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Transports de joie, part 2

In this second article Ian Carson fills in the background to Messiaen's organ works and discusses them with Gillian Weir.

[The title is from a movement in Messiaen's L'ascension]

Messiaen's organ music offers all the sensations sought by the drug culture – and more – but without the penalties. Here the forces of darkness are defeated and the vision is of eternal ‘transports of delight.’ A ‘trip’ into this music enters the realms of suspended time, within which there are shimmering colours, a sense of ecstasy, sensations which overwhelm - sheer volume of sound and sweetness of harmony, mystical orientalism, fluorescently vivid scenes from nature, a language which like Lucy in the Sky Diamonds spells out hidden messages, and the summation of all these is a ‘mind-blowing’ vision of Heaven's unlimited joy. Messiaen's message is that to experience this vision all you need is love, love for the Trinity, the Roman Catholic Church, the Sacrament.

What were the formative events in Messiaen's development as an artist? He grew up in a scholastic and literary atmosphere at home, and at the age of ten was given the score of Debussy's opera Pelléas by his harmony teacher. At some early formative stage he came under the influence of a painter who heard in colours (through some disorder of the auditory nerve) and translated what he heard into paintings. When Messiaen came to study in Paris the heroes of the organ world were Dupré and Tournemire. Tournemire's influence manifests itself in a number of ways. He was an astounding improviser, powerful enough to send Falla running from St Clotilde convinced that the devil was at the organ. Tournemire's brother-in-law was an influence on his own religious outlook. He was, according to Andrew Thomson (The Mystic Organist, OR March/May 1989): ‘an unorthodox Catholic in quest of the secret bonds which unite the mystic and the aesthetic, and of the principles of a transcendent art in which the essential features of all religions are fused.’ Messiaen was later to quote one of Tournemire's favourite Catholic writers Ernest Hello, stating his aim was to produce ‘a music which touches all things without ceasing to touch God.’ Tournemire's great cycle L'orgue mystique is the natural forerunner to Messiaen's organ works, and takes plainsong as its genesis. There are also a number of examples of birdsong in the music, although Messiaen seems to have received several influences in this respect. For instance his contemporary Yves Baudrier wrote a cycle of piano pieces based on birdsong. It was ‘in the air.’

Where do you find an organ powerful, colourful, and comprehensive enough to translate this vision effectively into sound? Olivier Messiaen proposed a recent Parisian instrument to Gillian Weir, but that Gallic giant was eventually ruled out by mechanical problems so she turned instead to a great Danish instrument, in the form of the organ of Århus Cathedral. When Albert Schweitzer visited Århus in 1922 he praised the 1876 Demant organ and drew up a scheme for rebuilding designed to preserve what he considered to be a jewel. But when Frobenius carried out the work in 1928 Schweitzer's original scheme had largely been superseded, and an instrument in the spirit of Cavaillé-Coll was built instead, with Parisian reeds, four manuals, and 83 stops. Schweitzer was still very much involved in the design, and although the instrument has been modified since and given greater power, it is still essentially the organ which benefited from his genius. This is the instrument Weir used for her new COLLINS CLASSICS CD set, and its design and specification suit it admirably to the music of Messiaen.

In the following interview Gillian Weir [GW] discusses Messiaen's organ works with lan Carson [IC].

[Le banquet céleste (The Heavenly banquet) (1928) was Messiaen's first published work, and its subject is the Communion. It is music for the feast of Corpus Christi.]

GW. People lose their nerve playing Le banquet céleste as slowly Messiaen suggests. If they try counting triplet semiquavers mentally for each quaver it will have a sense of movement and probably be more accurate. There is an innate sense of movement it a triplet which tends to stabilise the metre while at the same time giving a feeling of rhythmic flow even when the music appears static. Stuart Walmsley's quote ‘the isolation of the sensory moment’ is perfect for this quality in Debussy and Messiaen: one experiences each chord, and the sense of movement is created by the tension of each note in the harmony aspiring to resolve. The beating of the voix céleste stop called for by Messiaen adds to this effect.

[Apparition de l'église éternelle (Vision of the eternal Church), was composed in 1932, and involves what Messiaen called an ‘enormous and granitic crescendo.’]

