Olivier Messiaen: The Complete Organ Works Volume 3
Reviews- Volume Three
“One might say that Dame Gillian Weir as born to play Messiaen... such is the authority of [her] interpretations... Every facet of the music — technical, spiritual, emotional — is conveyed with conviction and intensity, and the Frobenius organ of Arhus Cathedral is an ideal partner.” Christopher Nickol, Gramophone, February 2004
“...virtuosic and electrifying playing... will leave many listeners gasping.” Peter Jewkes, Sydney Organ Journal, August 2003
Priory Records PRCD 923
Les Corps Glorieux is much less well-known than Messiaen's suite for the Nativity; curiously perhaps, since in many ways it is the more satisfying work. It is structurally richer: without La Nativité du Seigneur's wide range of moods, certainly, but more subtly compressed and much more unified, by many delicate thematic cross-references and by related colours. Its essence is more intense, its energy more completely contained within a symmetrical frame. Unlike La Nativité, whose nine meditations follow one another in no particular order - that is, there is no logical sequence theologically or musically - this cycle unfolds with an overall shape, beginning and ending with an emphasis on mystery and pivoting on the central and longest piece, the Combat de la Mort et de la Vie (the Battle between Life and Death). While La Nativité may be said to be the perfect consummation of Messiaen's musical ideals, the one in which his new technical language is clearly defined and brought to perfection, Les Corps Glorieux is the most important expression of his purely religious ideals.
In 1977 Messiaen presented to a conference held at Notre-Dame a paper * in which he discussed the nature of Sacred Music. This comprises, he said, (1) liturgical music, (2) religious music, and (3) sound-colour and 'enrapturement' (or 'dazzling' - éblouissement). "Of liturgical music there is only one kind: plainchant, the only music to possess the purity, joy and lightness necessary for the flight of the soul towards Truth." Religious music he defined as "any art which attempts to describe the divine Mystery", citing painting (from Fra Angelico to Chagall) and architecture (Chartres, the pyramids, Japanese temples) as well as musical monuments such as Bach's B minor Mass, the Ligeti Requiem et al. He then made clear the importance he ascribes to sound-colour relationships. After giving a minute analysis of the colours he sees in specific sounds and describing some of the great stained-glass creations of the Middle Ages as "a kind of catechism enclosed in circles, shields, trefoils, obeying a colour symbolism with a thousand purposes", Messiaen summed up by saying that in this hierarchy of sacred music he put coloured music above liturgical and religious music for "it does what the stained-glass windows and the rose windows of the Middle Ages do: it brings to us rapture. Reaching at the same time our most noble senses - hearing and sight - it moves our sensibility, excites our imagination, enhances our intelligence, pushes us beyond limited concepts, to approach that which is higher than reasoning and intuition, namely Faith."
All three ideas are clear in Les Corps Glorieux, together with what may be seen as a counterpart to plainchant, the raga of Indian music, which shares with plainsong its flexibility of rhythm and a similar outward purity that contains within it a simmering sensuousness. The work was finished in August 1939 at Petichet, nine days before war broke out and Messiaen joined the army; it had to wait until November 1943 to receive its première, given by the composer at La Trinité. The listener is thrust immediately into the world of plainchant; the first movement, Subtilité des Corps Glorieux, is a stark monody. "The body, sown as a natural body, will be raised a spiritual body. And they will be as the angels of God in heaven." (St Paul, 1 Corinthians XV, 44; Matthew XXII, 30.)
Although the words used in the titles of the movements are also found in contemporary French, they have always been the traditional words employed in French religious poetry to describe the attributes of the Resurrected ones. Not easily translatable, they have in some cases a special meaning; "subtilité", for instance, implies a rarefied state in which all the senses are quickened, more acute; all-seeing, all-knowing. The opening theme, based on the plainchant "Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of mercy", demonstrates Messiaen's claim that the forms and general melodic shape of plainsong are what concerns him. The plangent litany unfolds with a hypnotic, unearthly imperturbability, rising and falling in accord with an inner rhythm and shaped in the periods of an antiphon, but evoking a timelessness that reinforces the sense of mystery and of unity with the Universe.
