Olivier Messiaen: The Complete Organ Works Volume 2

Reviews- Volume Two

“A superlative recording” (5 stars). Choir & Organ, May/June 2003

“Gillian Weir's performance of Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité comes as if stamped with the composer's imprimateur and stands second only to the recording made by Messiaen himself in terms of faithful insight into the music. Her own virtuosity and understanding of the music are magnificent.” Church Music Quarterly, April 2003

Track Listings

Priory Records PRCD 922

Vol. 2 1 Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité I. Le Père inengendré
2 II. La Sainteté du Jésus-Christ
3 III. La Relation réelle en Dieu est réellement identique à l'essence
4 IV. Je suis, je suis!
5 V. Dieu est immense, eternel, immuable; Le souffle de l'Esprit; Dieu est amour
6 VI. Le Fils, Verbe et Lumière
7 VII. Le Père et le Fils aiment, par le Saint-Esprit, eux-mêmes et nous
8 VIII. Dieu est simple
9 IX. Je suis Celui qui suis

Programme Notes

Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité (Meditations on the Mystery of the Holy Trinity)

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).

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.

Copyright © 2020 Gillian Weir

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