Olivier Messiaen: The Complete Organ Works Volume 1

Reviews from the New Release- Volume One

“No other player seems quite to equal Weir's remarkable identification with the reflective and dramatically explosive extremes of Messiaen's idiom. It looks as if Gillian Weir's performances will again claim the definitive status which they were accorded on their earlier incarnation. A further attraction comes in the extensive booklet notes, which centre on those written by Weir herself, underlining the reasons why this music matters so much to her, and also including a wealth of personal anecdote.” Arnold Whittall, Gramophone, February 2003

“How refreshing! Priory has taken what was already a marvellous disc and made it even better... plaudits by the bucket-load.” Christopher Dingle, BBC Music Magazine, April 2003

“Messiaen's organ music – indeed, his musical language – is highly individual and not to everyone's taste. But if his mystical, shimmering harmonies and subtle, complex rhythms are for you, then you will never hear a finer recording of his work than this. Dame Gillian plays the mighty Frobenius organ of Denmark's Arhus Cathedral (and contributes her own lively and affectionate memories of the composer). After the powerful Apparition de l'Eglise Eternelle, Weir gives us La Nativité du Seigneur, Messiaen's first major organ cycle, a tremendous tour de force from composer and soloist. Jeremy Nicholas, Classic FM Magagzine, March 2003.

“Reclaims its definitive status.” Gramophone, March 2003

“Priory has embarked on the re-release of Dame Gillian Weir's famed complete Messiaen recordings, already nine years old. They took the world by storm at the time so it is marvellous they will now be available in the catalogue as single CDs.” Organists' Review, February 2003

“Gillian Weir's Messiaen intégrale came out in 1994, and this first evidence of a reissue by Priory is both a coup for the company and a reminder of Dame Gillian's magisterial achievement. Here are Messiaen and Weir making the vision take on a palpable reality... the whole CD is a vibrant and thrilling experience.” Robert Anderson, Music & Vision, January 2003

Track Listings

Priory Records PRCD 921

Vol. 1 1 Apparition de l'Église éternelle
2 La Nativité du Seigneur I. La Vierge et l'Enfant
3 II. Les Bergers
4 III. Desseins éternels
5 IV. Le Verbe
6 V. Les Enfants de Dieu
7 VI. Les Anges
8 VII. Jésus accepte la souffrance
9 VIII. Les Mages
10 IX. Dieu parmi nous
11 Le Banquet céleste

Prgramme Notes

Born eight years after the dawn of the 20th century and dying eight years before its end, Olivier Messiaen reflected the spirit of the century itself. The curve of his career mirrored first the century's departing Romanticism, then its restless quest for novelty, and finally its fall back into a comfortingly familiar simplicity. After outdoing his innovative disciples in his experimentation with increasingly complex rhythmical theories and harmonic invention (reinvigorated perhaps by the challenge from such former pupils as Pierre Boulez), he could proudly state in 1982: "I fear nothing, not even the common chord!".

That is not to say that there was not an immediately recognisable thumb-print on all that he wrote, right from the earliest published work (Le Banquet Céleste); and a consistency of style, as he developed his compositional techniques to the point where they were so natural to him that their seemingly effortless expression could give a misleading impression of naivete, when in fact the underlying power of his music comes from their distillation and total absorption.

Apparition de l'Eglise Eternelle (Vision of the Church Eternal)

Already in the Apparition de l'Eglise Eternelle, the first piece he wrote after his appointment as titular organist at the church of La Trinité, his feeling for rhythm as the prime motivating factor in the music is apparent. "I am a rhythmicien", he stated, and his study of the meaning of rhythm was lifelong, culminating in an extended tome containing his thoughts and discoveries. Above all, he emphasized the gulf between rhythm and meter. The first gives life and freedom; the second imprisons the music in a static, lifeless beat. The marches of John Philip Sousa, he pointed out, are an example of merely metrical pulse, whereas rhythm, like the waves of the sea, is constantly in motion, supplying ebb and flow, tension and release, action and reaction. From the Greek principles of arsis and thesis came his later ideas of using the rhythms of Greek poetry.

