Olivier Messiaen: The Complete Organ Works Volume 4

Reviews- Volume Four

The organ works of Olivier Messiaen are now recognized as among the most important creations for the instrument in the 20th century. In recent years, several artists, following the example of the composer himself, have undertaken the daunting task of committing the complete œuvre to disc. Dame Gillian Weir first recorded the (then) complete organ works in 1979 at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., where Messiaen premiered his Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité. The composer later persuaded her to re-record the series digitally (“CDs are all the rage now, you know!” he said), which she did in 1994. Originally issued on Collins Classics in association with BBC Radio 3, these recordings, which have garnered rave review internationally, were sadly allowed to fall out of print, and were for some time unavailable. Fortunately, Priory Records had the wisdom to re-release the entire set in 2003. Volume One presents the early works: Apparition de l'Église eternelle, La Nativité du Seigneur, and Le Banquet céleste. Volume Four contains L'Ascension and Livre d'orgue.

Gillian Weir won First Prize at the St. Alban's International Organ Festival with her playing of Messiaen's Combat de la mort et de la vie from Les Corps glorieux. Ever since, his music has occupied a central place in her multi-faceted career. Her consummate artistry, impeccable musicianship, faultless virtuosity, rhythmic plasticity, and vitality enable her to penetrate all the complexities of the music and render its essential spirit. Thus, for example, she conquers the labyrinthine rhythms and technical challenges of Livre d'orgue, so that it becomes a real spiritual experience, rather than merely a well-performed pedantic exercise. If the listener has difficulty appreciating this music, at least s/he will find it interesting in Weir's hands. At the heart of all of Messiaen's music is his deep-seated Catholic faith, coupled with his love of nature (especially mountains and bird song) and his predilection for color. Gillian Weir is clearly a kindred spirit, and this music comes vitally alive in her performances. The Frobenius organ is well chosen. The largest in Denmark, it has all the requisite tone colors, including a multitude of mutations and powerful reeds imported from France. Compared to the darker-sounding Cavaillé-Coll organs, such as the one at La Trinité in Paris where Messiaen was organist for many decades, this instrument is luminous, with a transparency, purity, and clarity of sound, yet capable of great power, able to “overwhelm” the listener, as Messiaen wished. Kudos to Priory for this re-issue. To quote a previous review from the BBC Music Magazine, “This is a Messiaen cycle that should now enter the shelves of every devotee of his musc as a preferred version.” The American Organist, October 2004

“In this fourth volume of Dame Gillian's Messiaen... we see her at her intellectual and musical height. She balances the relatively 'early' L'Ascension with the much later (and harder to understand) Livre d'Orgue, reaches into their depths and produces performances of penetrating clarity. So, for a reference interpretation of the familiar earler work and an flinging open of the window into Messiaen's later complexities , her playing cannot be bettered.” Walter Reeves, Organists' Review, May 2004

“... Transports de Joie makes the hairs on the back of one's neck stand on end!” Sydney Organ Journal, February 2004

Track Listings

Priory Records PRCD 924

Vol. 4 1 L'Ascension I. Majesté du Christ
2 II. Alléluias sereins
3 III. Transports de joie
4 IV. Prière du Christ
5 Livre d'Orgue I. Reprises par interversion
6 II. Pièce en Trio
7 III. Les mains de l'Abîme
8 IV. Chants d'Oiseaux
9 V. Pièce en Trio
10 VI. Les Yeux dans les Roues
11 VII. Soixante-Quatre Durées

Programme Notes

L'Ascension - Quatre Meditations Symphoniques (Ascension Day - Four Symphonic Meditations)

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".

Livre d'Orgue - Sept Pieces pour Orgue (Organ Book - Seven Pieces for Organ)

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" (see the Messe de la Pentecôte), 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.

Copyright © 2020 Gillian Weir

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