Olivier Messiaen: The Complete Organ Works Volume 5/6

Reviews- Volume Five

“It may be blasphemous for some to suggest that a composer's works are often better played by a non-composing virtuoso musician than by the creator himself, but in all honesty no one understands or plays this music better than this English virtuoso.” The Omnibus Essential Guide to Classical CDs

“This is a definitive recording, bestowing the touch of le maitre. Nuance abounds, the interpretations are fresh, and the intent of the style becomes evident, as well it should be in the presence of mastery. Weir brings the spirit of Messiaen to a comprehensible level for the listener. She teaches us not only how it should be played, but also how it should be heard. The notes in the accompanying literature are worth the price of the album alone, and you get the two discs as well.” The American Organist, March 2006

“No matter how many organ recordings I listen to, those of Gillian Weir simply mesmerise me, no less so than in her reissued series of recordings of Messiaen. It is though she is in contant communication with that extraordinary composer. She performs this series on the fabulous Frobenius Organ of Arhus Cathedral, Denmark. Not one to be afraid of moving away from the Cavaillé-Colls the composer originally intended them for, Weir is content to convince audiences that this music is worthy of any organ of similar stature. The point is proven. Like Bach, Messiaen has a unique power to convey the Christian message but equally one senses the humanism in both. I get this sense whenever I hear this music, although I must admit my colour sense of not affected by it. I cannot pretend to have been blessed or cursed with synaesthesia but try as I might I have to admit that I am never going to 'see' with my ears; imagine, yes. Weir achieves that in her performances here, my imagination surfing a musical range of quite extraordinary depths. Here is, perhaps, some of the most important music of the twentieth century and it was all written for organ. What more of a statement can a composer give? What more of a statement can one of the world's most imaginative artists give? If you cannot hear this music, don't give up because one day it may transform your aural perception; certainly these performances will bring you to that threshold.” The Organ, February 2005

“incomparable interpretations”, “unmissable” Organists' Review, February 2005

“Gillian Weir's magnificently recorded coverage of Messiaen's organ music dates from 1994. It was recorded on the superb organ of Aarhus Cathedral, Denmark, in association with BBC Radio 3, and was originally issued on Collins — to be withdrawn only too swiftly when that label disappeared. On its original issue it received an extraordinary number of accolades, both for Gillian Weir's astonishing virtuosity and control, and indeed for the demonstration quality of the recording. Now it returns on Priory, and its excellence is confirmed. The authority and conviction of her playing shinees out through the entire project: its concentration and power are immediately apparent in the opening Apparition de l'église éternelle, while Le Banquet céleste and the remarkably diverse Le Corps glorieux show the strength of her characterization.”
The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs & DVDs Yearbook 2004/5 Review comments are for all five new volumes, which are noted as “Key recording - suitable as a basis for a collection; *** An outstanding performance and recording in every way” (ratings are *, **, or ***)

“Gillian Weir's cycle remains the best of all, and she, playing the marvellous Frobenius instrument at Århus, brings that special spaciousness and intensity to the Livre that distinguishes her cycle as a whole... It is, quite simply, one of the finest organ recordings ever made.” Arnold Whittall, October 2004 Awards issue of Gramophone

Track Listings

Priory Records PRCD 925/6

Vol. 5 1 Livre du Sacrement I. Adoro te
2 II. La Source de Vie
3 III. Le Dieu caché
4 IV. Acte de Foi
5 V. Puer natus est nobis
6 VI. La manne et le Pain de Vie
7 VII. Les ressuscités et la lumière de vie
8 VIII. Institution de l' Eucharistie
9 IX. Les Ténèbres
10 X. La Résurrection du Christ
11 XI. L'apparition du Christ ressuscité à Marie-Madeleine
12 XII. La Transsubstantiation
Vol. 6 1 XIII. Les deux murailles d'eau
2 XIV. Prière avant la Communion
3 XV. La joie de la Grâce
4 XVI. Prière aprè la Communion
5 XVII. La Présence multiplée
6 XVIII. Offrande et Alléluia final
7 Prélude
8 Monodie
9 Verset pour la Fête de la Dédicace
10 Offrande au Saint Sacrement
11 Diptyque - Essai sur la vie terrestre et l'éternité bienheureuse