II. Les Eaux de la Grâce (The Waters of Grace)
"The Lamb, which is in the midst of the Throne, shall feed them, and shall lead them into the fountains of living waters." (Revelation VII, 17.) As always, Messiaen's imagery is on two levels, pictorial and theological. The waters of Grace give spiritual nourishment, the fountains in the beautiful gardens of Paradise intoxicate the senses.
III. L'Ange aux Parfums (The Angel of the Incense)
"The smoke of the incense formed of the prayers of the saints will rise from the hand of the angel before God." (Revelation VIII, 4.) Technically, this movement develops Messiaen's growing use of Indian forms. The opening phrase echoes a Hindu melodic formula which was used, as the composer uses this, as a basis for later complexities. The hypnotic mood established at the outset of the cycle is continued, and after the initial solo comes a section in which Messiaen plays with a mathematical formula, a game conducted to strict rules and one producing the most complicated music found thus far in his organ works. As justification and inspiration Messiaen has pointed to the designs of butterfly wings, the veins of leaves, the human face, and other evidences of mathematical formulae in nature, and oriental philosophies are recalled again; "The sounds used in music are those whose mutual relations form an image of the basic mathematical laws of the Universe." But for the listener the magical atmosphere of this movement, its interweaving sections painting a picture of shadowy figures glimpsed through the exquisite curtain of slowly rising clouds of incense, is what will settle in the memory.
IV. Combat de la Mort et de la Vie (The Battle between Life and Death)
"Death and Life have engaged in a stupendous battle; the Author of Life, having died, lives and reigns; and He says, My Father, I am risen, I am again with Thee." (The Sequence and Introit for Easter Day.) During the early years of his career, Messiaen was often bitterly criticised for the apparently profane nature of his music; it was felt to be overly dramatic, too sensuous, impure. In a conversation with Antoine Golea the composer defended himself vehemently, passing as he said 'to the attack': "Those people who reproach me do not know the dogma and know even less about the sacred books ... They expect from me a charming, sweet music, vaguely mystical and above all soporific. As an organist I have been able to note the set texts for the office ... Do you think that psalms, for example, speak of sweet and sugary things? A psalm groans, howls, bellows, beseeches, exults and rejoices in turn." Combat thunders and throbs with an apocalyptic energy. Death enters, snarling as he pursues his prey. Battle is at once enjoined. The death theme rises as Death forces Life back, who again fights desperately; Death grows ever more confident and the combat becomes frenetic - a last stand. Life's vital force is ebbing but he gathers himself together for one last, heroic sword-thrust. Silence follows: Death it seems has won - but then comes revelation. In a sublime meditation "in the sun-drenched peace of Divine Love", the death theme is seen to have been transformed - into a major key and into a message for our understanding: Death is metamorphosed into Life. Let John Donne have the last word: "Death be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadfull ... One short sleepe past, we wake eternally, and death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die!"
V. Force et Agilité des Corps Glorieux (The Strength and Agility of the Bodies in Glory)
"The body, sown in weakness, is raised in power." (1 Corinthians XV, 43.) The serene theme from L'Ange aux parfums becomes a whirling, thrashing entity, leaping across the sky, twisting and turning in a jubilant display. Freed from their earthly bodies the resurrected ones are revelling in their power.
VI. Joie et Clarté des Corps Glorieux (The Joy and the Brilliance of the Bodies in Glory)
"Then the righteous shall shine like the sun in the Kingdom of their Father." (Matthew XIII, 43.) "God dazzles us", said Messiaen, and here a sunburst of brilliant colours flashes forth. The mood is ecstatic, powerful rhythms sweep us into a dimension of boundless freedom and joy. The spirits seem to be riding the sky; the long slow plainsong melodies of earlier movements have become dynamic, swooping solos that a virtuoso jazz player might improvise, from his delight in the moment.
VII. Le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité (The Mystery of the Holy Trinity)
"O almighty Father, who with Thine only Son and the Holy Spirit art one God, one Lord; not in the unity of one person, but in the Trinity of one substance." (Missal: Preface of the most Holy Trinity.) The concluding movement is symbolic in a number of ways. It honours the Trinity and is a trio - three voices. Furthermore it divides into three sections each of which divides again into three, so that overall form is that of a nine-fold Kyrie. Three principal Hindu rhythms are used. There are seven phrases in the melody relating to the Holy Spirit; seven is the perfect number and there are seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, and many other groups or concepts of seven. The pedal voice repeats a rhythmic ostinato five times; five is symbolic of Shiva, the third God of the Hindu Trinity.
