OLIVIER MESSIAEN: SELECTED WORKS
Born in Avignon, of party Flemish and partly Provençal descent, his mother a poet, his father a translator of Shakespeare, Olivier Messiaen had emerged by the 1940s as the most original personality in French music, a position he maintained until his death. The sources of his inspiration – Catholic mysticism, Hindu philosophy, plainchant and latterly and increasingly the whole vast research field of birdsong, on which he was an acknowledged authority – infused his music with an extraordinary spiritual ardour, and impelled him to develop unique harmonic, rhythmic and melodic idioms which reflect, among other things, his acute sense of colour in sound. The works included on this disc span most of his career and illustrate his range and versatility in song, piano and instrumental music.
Messiaen wrote comparatively few ‘abstract’ works without programme or symbolic content, and to that extent the fairly early Thème et Variations for violin and piano, published in 1934 but composed in 1932 for the violinist and composer Claire Delbos (who became his wife in that year), is uncharacteristic of him. The serene spiritual calm of the Theme, announced by the violin above a gentle chordal accompaniment, nevertheless anticipates the rapt sections of his later, defining chamber work Quatuor pour la fin du Temps. There are five variations, the first four presenting greater textural and melodic elaboration while quickening in tempo (the third variation is actually in waltz-time). The fourth and fastest variation rises to the passionate and intensified restatement of the Theme which constitutes variation 5, as both ecstatic climax and coda.
Whereas the rhythmic profile of Thème et Variations is quite orthodox, the song-cycle Poèmes pour Mi uses patterns from Classical Greek metrics and the rhythmic structures of Hindu music, which at first caused difficulties in its reception in early performances, though nowadays they seem no impediment to the cycle’s lucid lyricism. Written for voice and piano in 1936 (Messiaen made an orchestral version the following year), this cycle too is dedicated to Claire Delbos: ‘Mi’ was the composer’s pet name for her. The poems are Messiaen’s own, their phrasing and imagery influenced by the Gospels and Psalms as well as the Dauphinoise countryside in which he always preferred to compose. There are nine of them (Messiaen knew well that nine is the number of symbolic maternity), divided into two Books of four and five songs respectively, and they are at once love-poems and mystic religious texts, almost a kind of modern Song of Songs.
An initial love-song, thanking God who has made the Beloved, is followed by an (implied) meditation on suffering in a beautiful landscape, on leaving the earthly house of life, and a terrifying vision of the gates of Hell. The fifth and sixth poems are theological advice to the Beloved, the wife, to help her join the choir of angels; the seventh, a kind of war-song, views husband and wife as comrades in the battle between good and evil. A vision of fulfilment in earthly love, in the eighth song, gives way to the joyous bell-sounds of the final one, where the poet finally leaves the human plane for the glory of resurrection in Christ. Messiaen once commented that the first and last songs reflected his preoccupation with Plainchant, with a rapid delivery of the text like an intoned psalm, the most significant words decorated by long melismas, while the most important element in the work was its harmonic colour, secured by combining streams of chords in the various ‘modes of limited transposition’ he had established in developing his musical language.
One of Messiaen’s most important compositions, and one of the outstanding piano works of the 20th century, the vast cycle Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus was composed between March and September 1944 in Paris, where Messiaen experienced the Liberation of the city from the Germans. It was dedicated to his pupil Yvonne Loriod, later to be his second wife, who gave the world premiere, and her remarkable pianism inspired Messiaen to produce a work requiring dizzying virtuosity, immense stamina and the utmost sensitivity and tenderness of touch and phrasing. The inspiration and ostensible subject of the cycle are the various ways in which the Shepherds, Wise Men, Angels, Blessed Virgin and Holy Father – and also Time, the Heights, Silence, the Star, the Cross – gazed upon and contemplated the Christ Child at his birth in the manger. Three salient themes (The Theme of God, of the Cross and The Star, and a Theme of Chords) are permuted throughout the cycle, appearing and reappearing in different transpositions and settings, either in full or in fragments. The 14th and 15th pieces, ‘Regards des Anges’ and ‘Le basier de L’Enfant Jésus’, could be considered as constituting the double climax of the entire cycle, the first dynamic, the second hushed and ecstatic. ‘Regard des Anges’ is a kind of brilliant toccata in five ‘strophes’, combining several themes, including a powerful bass theme evoking trombones, the Theme of Chords, jagged rhythms, streams of rapid figuration, and figures suggesting birdsong, which assume prime importance in the fourth strophe before an awesome coda intended to suggest the Angels’ wonder at God uniting himself with the human race. By contrast ‘Le basier de L’Enfant Jésus’ is a kind of cosmic lullaby presenting the Theme of God in its warmest guise. Messiaen was inspired in this piece by an engraving showing Christ leaving his mother’s arms to embrace St Teresa of Lisieux; his kiss is a symbol of Communion. The composer said his music ‘wished no more than to be as tender as the heart of heaven itself’. The result is a tranced Adagio in the rich colouring of F sharp major, perhaps the summit of Messiaen’s piano music in terms of sheer lyric simplicity.
The stylised birdsong in ‘Regard des Anges’ was becoming a constant element in Messiaen’s compositions, until in the 1950s he began to produce a series of major
works wholly derived from his own transcriptions (simultaneously scientific in their accuracy and creative in their adaptation to instrumental media) of the songs of birds, both in France and eventually from around the world. This was his response to the injunction of his teacher Paul Dukas, who had told Messiaen: ‘Listen to the birds! They are the real musicians.’ Le Merle Noir (‘The Blackbird’), for flute and piano, written in 1951, was among the first of these ‘ornithological’ compositions and has become one of the modern classics of French flute music. It falls into a number of distinct sections differentiated by character and mood. The piano plays a decidedly subordinate role in this piece, sketching in the harmonic/topographic background, as it were, against which the blackbird sings its various songs, culminating in a joyous fusillade of notes.
The largest of all Messiaen’s bird-inspired works was his gigantic piano cycle Catalogue des Oiseaux (‘Catalogue of Birds’, 1956-8), essentially 13 keyboard tonepoems presenting the songs and activities of many bird species in many different French regional landscapes. In 1970 he published one other such work, La Fauvette des Jardins (‘The Garden Warbler”) and finally, in 1986, the Six Petites Esquisses d’Oiseaux (Six Little Bird-Sketches’). As its title suggests, these are modest, quicklydrawn portraits, further rendering homage to the Robin (Rouge-gorge), the Blackbird, the Song Thrush (Grive musicienne) and the Skylark (L’Alouette des champs) and by extension all the avian tribe which has so enraptured the composer throughout his life.