Prgramme Notes


I. Adoro te (I adore Thee)

"I adore Thee, O hidden Divinity!" (Adore te - St Thomas Aquinas)

II. La Source de Vie (The fountain of Life)

“May my heart always thirst after Thee, O Fount of Life, Source of eternal Light!" (Prayer of St Bonaventure)

III. Le Dieu caché (The hidden God)

"My eyes cannot bear the splendour of Thy glory. In compassion for my weakness Thou hidest beneath the veiled Sacrament." (The Imitation of Christ - St.Thomas à Kempis)

"On the cross, Divinity alone was hidden ; here moreover, humanity itself is also hidden . Nevertheless, proclaiming and believing both, I address the same petition to Thee as the dying thief." (Adoro te)

IV. Acte de Foi (Act of Faith)

"My God, this firmly I believe....." (Act of Faith)

V. Puer natus est nobis (Unto us a Child is born)

" Unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given" (Isaiah - 9:6)

VI. La manne et le Pain de Vie (Manna and the Bread of Life)

"Thou hast given to Thy people the food of angels. Tirelessly, Thou hast sent them from heaven bread already prepared, containing every delight and satisfying every taste. And this substance showed Thy sweetness towards Thy children, for, conforming to the taste of whoever consumed it, it was transformed into what each desired." (The Book of Wisdom - 16: 20,21)

"The life that Christ gives us through Communion is His whole life, with the special graces He has won for us by living for us each of his mysteries." (Christ in his Mysteries - Dom Columba Marmion Chapter 18)

"I am the living bread, come down from heaven. If any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever. And the bread I give is my body, given for the life of the world." (John - 6:51)

VII. Les ressuscités et la lumière de vie (The Resurrected and the Light of life)

" He who follows me will not walk in darkness, but in the Light of life." (John-8:12)

" He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood will have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day" (John - 6:54)

VIII. Institution de l'Eucharistie (The institution of the Eucharist)

" This is My Body. This is My Blood." (Matthew - 26:26,28)

IX. Les Ténebrès (The Darkness)

"Jesus said to them: this is your hour, and the power of darkness." (Luke - 22:53)

"When they had come to the place called Golgotha, they crucified Him." (Luke - 23:33)

"From the sixth to the ninth hour, there was darkness over all the land." (Matthew - 27:45)

X. La Résurrection du Christ (The resurrection of Christ)

" Why seek ye the living among the dead?" (Luke - 24:5)

XI. L'apparition du Christ ressuscité à Marie-Madeleine (The appearance of the risen Christ to Mary Magdalene)

"But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping. She turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith unto her, Mary! She turned herself and saith unto him, Rabboni! which is to say, Master ! Jesus said, Go to my brethren and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God." (John - 20:11 to 17)

XII. La Transsubstantiation (Transubstantiation)

" Sight, touch and taste cannot be grasped ; hearing, alone, satisfies my faith. I believe all that is said by the Son of God: nothing is more true than this Word from Truth itself !" (Adore te)

"Beneath different species, which are no longer substances but only signs, lie sublime realities." (Lauda Sion - Sequence for Corpus Christi)

XII. Les deux murailles d'eau (The two walls of water)

"The waters were divided, and the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground, with a wall of water to their right and to their left." (Exodus -14:21, 22)

"If the Host be broken, do not falter, but remember that there is as much in each fragment as in the whole. The substance cannot be divided, only the sign is broken, which cannot change either the state or the grandeur of Him who is under the sign." (Lauda Sion)

XIII. Prière avant la Communion (Prayer before the Communion)

"Lord, I am not worthy......but speak the word only......" (Words of the Centurion - Matthew 8:8)

XV. La joie de la Grâce (The joy of Grace)

"I come to Thee, O Lord, to taste the joy of the sacred feast you have prepared for the poor." (Imitation of Christ, Book IV, chapter 3 - St Thomas à Kempis)