The movement focuses on the Son, represented by the middle voice; the end of the theme is familiar from the first movement. The alternate measures, where the music assumes the word 'eleison' - have mercy on us - is always the same. The distant, shadowy pedal part - the Father - moves slowly in the depths, while the upper voice, the Holy Spirit, drifts in ethereal arabesques down to the lowest reaches and floats up again. The intertwining of the voices and pitches reflects the mystery of the Trinity, three in one but one in three. By remarkable techniques and by an unerring manipulation of mood and emotion Messiaen has brought the cycle back to the place of eternal calm where it began.
* (A paper entitled "La Musique Sacrée", given as part of the conference "Recherches et Experiences Spirituelles" held at Notre-Dame de Paris on 4 December 1977)
It was to be eleven years before Messiaen again wrote for the organ. From the early 1940s the piano dominated his writing, after the appearances in his Conservatoire classes of the brilliant young pianist Yvonne Loriod, later to become his wife. When he returned to the organ in 1950 it was to provide a liturgical work for the first time. In this, a new world swam into view. If La Nativité revealed Messiaen the poet and Les Corps Glorieux expressed his religious aims, the Messe was the vehicle into which he poured his developing rhythmic ideas.
The work is in five movements that supply the Mass with an instrumental counterpart, and it was intended to be used in the service. For two decades Messiaen had been honing his techniques through improvising, using a different style for each Sunday Mass. For the 10 o'clock High Mass he played only plainsong, for the next service established repertoire such as Bach or Romantic works, at noon his own music; and at the 5 o'clock Vespers he improvised, often in pastiche but always developing his own techniques. In the 1950s he said: "One day I realized [these improvisations] tired me out and that I was emptying all my substance into them. I then wrote the Messe de la Pentecôte, which is a resume of all my collected improvisations." The work is indeed a collage of his techniques and obsessions, with birdsong, waterdrops, plainsong, imaginative registrations, serialization in various forms and Greek and Hindu rhythms treated in new ways. The effect is to reinforce the idea of Messiaen as neither neo-Romantic nor modernist but impressionist, even though for a long time the piece was regarded as impenetrably 'modern'.
I. Entreé: Les Langues de Feu (The Tongues of Fire) - "And there appeared unto them cloven tongues as of fire, and it sat upon each of them." (Acts of the Apostles, II.3.)
The first movement comments on the tongues of fire that came upon the Apostles at Pentecost. The pedals have the melody on a pungent 4' Clairon (a forceful trumpet sound); on the manuals three combinations juxtapose a high Mixture and the 16' Bourdon with other combinations that stress the harmonics inherent in their sound. This registration creates an uncertainty of pitch that heightens the bizarre, eerie nature of the timbres. The manual parts repeat patterns whose angularity vividly suggests forked flames, darting, flickering and surging. The effect is of immense energy and brilliant colour, with simultaneously a kind of lofty remoteness that is far removed from the tender caresses of La Nativité. It is the work of a painter, splashing paint on to his canvas with exuberant confidence. Classical Greek rhythms (iambic, trochaic etc.) as well as Hindu are used, but in an innovative way; highly organized they nevertheless do not rule the structure but propel the action in bursts by pulses of energy that alternate weak with strong.
II. Offertoire: Les Choses Visibles et Invisibles (Things visible and invisible) - (the Nicene Creed).
For Messiaen, rhythm was the antithesis of metre, with its strict regulation of the beat; rhythm meant freedom, metre a prison. All his devices were designed to allow him to express freedom, always his philosophical aim. At first, the complication of the rhythmic techniques seems to constrict rather than set free, but in performance the effect is to liberate the music from earthbound metrical patterns and set it soaring. The self-imposed disciplines act as a spur, much as the fugal form did for Bach. At first Messiaen had used groups of prime numbers (Les Anges, Dieu parmi nous) and begun to explore Hindu ideas (Les Corps Glorieux) but in the Turangalîla-symphonie and the four studies for piano he had become even more abstract. Techniques from these two works appear in the Mass. One is a formula in which three rhythmic figures are used simultaneously: one repeats constantly unchanged, one methodically increases the value of each of its notes, and the third diminishes in the same way. Poetically, Messiaen likens them to actors in a play: one is a neutral onlooker, passive; one is moving the action forward, becoming stronger; the third is being dominated, weakening.
