“My faith is the grand drama of my life,” wrote the French composer and organist Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). “I’m a believer, so I sing words of God to those who have no faith.”
Indeed, Messiaen’s music revels in the awe and wonder of the divine. Often, it drifts into haunting, deeply meditative territory where time seems to be suspended. From the bright, angelic colors of the human voice to the muted rumble of the deepest organ pipe, sound and harmony take on mystical significance. Messiaen experienced synesthesia, a neurological phenomenon in which chords elicit color associations. Throughout Messiaen’s music, the sounds of the natural world emerge in the form of birdsongs.
For 61 years from 1931 until his death, Messiaen, a devout Catholic, was the organist at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité in Paris. His liturgical works are filled with reflections on the Christian Holy Week. Here are three examples:
O sacrum convivium
The offertory motet, O sacrum convivium (“O sacred banquet”) was composed in 1937. This setting of the Latin eucharist text moves from penetrating mystery to serene, blissful resolution. Colored by modal harmony, O sacrum convivium hovers around F-sharp major, a key Messiaen associated with “the mystical experience of superhuman love.”
Le banquet céleste
Messiaen ventures into similar mystical territory with Le banquet céleste (“The Celestial Banquet”) for organ. Written in 1928, this was the composer’s first published work. It is inscribed with a quote from John 6:56: “He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood dwelleth in me and I in him.”
This music inhabits the key of F-sharp major, while veering off into the hazy symmetry of the octatonic scale. Eternal stasis meets a quiet, searing intensity. Messiaen’s direction in the score, “very slow, ecstatic,” suggests this paradox. The blood of Christ is signified by “brief staccato, as a water drop.” The dreamy, almost childlike, final bars drift into an infinite, tranquil sea.
Messiaen described L’Ascension (“The Ascension”), completed in 1933, as “four meditations for orchestra.”
The first meditation is titled, “Majesty of Christ beseeching His Glory of the Father. ‘Father, the hour is come, glorify Thy Son, that Thy Son may also glorify Thee.’” The majestic, searching call of the trumpet rises over cloudy woodwind sonorities. Silence becomes as important as sound, as chorale statements break off into moments of pause.
The second meditation brings “Serene Alleluias of a Soul yearning for Heaven. ‘We beseech Thee, Almighty God, that we may in mind dwell in Heaven.’” It begins with a unison woodwind statement which suggests plainsong chant. The pastoral voice of the English horn converses with a chorus of birdsongs.
Exuberant fanfares announce the arrival of the third mediation, “Alleluias on the Trumpets, Alleluias on the Cymbals. ‘The Lord is gone up with the sound of a trumpet, O clap your hands all ye people; shout unto God with the voice of triumph.’”
L’Ascension drifts into ethereal transcendence with the concluding meditation, “Prayer of Christ ascending to the Father. ‘I have manifested Thy name unto men… And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to Thee.’ ” This music rises up from a celestial string choir, delivering us to a place of contemplation, lament, and eternal mystery.
This concert performance from January, 2016 features Hugh Wolff and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony:
Featured Image: the “Church of the Light” near Osaka, Japan, designed by Tadao Ando