"He who loves, runs - flies! He is full of joy, he is free and nothing can hold him back." (Imitation of Christ - Book III, chapter 5)

XVI. Prière après la Communion (Prayer after the Communion)

"My perfume and my pleasure, my peace and my delight......." (Saint Bonaventure)

XVII. La Présence multiplée (The Manifold Presence)

"Thousands eat the Bread of Heaven, Yet as much to one is given; Christ, though eaten, bideth still." (Lauda Sion)

XVIII. Offrande et Alléluia final (Offering and Final Alleluia)

"I lay before you, Lord, all the outbursts of love and joy, the ecstasies, raptures, revelations and heavenly visions given to all blessed souls" (Imitation of Christ - Book IV, chapter 7)

During the 1970's Messiaen seemed to have forsaken the organ. Once unwilling to travel he had become an intrepid voyager, giving much pleasure by his readiness to oversee detailed rehearsals of his orchestral works and to be present at the increasing number of festivals of his music. It was to approach the mystery at the heart of the church, the sacrament of Communion, that he took up his pen again for the organ. He wrote the 18 movement Livre du Saint Sacrement in 1984 in response to a commission from the American Guild of Organists for their biennial National Convention, held this time in Detroit, and the world premiere was given there by Almut Rossler (at Messiaen's request) on 1 July 1986. The venue had been chosen by the composer from a description of the organ's specification, but the church was acoustically dead, the organ ciphered, and the reception was mixed as the audience sweltered in Michigan's stifling summer heat through re-starts caused by the organ's problems. The work struggled against arid acoustics again when Rbssler gave the French premiere at the Radio France studio the following May, but came into its own when she repeated the performance at La Trinité two days later, where the church's visual and acoustical beauty embraced and enhanced the work.

The Livre has a theological plan: the first four movements are acts of adoration before Christ who, though unseen, is present in the sacrament. The next seven describe chronologically events in the life of Christ, each one representing one of the mysteries that are given through the sacrament. The last seven bring us to the present and concern the transubstantiation, and make other allusions to the moment of Communion. There is a touching simplicity in the opening two pieces and a warm familiarity in the tone colours in La Source de Vie. The favourite combination of 16' Quintaton with nazard flows serenely above an unbroken curtain of sound provided by chords in the left hand and (double) pedal; their harmonies shift only slightly, drifting from one to the next like dust floating down light beams from a stained glass window, an exquisite device (used effectively also in the second of the Méditations). New birds, from the Holy Land, appear in No. 3; the coolly impersonal Tristram's grackle (notated between Messada and the Dead Sea) and the olivaceous warbler (from Lod, near Tel Aviv) are interspersed with tenderly harmonized, sighing chords and plainsong, providing a study in contrasts. The fourth movement, "Act of Faith", strides confidently into being. Messiaen has used exuberantly repeated staccato chords before to project power, in "Force et agilité des corps glorieux"; here again the music is bursting with vitality.

The first of the narrative sections, No. 5, speaks of the Nativity, "A child is born to us", and the first three notes of the plainsong "Puer natus est" form a figure used throughout, rather like a birdcall itself, to punctuate murmuring cascades of semiquavers interspersed with the hornlike motif familiar from the Méditations. But Messiaen still has surprises to spring: No. 6 sets a scene of desolation on a Cymbale used alone - strikingly effective. The theme is the Bread of Life, the music seeking to depict the desert where manna fell from heaven. Desert birds call plaintively and the relentless wind nags the ear on extended multiple trills, swelling and receding.