IC. The moment I look at this it reminds me of Debussy's La cathédrale engloutie, and not only because they are in the same tonality. Do you think that's a fair comparison? GW. It is in the sense that it's Impressionistic. We tend to overlook Impressionism in organ music; for years we spoke of Messiaen as a modernist, very avant-garde. But the effect of much of the music is that of an Impressionistic painting, and Messiaen's avowed model was Debussy the arch Impressionist. IC. I just want to know whether you have any images in your mind when you play this piece? GW. Well, Messiaen himself supplied us with wonderful images. As always the thought is on two levels – the literal, with the idea of a great building; and the metaphorical – the Church that is made up of its members. The pedal part – he said – portrays the hammer blows as the physical edifice is built; but they are also the hammer blows of faith, and he quotes from the hymn for the dedication of a church... ‘Scissors, hammer, suffering, tests, tailoring and polishing the chosen ones, the living stones of the physical edifice.’ The vision is almost brutal. It's often thought that his music is just sugary sweet and the religious ideas beatific and vague, but the ideas are immensely dramatic, often modelled on the violent imagery in the psalms. IC. At the centre of the work is a climax of massive and overwhelming power... GW. I love to play this piece, it has a huge momentum, the sound rolls through the building in stupendous waves. It's marked ‘pp’ at the start but that's relative because all the Swell's foundations and reeds are called for, waiting to be released from the closed box. I've heard it on the célestes! ... a complete misunderstanding. The Århus organ has the immense power needed for this – with the state-of-the-art recording techniques that were employed this piece is one of the most shattering on the CD.

[Diptyque (= a related pair of pictures, also a register of saints etc) (1930) has two sections representing the contrast between earthly life and eternal bliss, and has been described as Messiaen's least satisfactory organ work.]

IC. Diptyque is a thorny piece to play...... GW. Yes indeed! It was Messiaen's tribute to Marcel Dupré – to Dukas also, but it's Dupré's chromatic style that's most in evidence, and that makes it so tricky to play. Another problem is making good dramatic sense of the contrast between the two sections – the extremely slow second section, with its theme from the last movement of the Quartet for the End of Time (important to listen to the way it's used there), and the turbulence of the first section from which the slow peaceful theme is metamorphosed. IC. This extreme contrast between the violent and the serene is something that appears in his work again. GW. Yes, in Combat de la mort et de la vie the serene theme of eternal life is again drawn from the first section's sinister theme of Death stalking his prey, wonderfully unifying the whole.

[L'ascension (Ascension Day) (1933) is an orchestral work arranged by the composer for organ. It is a sequence of four meditations.]

IC. Are there things to be learned from the orchestral version? GW. I'm always surprised at how fast and perfunctory orchestral performances seem to be. I'm not sure whether that's due to the conductor or not. Certainly it is interesting to note that when Messiaen changed medium he changed other things too, which shows how closely his ideas are tied to the colours. I think conductors could bring more to the orchestral version if they brought out the dance qualities more, in Alleluias sereins for instance. Here there's a kind of dreamy dance of the angels around the throne, and revealing this brings an ecstatic feeling of freedom and innocence rather than of the music being hard driven.

[La nativité du Seigneur (The Lord's nativity) (1935) uses modes and additive rhythms. It is in four books totalling nine pieces covering the event and meditating on the purpose of God in Jesus.]

IC. La nativité du Seigneur seems to work on a number of different planes, all at the same time GW. Oh yes, it was his expressed intent to convey his ideas from three points-of-view – theological, instrumental, and musical. So in the second piece Les Bergers, the light falling on the snow is also the spiritual light, illuminating the world with the birth of the Child. He seemed to have a real need to find a reason for all that he did – for example he'd say that the little motif in the first piece is derived from Boris Godunov, and also from Grieg's Solveig's Song. In the sense that they all make play of the interval of a fourth one can see the resemblance, but the chief importance of the point, although it is interesting to know, is that he feels compelled to make it. Les bergers is one of the movements written ‘to describe some of the people who give to Christmas its particular poetry’- the others are the angels and the Wise Men. Here he talks of the stained-glass colours in the left hand at the start, with blue-violet, a touch of red, gold and silver for one particular harmony, and then it's very pictorial – the shepherds call to one another on their flute-pipes before setting off, happily singing a carol-like tune based on a diffused version of the plainsong hymn Puer nobis natus est.