They come on stage in the Offertoire, where the music of the first bar (in a Hindu rhythm) never changes, that of the second augments by three demisemiquavers each time it repeats, and that of the third diminishes by one demisemiquaver. Other complex rhythmic devices follow - but for the listener it is the effect that matters. The teeming images of this movement make up a kaleidoscopic picture. The composer wrote of it:
Things visible and invisible! There is everything in these words! Dimensions known and unknown: from the possible diameter of the universe to that of a proton, durations known and unknown: from the ages of galaxies to that of the wave associated with the proton, the spiritual world and the material world, grace and sin, angels and men, the powers of light and the powers of darkness, the vibrations of the atmosphere, plainsong, birdsong, the melody of waterdrops and the growling of the monstrous Beast of the Apocalypse - finally, all that is clear and tangible, and all that is obscure, mysterious and supernatural, all that goes beyond science and reasoning, all that we cannot uncover, all that we will never understand ...
The Beast growls on a powerful Basson; its low C recurrently emerges from the sea of images. There is birdsong and plainsong, shimmering colours, ominous throbbings and the splashing of waterdrops. In conventional terms the movement seems fragmented, but it stands outside the flow of time like a great mural, to be viewed as a whole or to be savoured in detail.
III. Consecration: Le Don de Sagesse (The Gift of Wisdom) - "The Holy Ghost shall bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you." (St John's Gospel, XIV, 26.)
Wisdom, Intelligence, Counsel, Strength, Learning, Piety, Fear: these are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit makes us comprehend the hidden meaning of the words of Jesus, and to penetrate the mysteries that he taught us: that is the gift of Wisdom!
This central movement consists of a plainsong theme (almost exactly the second Alleluia of the Whitsun Mass) in alternation with two chordal passages. These stay the same each time, but the plainsong changes and grows. The pedal has an angular melody on a strident 4' Clairon in the first motif, and each of its notes is coloured by the shifting harmonies and timbres of the chord accompanying it, so that the linear melody has a ghostly partner: what Messiaen calls a 'melody of resonance' and a 'melody of timbres'.
IV. Communion: Les Oiseaux et les Sources (The Birds and the Springs) - "O all ye fountains, bless ye the Lord; O all ye fowls of the air, bless ye the Lord." (Daniel, III, 77,80. Apocrypha.)
A bird calls from the depth of a wood; its song ends in a flurry like the rustle of wings when it is startled from a tree. Fountains sigh and the cuckoo and nightingale call, and then there is a rapturous cantilena for the birds, chorused against a background of waterdrops falling from different heights (and therefore of constantly shifting lengths). These sounds of nature spring from the liturgy; it is customary after the Communion to recite the canticle of the Three Young Men who were thrown into a burning fiery furnace but not consumed, and who sang there a hymn of praise on behalf of all creation. The movement ends with the waterdrops ascending in pitch to the highest note possible on the organ, while the pedal supports them on the lowest note: the symbolism is the all-embracing nature of the love of God.
V. Sortie: Le Vent de I'Esprit (The Wind of the Spirit) - "A rushing mighty wind filled all the house." (Acts of the Apostles, II, 2.)
The Holy Spirit sweeps into the upper room where the Apostles are sitting - sudden, overwhelming; "the wind of a tempest" says Messiaen. A breathtaking toccata makes clear the physical power of the Holy Spirit; implicit is the "irresistible power of the spiritual life". After this first furious blast an ecstatic chorus of larks, chosen because they fly higher than any other bird and so symbolize the greatest freedom, celebrate the message that liberates the Apostles, singing over two lines that respectively diminish and augment by one unit at a time: in the left hand the first note is 23 semiquavers long, the next 22 and so on down to one, with in the pedal the reverse, from 4 to 25. Messiaen compares this process to kinematics -the science of moving bodies - and to two streams of time, flowing in different directions at different speeds. The larks' song is the Alleluia "a vocalise to all Paradise", soaring and leaping in an ecstasy of joy. A final tempestuous blast, with the pedal recalling "things visible and invisible", brings the work to a passionate end.
Copyright © 2020 Gillian Weir