Jesus's sermon on the Bread of Life foretold the Resurrection, and the seventh piece begins by proclaiming it ffff in communicable language, "RESURRECTION!" The movement has a stark strength and directness that is almost brutal; it is much more than energy, and has a flavour subtly different from any of the earlier works. One might have expected a softening from the older composer, but the opposite seems to have occured. But all is sweetness in the eighth movement, recalling Christ's institution of the Eucharist, an interlude for reflection before No. 9 "The Darkness." Three forms of darkness are depicted in chilling style, ending with the eeriness of a chord containing all thirteen notes of the octave held low on the keyboard and dissolving into nothingness. The tenth pictures the resurrection itself in rainbow-coloured chords that surge up the keyboard, as Christ rises in all his glory. "Salute the last and everlasting day, Joy at the uprising of this Sunne, and Sonne!" (Donne)

A major scena is created with the eleventh movement, an extended piece of programme music describing the appearance of the risen Christ to Mary Magdalene as she stands weeping at the sepulchre on the first Easter Day. A sense of wonder and gathering joy is projected as light dawns both literally and figuratively and Mary recognizes the identity of the "gardener." She is charged with the mission to "Go and tell my brethren" and the word "APOCALYPSE" is proclaimed on full organ in "communicable language." With the breaking of dawn the vision fades away; low on the keyboard comes the consoling consonance of a C major chord.

With the last group of pieces we are in the church today, with the seven movements centering on the act of Communion . "The Transubstantiation" (No. 12) recalls the second trio of the Livre d'Orgue in its angularities and rhythms, although it is less complex, but here it vies with harmonized birdsong. Muted fanfares on French horns herald a memory of the Christmas plainchant to end.

The dramatic heart of the cycle comes in the virtuoso thirteenth movement (CD2, Track l), "The two walls of water." Messiaen links philosophically the presence of God in the walls of water that parted the Red Sea with the actual presence of Christ in the broken Host, and the two ideas alternate, expressed by tumultuous cascades of sound on full organ and the song of the Melodious Warbler. In the middle comes an immensely effective device: violent arpeggios in contrary motion seem to tear the keyboard apart, a quaver rest between each allowing the sound to swirl and mount. In the Vingt regards (for piano) Messiaen had used this technique after observing it on the harp; it is even more savage on the organ.

"Prayer before Communion" (No. 14) alternates innocent plainchant with richly harmonized chords softly shimmering: the humility of "I am not worthy" is countered by trust in forgiveness. The joy of the act of Communion itself is given entirely to rapturous birdsong, which alone makes up the extraordinary fifteenth movement. Judea's Common Garden Bulbul and Tristram's Grackle and the White Throated Robin from Iran and Palestine express the ecstasy of Divine Love. After the Communion the communicant is at peace as he meditates on the moment of union; describing this, No. 16 harks back to La Source de Vie: a melody hovers above a gauze curtain of sound supplied by a left hand chord that gently shifts its harmonies a note or two at a time like soft colours advancing and receding in the light, or indeed like the wafting of sweet perfumes, as in the quotation from St. Bonaventure.

The penultimate movement has a steely brilliance again, with an angular melody in double canon thrusting between fff chords cast in a throbbing rhythm; the theme is Christ's simultaneous presence in all the consecrated Hosts on earth. "One receives it: a thousand receive it; the one receives as much as the many; all receive it without exhausting it." (Lauda Sion). The final piece is supreme; called "Offrande et alléluia final" it recalls ideas and figuration from the end of the Méditations but has an even more extrovert sense of assurance. Tossing themes into the air in ecstatic abandon it brings the cycle - Messiaen's last work for the organ - to a dazzling conclusion, spelling out in communicable language LA JOIE.

And so he spelt out his secret. Naturally the wealth of information and explanation given by the composer himself over his long life concerning his thought processes and the motivation for his music is extraordinarily interesting. As an aid to comprehension and even more as a stimulus actually to enter his perfumed and rainbow-coloured world it is invaluable. He would, however, have been the first to say that one need not be "a believer" to experience his music, even though that might heighten the appreciation in one direction. It would be doing the music a disservice to suggest that it could not be understood, enjoyed or fully experienced on musical terms alone. One can go further: so personal is the nature of belief that reference to religious terminology can even distort the meaning. There is an apparent paradox here, in that Messiaen sought always to clarify, and he used the dogma of the church on which to hang his musical expositions of the faith. He has often been reverently called a mystic, by those unfamiliar with mysticism, but he himself eschewed that name, and the theology was his text. It is significant that in the Meditations he spelt out quotations from St. Thomas Aquinas, the great theologian of the church, not from St. Thomas à Kempis, her mystic.