Les enfants de Dieu (V) – there's a great strength in this one. ‘To as many as received him, to them he gave the power to become the children of God,’ there is a thrilling sensation of vast power accumulating and exploding at the rapturous climax. This sounds particularly exciting on the Århus organ – it has a huge dynamic range and great warm fonds. In Les anges (VI) the rhythms created by Messiaen's ‘added note value’ patterns unleash enormous energy as the angels fly in, light flashing off their jewelled wings. At the ad libitum Messiaen very cleverly conveys the idea of their circling above the Child then slowing their flight to spiral down and make their obeisance. Then off they whirl again disappearing into the skies.

Jésus accepte la souffrance (VII) looks towards the future. One of my favourite sculptures is of a very young Virgin cradling her child protectively but gazing away from him – as though looking fearfully into the future. I feel that in this music the garden of Gethsemane is foretold. Of course Messiaen is saying that Christ accepted Man's suffering when He came into the world, but the other idea is implicit. At the marking doloreux et vif he is offered the cup three times at first replying “Father let this cup pass from me.” The music rises in tension and anguish then falls dejectedly, but at last rises to the heights as he accepts the burden. I feel God speaks in the triumph of the ending saying “This is my Son”, as well as Messiaen's quote from Hebrews here – “Lo I come (to do thy will).”

In Dieu parmi nous (IX) the opening chords celebrate the coming down of God to Earth (The Incarnation). Then comes a brief passage meditating on ‘the sweetness of union with Jesus Christ’ (The Communion), before he shows to us the faithful exulting at the fulfilment of prophecy (The Magnificat). One imagines the sky alight and a dazzling tableau. Messiaen sees this first long section as a kind of giant grace note ushering in the toccata. It's important I think to note that the vif et puissant is not just fast but also powerful: power really meant a great deal to Messiaen. The ending, by-the-way, is often dragged out so that it becomes an anti-climax – it must be slow certainly, but continue increasing in energy, with the rhythms still marked and vital.

[Les corps glorieux (The Ones in Glory) (1939) has seven pieces, ‘brief visions of the life of the resurrected ones.’ It is pervaded by the influence of Hindu music and plainsong.]

GW. Les corps glorieux is more integrated; the initial theme is used variously throughout, giving the suite more unity. It's the Boris theme again, heard in La Vierge (La nativité), and now expanded into the mesmerising monody Subtilité des corps glorieux (I). Les eaux de la grâce (II), marked ‘dreamy’ and to be played with the voix célestes is like a delicate Monet or Manet isn't it – all is seen through a haze of shifting light and tints, while the waters of Grace flow dreamily on in the left hand and pedal. IC. Now Messiaen was involved in the group La Jeune at this time. Do you think that influences this piece at all? GW. Yes indeed. Their manifesto proclaimed various resolves but above all their desire for ‘sincerity, generosity, and good faith.' In being true to himself and in unleashing the most deeply-felt ideas and emotions Messiaen was following that credo, but it's perhaps in other movements, especially the Combat, that Messiaen most obviously unleashed the ‘spiritual violence’ of music, which had been referred to elsewhere in the manifesto as an essential element. IC. Do you find the monodic movements in this work convincing? GW. Yes I do, because they're hypnotic. This mystic quality is a major factor in the later music. But the sound must be right, with three genuinely intense Cornets in the Subtilité. A French Cornet has very wide scales and its pitches form a single new colour, whereas badly-scaled mutations are shrill and do not integrate, transposing the music. The sound mirrors the intensity of a string section playing cantabile with vibrato. Thin diapasons will not work. There is no overt rhythmic excitement, but an inner intensity that arches the music forward while at the same time conveying Messiaen's special sense of timelessness.

[Messe de la Pentecôte. (Mass for Pentecost) (1950) marks Messiaen's return to writing for the organ after a period of eleven years. There are five movements for use during the celebration of the Mass. It includes examples of birdsong.]