The central idea for the Apparition comes from the text for the Dedication of a Church, a part of the liturgy to which Messiaen returned in 1960 for his Verset pour la Fête de la Dédicace and again in the last two big cycles for organ; he used it too in the orchestral work Couleurs de la Cité Céleste. The text reads: "Scissors, hammer, suffering and trials, perfecting and refining the chosen ones, the living stones of the spiritual edifice". The work is a crescendo and diminuendo on an immense scale. The church comes gradually into sight; at the climax the Vision is briefly in full view while a stark C major chord is held on the full organ, to shattering effect. Slowly it recedes, and the vision fades.

But for Messiaen there were always two levels of meaning: the literal, or pictorial, and the spiritual. Thus the vision is of a great cathedral, but it is also of the Church triumphant, composed of its individual members past and present; the hammer blows in the pedal build the physical edifice but also mark the strokes of Grace that shape and mould the pilgrims and supplicants. Messiaen wrote that the nature of the Church eternal is "appalling, awe-inspiring ... mysterious, harrowing, glorious and sometimes terrifying". All of that is conveyed overwhelmingly in this hypnotic work.

La Nativité du Seigneur - neuf méditations pour orgue (The Birth of our Lord)

La Vierge et l'Enfant. Les Bergers. Desseins Eternels. Le Verbe. Les Enfants de Dieu. Les Anges. Jésus accepte la Souffrance. Les Mages. Dieu parmi nous.

This, Messiaen's first major organ cycle, is his best-known work, and the perfect expression of his musical ideals. In his preface to the work he states his personal philosophy: "Emotion and sincerity above all - at the service of Catholic theology ... but transmitted to the listener by distinct and infallible means." He gives also a detailed explanation of his 'modes of limited transposition' - the ordering of tones and semitones so as to produce new scales which are used to create his distinctive harmonies and which, honed in years of improvisation during the Sunday services at La Trinité, act as a basis for the technical construction of his music. He describes, too, the specific colours he sees in the harmonies created, and the way in which they change - "like those in a stained-glass window or a rainbow" - as the modes are transposed. In collaboration with the painter Blanc-Gatti Messiaen studied the correlation between colours and sounds; when he first made known his synaesthesia he was surprised to find that it is not an ability common to all. The cycle has nine movements "to honour the Virgin", and four further principal theological ideas are expounded: the three births - the temporal birth of Christ, the eternal birth of the Word, and the spiritual birth of Christians (La Vierge, Le Verbe, Les Enfants de Dieu); our predestination fulfilled by the Incarnation of the Word (Desseins Eternels); God living among us, God suffering (Dieu parmi nous, Jésus accepte la Souffrance); and finally the description of some of the characters who give to Christmas its special poetry - the angels, Wise men and shepherds (Les Anges, Les Mages and Les Bergers).

La Nativité's gallery of pictures presents first a triptych: its first panel shows the Virgin sitting in the stillness, cradling her baby. A gentle shower of caressing grace-notes falls to begin the piece, and sets the mood of its tenderness. The melody is one Messiaen used frequently; he said it derived from Moussorgsky's Boris Godunov, but it needs no pedigree. In the second panel a carillon of bells, played by the pedals, peals distantly, while above the rocking of the cradle a disguised form of the plainsong hymn Puer Nobis - Unto us a Child is born - shapes a high-pitched song. The third panel ends with the mother's voice lifted in a rapturous cadenza, rising out of the candlelight and drifting away again into the silence.

Next come the shepherds; the text for Les Bergers is: "having seen the Babe lying in a manger, the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God". Light shimmers on the snow around the manger; inside, the shepherds are kneeling before the Crib, and the holy light shines on the Child, symbolising the spiritual illumination Christ brings. They rise from making their obeisance; outside, their flutes and pipes call to one another, and they set off on the journey home, singing a joyous, carol-like melody which is again a diffusion of Puer Nobis.

The text for the third movement, Desseins Eternels, or Eternal Destinies, is: "God, in His Love, has predestined us to be His adopted Sons, through Jesus Christ". Shimmering chords slowly shift their harmonic base, just as the colours pouring through a stained-glass window will reflect changes in the light; the static effect combined with the pulsing of the sustained harmonies creates an atmosphere of timelessness.