But at the end of his life Aquinas himself said: "It was all as straw." In the end the ineffable is the inexpressible, and spiritual communication is made at a level deeper than words can penetrate. Because of this, everyone's understanding of it is different, and an attempt to use what may be a severely limited religious perception as the basis for artistic decisions can confuse and confound (just as a producer eager to reinterpret an oft-performed opera or play in new terms may succeed only in diminishing the universality of the myth at its heart to a narrow particularity). In music based on an overtly religious text this often takes the form of proposing a slow tempo for performance; a feeling of devotion has led to one of humility, debasement; and this becomes the mood projected. (For years this was a factor in the performance of parts of Messiah, for example, and remains so with much of Bach's music). But another view, equally widely held and worthy of validation is that the source of spirituality is joy. Such a view externalizes musically in rhythms with a genuine sense of movement and inner life, exhilarating (though not driven) tempi, and powerful projection. I believe that even though it is arguable that Messiaen sometimes was dominated by the more structured form of his beliefs (at least when attempting to explain them), the essence of his music at its extra-ordinary best nevertheless remains the explosive power of its sense of joy, synonymous here with creative energy. This must be (and is) discernible on terms separate from sectarian considerations; on musical terms.

Speaking in 1977 he said of plainsong that its effectiveness "is manifested only with animation and joy. If plainchant were sung with the gladness and the rapidity it needs it would be so much loved that we could not live without it." That does not mean that when it appears in his music it should be played quickly, since it is used there in many different ways; but it is a notable comment, as is the way he makes the important point, " All music that reverently approaches the divine, the sacred, the ineffable, is truly religious music in the fullest sense of the term." It was this view that first precipitated clashes with many critics early in his career. In response to their scandalized cries when his religious texts appeared to have been expressed with sensuous abandon, he claimed a divine provenance for all love:

"I have the unhappy impression that my enemies know no more about human love than about the sacred texts. They have a petty view of human love......I prefer Liszt's attitude, replying to a bore who asked him what he thought of Mme d' Agoult:

"What do I think? But I would throw myself out of the window for her." '

In his address in Notre Dame in 1977 on sacred music Messiaen ended by quoting St John: ' "Eternal life is to know Thee, the only true God".....This knowledge will be a perpetual ecstasy, an eternal music of colours, an eternal colour of musics." What better epitaph for this inimitable painter in sound.


After the death of Olivier Messiaen two organ pieces (Prélude and Offrande au Saint Sacrement) were discovered by the composer's widow. Prélude was published in 2002; its origins are not known but speculation dates it from Messiaen's student days at the Paris Conservatoire. The style is reminiscent of his teacher, Dupré, while already bearing Messiaen's clear fingerprints. (The published score, now under revision, has a number of misprints, corrected here).


Monodie was first published as an organ solo in 1997 (and performed by the writer in a Messiaen cycle in London, also broadcast, in May 1998). It had been written in 1963 for Messiaen's assistant at La Trinité, Jean Bonfils, for inclusion in his Organ Method. As a sight-reading test it is an interesting fragment; as a piece it is a curiosity, its tempo indication of quaver = 48 making it difficult for the listener readily to comprehend the intricate rhythms.

Verset pour la Fête de la Dédicace (Verset for the Feast of the Dedication)

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.

Offrande au Saint Sacrement (Offering to the Holy Sacrament)

The Offrande au Saint Sacrement came to light in 1997 and was published in 2001. Charming in its simplicity it has resonances of Le Banquet Céleste (1928), and one of the principal themes is a phrase familiar from the first movement of Les Corps Glorieux and elsewhere.

Diptyque - Essai sur la vie terrestre et l'éternité bienheureuse (Diptyque - Essay on earthly life and eternal bliss)

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.

Copyright © 2020 Gillian Weir

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