaen's French Catholic symbolism with the Japanese culture, but finally was glad I had succumbed to persuasion...... the little group of people discovered still sitting in Worcester Cathedral after a performance of the Méditations, in silence and in the dark, one of whom said quietly that they wished the Cathedral would stay open so that they could remain all night and relive the music...... searching for my class at a week-long seminar in Princeton, USA, at lunch-time after a session on the bird song and finding that to a man they had vanished into the woods to listen for themselves...... and much else. Of the nearly 40 times I have performed in the Royal Festival Hall, half have involved the music of Olivier Messiaen, and it was an especial privilege to be asked to play all the published works in the European Messiaen Festival held in the Royal Festival Hall in London, and given for his 80th birthday.

I am often asked whether I studied with Messiaen. To meet him, to talk with him, was in some sense to learn from him. But no, I did not seek to study with him. Like all great art, his music has an existence of its own, independent of its creator. I have learned a great deal from living with the music itself, and as an interpreter I am truest to that music when I am true to myself. I feel at home with his language, emotional and spiritual; although I believe that the truths in his music could also be expressed in other words as well as in the familiar images he chose, I have always responded instinctively to those truths. One does greatest homage to a composer when offering one's own informed response to his creation, direct from the heart, and not just an attempted reproduction of what is in the end inimitable.

When I returned from America in June at the end of the tour, there was a message on my answerphone from a friend in Paris, who had rung at the time of the Maitre's death. “Messiaen has left us, temporarily”, he said. Yes, I like that. A bientôt, Olivier Messiaen.

This article appeared in the September 1992 Organists' Review


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