About this Recording
8.550829-30 - MESSIAEN: Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jesus

Olivier Messiaen (1908 - 1992)

Vingt regards sur l'enfant Jésus

The French composer Olivier Messiaen is among the most influential figures in the music of the present century, at first alarming and shocking audiences but later winning an unassailable position, respected universally for his achievement through a language that is intensely personal, emotional and informed by a deep Catholic piety. Messiaen had his musical training at the Paris Conservatoire, where his teachers included the organist Marcel Dupré, Maurice Emmanuel and Paul Dukas. He was appointed organist at La Trinité in 1931 and continued to play there until his death. A number of important organ compositions were written in this early period of his career. He was taken prisoner in 1940 and in a prison camp in Silesia wrote his Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of the World), returning, on his release in 1943, to the Conservatoire, where he taught harmony, but exercised even greater influence in the following years through his teaching both at the Conservatoire, where he held classes in analysis, and various centres abroad. As a composer his attention was now turned also to composition for the piano, inspired by his pupil Yvonne Loriod. He became professor of composition at the Conservatoire in 1966 and a member of the Institut in the following year.

Messiaen's musical language, one all his own, is derived from a number of sources. His interest in bird-song is directly evident in his Oiseaux exotiques and Catalogue d'oiseaux, but is also found in the Vingt Regards. Describing himself as a "rythmicien", he had a profound interest in Greek verse rhythms, Hindu rhythms and the rhythms of major Western composers, from Claude Le Jeune to Stravinsky and Debussy. His harmony is derived from a combination of sources, from serialism and atonality, tonality and modal writing, while he takes an equally idiosyncratic approach to orchestral colour and organ registration.

The Vingt Regards were written in 1944 and dedicated to the pianist Yvonne Loriod, who became Messiaen's second wife in 1962, after the death of his first wife, the violinist Claire Delbos, three years earlier. She continued as a leading exponent of his music. The work is a meditation on the Infant Christ, conceived in musical language of some complexity. The theme of God, which appears first in the opening bars of Regard du Père, Contemplation by God the Father, is used again in sections of the work that refer directly to the Deity, the Contemplation of the Son, of the Spirit of Joy, God the Creator, the kiss of the Infant Jesus, the communion of the Virgin and the final Church of Love, with a theme of the Star and of the Cross identical in that they open and close the earthly life of Christ, His birth foretold by a Star and His life ended on the Cross. A further theme of chords is used in various ways in a texture that uses a variety of technical devices with the utmost originality. Messiaen claimed here the influence not only of bird-song, directly quoted in a number of sections, but also of bells, spirals, stalactites, galaxies, photons and the writings of Dom Columba Marmion, St. Thomas, St. John of the Cross, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, the Gospels and the Missal.

Vingt Regards opens with God the Father, with the words "And God said this is my Son in whom I am well pleased". This serene meditation is followed by the Star, introducing the theme of the Star and of the Cross, in octaves, after the sound of bells, the impact of grace, as the Star shines in innocence, surmounted by a cross. In The Ex change, descent in a shower of light, and ascent in spiral, the composer notices the terrible commerce, human and divine, as God becomes man to make us gods. A gentler mood pervades the fourth section, devoted to the Blessed Virgin, innocence and tenderness, the woman of purity, of the Magnificat, as the Virgin looks at her Son. A tender lullaby finds a place for bird-song. The Son contemplates the Son, the Word contemplating God as man, a mystery, rays of light in the night and the reflection of joy, birds of silence, the Person of the Word in a human nature, the marriage of natures human and divine in Jesus Christ. The theme of God appears again and there is a chordal canon, while joy is heard again in bird-song. In the sixth of the Regards, By Him all things were made, there is an expansion of spaces and durations, and the composer speaks of galaxies, photons, contrary spirals, inverted flashes of lightning. By Him, God the Word, all things were made - in a moment creation reveals for us the luminous shadow of His Voice. The music here starts with a subject in a low register, with a countersubject above, the subject then changing rhythm and register and later appearing in canon.

The Cross says: Thou shalt be a priest in my arms, the subtitle of the seventh section, and the music opens with the theme of the Star and the Cross played in octaves in the lowest register. The glory of the heights, which descend on the crib like the song of the lark, is treated in the section that follows, with the song of the nightingale, the lark and, later, the blackbird. Time, the mystery of the fullness of time and of the birth in time of He who is eternal is described by Messiaen as spare and strange, suggesting the painting of Chirico. The Spirit of Joy appears in a violent dance, described as oriental and in the manner of plainchant. The sound of hunting-horns is heard and the ecstasy of the Holy Spirit, the joy of love of God, happy in the soul of Jesus Christ. The First Communion of the Virgin takes place as she adores, after the Annunciation, Jesus within her - my God, my son, my Magnificat! - my love without the noise of words. The theme of God is heard, the song of birds, and, in breathless joy, the Magnificat: the heart of the Child beats within her and in her heart she embraces Him.

The twelfth Regard is that of the Word All-powerful, since the Child is the Word that sustains all things through the power of His word. Here the sound of the tam-tam is heard in the lowest register of the keyboard. The bells of Christmas repeat the sweet names of Jesus, Mary, Joseph and this section leads to the Angels, sparkling of light, percussion, the great sound of trombones - Thy servants are the flames of fire -then the song of birds and the growing astonishment of the angels, since it is not to them but to the human race that God is united. The Kiss of the Infant Jesus is experienced at each communion, when He sleeps within us near the gate, then opens it onto the garden and leaps forward into the full light to embrace us. The theme of God is heard in a lullaby, while the Child sleeps, while finally the garden is revealed and arms are stretched out towards love, the kiss and its sweet shadow. Prophets, Shepherds and Magi contemplate the Holy Child, with tam-tams, oboes, and a great sound of instruments in exotic concert.

Silence, the eighteenth of the Regards, lies in the hand, an inverted rainbow, each silence of the crib reveals the music and colours that are the mysteries of Jesus Christ. As the sound dies away the terrible anointing, l'Onction terrible, begins, inspired, Messiaen tells us, by an old tapestry of the Word of God struggling under the features of a mounted Christ, His two hands seen holding a sword that He brandishes amid flashes of lightning. The Word assumes a certain human nature, the choice of the flesh of Jesus by the terrifying Majesty of God. In contrast the following section carries the title I sleep, but my heart watches. It is Jesus sleeping who loves us in his Holy Day and gives us oblivion. The work ends in the glory of the contemplation of the Holy Child by the whole Church of Love, the grace that makes us love God as God loves Himself. After the showers of light in the night, the spirals of anguish, here are the bells, the glory and the kiss of love, the whole passion of arms around the Invisible, in a section dominated by the theme of God, leading to the triumph of love and joy.

Håkon Austbø
Of Norwegian origin, the pianist Håkon Austbø performed extensively in his own country before continuing his studies at the Paris Conservatoire and the Ecole Normale de Musique. In 1970 he won the Concours National de la Guilde Française des Artistes Solistes and in 1971 drew international attention with the unanimous award of first prize at the Olivier Messiaen Competition for Contemporary Music in Royan. He furthered his studies at the New York Juilliard School, the Munich Stattliche Hochschule für Musik and in London, and won awards in Munich in 1974 and at the Paris Ravel Competition in 1975 and in the same year as member of the Trio du Nord at the UNESCO International Rostrum in Bratislava. Håkon Austbø is at present based in the Netherlands and enjoys an active concert career throughout Europe and in North America, with recordings for Harmonia Mundi and Saravah / RCA.

Close the window