IC. I've heard the Mass called his masterpiece for the organ. Do you agree? GW. The Mass has an interesting place in his output, coming halfway through his life. It sums up the way of writing which had by then become thoroughly familiar to him while still incorporating new techniques that had evolved from the old ones – they're not wholly experimental as are some of those in the Livre d'orgue. IC. The Mass feels to me like a rediscovery of the organ...... GW. Yes, it has wonderful colours in it – here Messiaen is very much the painter. He has composed the Offertoire (II) just as a painter ‘composes’ his picture. He's been criticised for being without structure; John Cage denies a sense of movement either, but I disagree. For me the Offertoire is a collage, where you can either step back and view it as a whole, or you can come close and let the eye settle on a detail here, another there. Seen thus, the relationships become apparent where you had thought there were none. So with the music: a wisp of a theme or a tonal colour heard briefly will strike a resonance in the subconscious at another point, unifying a piece which at first seems to be irredeemably fragmentary. It's a perfect example of Messiaen breaking the bonds of linear time, in which note succeeds note, and if the player can perceive it this way he will convey to the listener an altogether deeper interpretation - even though the method will not be consciously analysable. IC It's almost like a hologram, where the whole thing can be reproduced from some small section... GW. And the sounds of nature are integrated into the totality of the vision, but there's an interesting contrast when you come to the Livre d'orgue where those sounds are used as a technical device instead.

[Livre d'orgue (Organ Book) (1951) is a highly technical exercise with no underlying theme. Five of the movements are related to the liturgical calendar, and much of the music is depictive.]

IC. Do you feel these pieces in Livre d'orgue as mathematical? GW. Some of them are extremely so! It's hard to find the first piece satisfying musically. It's fun to play from the technical point of view but it does seem – given the first section – that a composer is unnecessary for the others, since they are written to a mathematical formula. But I have become very fond of the second movement. It has an eerie stillness - perfect to express St Paul's words of seeing through a glass darkly. The Hands from the Abyss (III) is a wonderful piece: hugely dramatic cries from the abyss and then the sense of vast glaciers moving inexorably through the ice-fields, immensely slow but implacable, and beautiful in their remoteness. The second trio however is another movement which I find less interesting in its mathematical dictatorialism. IC. In what way is it different from the Art of Fugue, which is also a working out of the intellect? Is it because there is nothing there that can touch your emotions? GW. It's a matter of whether the components of this music form harmonies, because it is they which reach the emotions. IC. But you can create harmony in space can't you? GW. Yes, but even the music of the spheres is thought to form harmonies made up of natural resonances, which postulates a key or mode recognisable at some level of understanding by the listener - and that doesn't seem to be the case here.

The Eyes in the Wheels (IV) is explosively exciting, conveying Ezekiel's image with a sweep of the impressionist's brush across the canvas. IC. It seems to be a far more effective description than Ezekiel could convey in words. Someone once said that he spent many chapters trying to describe what he couldn't. GW. That's right, music does have the power to explain more than words, which is why I have reservations about Messiaen's communicable language. By imprisoning these great ideas in words it limits them to the present understanding of the listener – less is communicated.

IC. Which brings us to the Meditations on the Mystery of the Holy Trinity.

[This set of nine pieces was completed in 1969. They are the first to use the composer's ‘communicable language.’ The meditations worship the persons of the Trinity, both separately and together.]

IC. Do you think we worry too much about this communicable language? It's not unique to Messiaen – take Schumann's Sphinxes for example, or ... I believe ... Liszt's Faust Symphony, yet you can appreciate the music perfectly well without knowing anything about them. GW. The communicable language has to be secondary, because it is itself a language and should not need to be translated into another language before it can be understood. I see it as exactly what Messiaen said it was... a game. IC. Although you can hear at times that the music is saying something...... GW. But can you hear what it's spelling out? IC. Not in precise terms, no. GW. Music interprets ideas in its own medium; if the composer tells us what words he is interpreting then that is interesting, but not to my mind essential for its interpretation. IC. What was attractive to him was the deciphering of the ancient Egyptian Rosetta stone. Information was encoded there, which when it was decoded in 1822 brought it to us as fresh as when it was new. Did Messiaen have an archival reason for his code, that it would be there for future generations? GW. He was fascinated by the idea that a message had been sent down the ages through the stone's code-words. He wanted to do the same, in his own medium of music. The stone was deciphered by first discovering the word for ‘king’, and Messiaen wanted to honour the King of kings in this way. He was always fascinated by games, mysteries and the cabalistic. Actually Wagner's Leitmotivs were one of the musical models for the idea. Incidentally Champollion, who deciphered the stone, came from Messiaen's home town. IC. This case seems to highlight a paradox in Messiaen's music, in that there is this desire for rationalism and explanation, yet I hear his music in terms of sensations, which is a new era in music really GW. He wrote his credo ‘emotion and sincerity above all’ at the beginning of La nativité and he stayed true to that to the end. He experimented but his music didn't evolve.