Le Verbe - The Word - bursts into life. Two ideas are present. First, the turbulent travail of the Word made Flesh - the pedal theme marks God descending to earth; then a long, slow melody transmitting the divine utterance: "The Lord said unto me: Thou art my Son ... I am the Word of Life".

The fifth meditation concerns the Children of God; Les Enfants de Dieu opens with a surging, throbbing figure that explodes like a shower of fireworks; we are spiritually reborn. The energy falls away into the calm and confident call of the Children to their Heavenly Father.

Then come the angels: "... A multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, Glory to God in the Highest!" They fill the sky with the beating of their jewel-studded wings. They circle lower and lower over the Crib, and for an instant are still, in homage, then soar into the heavens again, circling ever higher until, in a cascade of trills, they are lost to view.

With the seventh meditation, Jésus accepte la Souffrance (Jesus accepts Suffering) a shadow falls over the scene. The text is: "When Christ cometh into the world, he saith to his Father: Sacrifice and offering Thou wouldest not, but a body hast Thou prepared Me ... Then said I Lo, I come to do Thy Will, O God". The drama expresses powerfully the agony of the sacrifice the Son is being called on to make: to take human form and come to Earth to redeem mankind. First is heard the voice of God, with its implacable demand; then the indecision and torment of the Son. Christ's hands reach out to accept the cup of suffering, and three times fall back, but at last the sacrifice is made; the voice of God comes again in joyous commendation of the Son and the movement ends in a blaze of glory as "the divine victim rises to the skies".

The Wise Men enter; they have seen the Star and are following it across the desert. In Les Mages Messiaen evokes the hypnotic swaying of their caravan and a dream-like sensation of wonder and awe. For good measure he adds a characteristically re-shaped version of the plainsong hymn "Veni, Creator Spiritus" - Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire.

With Dieu parmi nous - God among us - all is gathered together in a triumphant close. First comes a great descending theme: the Word is come to Earth. Then follows a brief reflection on "the sweetness of union with Jesus Christ". The soul bursts forth in exultation, and the music becomes more and more impassioned as the whole of Christendom joins in the worship and praise, until a huge toccata celebrates the Incarnation.

Le Banquet Céleste (The Celestial Banquet)

"A very charming, tender, sweet and spring-like piece" said Olivier Messiaen of his first published work, Le Banquet Céleste. Written at the age of seventeen, it shows several of what would become defining characteristics of this composer; notably the very slow tempo, which redefines the common notion of movement. While seeming to suspend time, it nevertheless does not preclude motion. Messiaen's hero was Debussy; he studied and memorised every note of his music and referred often to his techniques with the greatest admiration, even refusing to use the pentatonic scale except in disguised form out of respect for the composer who had made it a hallmark. One reference was to Debussy's phrase "the experience of the sensory moment", which has relevance here. This piece is not simply a harmonised, slow-moving melody. Rather, each chord is to be experienced in itself, as one might contemplate the rich colours of a mosaic. Having savoured them one moves on to the next, and similarly Messiaen gradually allows the harmony of the first chord to shift to the next light-soaked resting-place. (Messiaen's analogy of a prism also has application here, radiating rainbow colours as light flows through its facets.) Thus without any overt metrical pulse the line is propelled with a gentle but inexorable force, until the composer chooses to halt its slow progress and supplies a concord on which it can pause. The registration, voix celestes with supporting colours, also serves to give the sensation of movement, since its natural out-of-tuneness throbs insistently. The notes are long, but when the listener is attuned to the mood there is movement within each chord, as each note strives to find its resolution like the tendrils of a flower waving slowly in the air; the tension comes from the delicious with-holding of the longed-for resolution.

At the start of Le Banquet the composer quotes from St John: "He that eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood dwelleth in Me and I in him". It is a piece for the Festival of the Holy Sacrament, and marked "ecstatic, distant, mysterious". At its still centre drops of water fall slowly through space, Messiaen's infallible sense of colour surrounding each one with an aura of light.

Copyright © 2020 Gillian Weir

Contact Search About Links