[Messiaen composed the set of 18 pieces which make up the Livre du Saint Sacrement (Book of the Holy Sacrament) in 1984. It is a huge work, and this was to be his last for the organ.]

IC. Do you think that the Livre du Saint Sacrement is a summation or do you hear it as the music of an old man? GW. Aha! Some of it does have the air of having been heard before, but there are movements which are fresh minted, the last in particular has great power and vitality which comes from the same creative energy that leaps from the earliest works. It's interesting that he used the title ‘Livre’ again, suggesting that it's a collection of pieces, just as earlier French masters such as Clérambault used the word.

There is a theological plan: the first four movements are acts of adoration before Christ, present unseen in the Sacrament, and the next seven are a chronological account of events in the life of Christ. The last seven bring us up to the present, and concern the transubstantiation. This scheme is not necessarily audible, though some of the middle movements are programmatic... the most extended of these is Mary Magdalene coming to the garden and encountering Christ after the resurrection (No XI). The Parting of the Waters of the Red Sea (No XIII) is a dramatic toccata. Messiaen uses glissandi for the first time in his organ music to depict the waves; he took the idea from harp glissandi, and had already used it in the piano music. IC. And do you find it possible to discern a vivid image of Christ after experiencing the whole of the Livre du Saint Sacrement? GW. The music doesn't necessarily convey a specific image of Christ – Messiaen's Christ, since religious ideas and experiences are so personal to every individual – nor do I think it sets out to; rather it invokes emotions in the listener which can then lead him to his own vision. Like any work of art it can be enjoyed, experienced on several levels. I would never suggest to a student or anyone else that by listening to a Messiaen work they could experience the same vision as the composer or myself. Again it would be limiting the experience rather than enhancing it – just as a too intrusive or specific opera producer can diminish the force of a universal myth by recasting it in a modern image hedged in by his personal interpretation. Music is bigger than all this. It stirs, it suggests, it knows us better than we know ourselves!

For me personally the overall message of the music of Messiaen is joy – not necessarily conveyed by some outburst of sound but rather a quality of vitality which leads me to equate the word joy with the word creativity. Even the slowest movements of his early works, written when he was overflowing with creative energy, contain this element, and it must always be preserved. IC. Can you cope with that because sometimes there's a sweetness which is almost cloying? GW. Yes, because I hear innocence behind it; the sincerity redeems it. I don't mean that because a composer is sincere then ipso facto his music is good – the way to hell is still paved with good intentions. But rather Messiaen's conviction gives a strength, a steeliness, that gets his message across. I've often used the example of a plaster statue of the Virgin in some little church, in Italy perhaps. It may have no artistic merit in itself, but the strength of the emotions it attracts and symbolises silences criticism and somehow changes the situation. IC. Like the Black Virgin of Rocamadour which itself is nothing, but which brought Poulenc back into the Catholic fold. GW. Yes, it is the intensity of Messiaen's emotions which are so compelling.

IC. I find it very refreshing that he could have that sweetness, and that he could be overtly emotional as well as having that power of intellect, it seems to me that it is a model way of being. GW. Yes, the French admire the intellect, and an orderliness of thinking. That French sense of order has echoes in aspects of Catholicism, seen in Messiaen's desire to have a reason for all he does, to adhere to and expound the Church's dogma. But the complexities of that relationship are another whole interview......

The editors of Organists' Review are most grateful to Gillian Weir and Ian Carson for their time and trouble in preparing these articles.

Organists' Review, November 1994


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