About this Recording
8.554655 - MESSIAEN: Fauvette des jardins (La) / Offrandes oubliees (Les)
English  French 

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)

Les offrandes oubliées • Fantaisie burlesque • Pièce pour le tombeau de Paul Dukas • Rondeau • Prélude (1964) • La fauvette des jardins

Olivier Messiaen is among the most influential figures in the music of the twentieth century. At first alarming and shocking audiences, he later won an unassailable position, respected at home in France and abroad for his achievement through a musical language that is intensely personal, emotional and informed by a deep Catholic piety. Born in Avignon in 1908, he started piano lessons in 1917 and two years later entered the Paris Conservatoire, where his teachers included Marcel Dupré, Maurice Emmanuel and Paul Dukas. In 1931 he was appointed organist at La Trinité and held this position until his death, writing, particularly in the 1930s, a number of important compositions for the organ. In 1940, as a prisoner-of-war in Silesia, he wrote his Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time), returning, on his release in 1942, to the Conservatoire. There he taught harmony but exercised even stronger influence in the following years through his teaching of analysis and his work at various centres abroad. As a composer his attention was now turned also to composition for the piano, inspired by his pupil Yvonne Loriod, who became Messiaen’s second wife in 1962, three years after the death of his first wife, the violinist Claire Delbos. Yvonne Loriod continued as a leading exponent of his music. In 1966 Messiaen became professor of composition at the Conservatoire and the following year was appointed a member of the Institut de France. In 1971 he received the Erasmus Prize and in 1978 retired from the Conservatoire, although his influence continued unabated. He died in Paris in 1992.

Messiaen’s very personal musical language was derived from a number of sources. His interest in bird-song is directly evident in his Oiseaux exotiques (Exotic Birds) and Catalogue d’oiseaux (Catalogue of Birds) and indirectly elsewhere in his music. 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 draws on a combination of sources, from serialism and atonality to tonal and modal writing, with an idiosyncratic use of organ registration and orchestral colour.

The orchestral Les offrandes oubliées (The forgotten offerings) was completed in 1930, with a piano version. The orchestral work was first performed the following year. It is in the form of a triptych, representing the Cross, the descent of Man into Sin, and finally the offer of salvation through the Eucharist. Musically this is suggested by the use of a ternary structure. The work opens with a passage marked Presque lent, douloureux, profondément triste (Almost slow, sorrowful, deeply sad). The melancholy serenity is brusquely interrupted by a burst of sound, with the direction Vif, féroce, désespéré, haletant (Lively, fierce, desperate, gasping for breath). The last section is introduced by the return of a motif from the opening section, moving into a passage of suggested hope, marked Lent, avec une grande pitié et un grand amour (Slow, with great pity and great love).

Messiaen wrote his Fantaisie burlesque in 1932 to demonstrate, not entirely successfully, as he himself admitted, his sense of humour. The opening section, which returns, framing contrasting sections, leads to jazz rhythms in the second section. The first material returns, to be followed by a gentler passage, marked tendre. This is succeeded by the return of the first and second section, before the principal material is heard again, leading to an emphatic F major conclusion.

The death of Messiaen’s former teacher, Paul Dukas, in 1953 brought the solemn Pièce pour le tombeau de Paul Dukas as a tribute. Here again Messiaen makes use of harmonies from which he derived his own synthetic modes as a basis of composition. The descending contours have an elegiac implication, with the recurrent lower octave B, a resounding knell that forms the basis of the final chord.

The lighter-hearted Rondeau of 1943 belongs to the period of the Vision de l’amen and the monumental Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus. It was written as a competition piece for the Paris Conservatoire, and suggests unexpected connections with an older generation of French composers. In a clear rondo structure, intervening episodes are framed by the rapid figuration of the principal material in music that makes some technical demands on the performer.

The sonorous Prélude of 1964 was published posthumously in 2000 and seems to hark back to the Satie of the 1890s with his curious religious preoccupations.

La fauvette des jardins (The Garden Warbler), a substantial work, written in 1972, derives its material from bird-song, like the Catalogue d’oiseaux, completed in 1958. At the beginning of the score Messiaen describes the scene, reflecting the events, as they occur in the score:

Between the cliffs of the Obiou to the South and the spur of Chamechaude to the North lie four lakes: the Matheysine in Dauphiné. At the end of the great Lake Laffrey, at the foot of the mountain of the Grand Serre, to the East, are the fields of Petichet.

The end of June, the beginning of July. It is still night. The last waves of the great lake die down under the willows. The Grand Serre is there, with its patches of trees below its bald summit. Towards four in the morning the Quail is heard in Cretic rhythm. The Nightingale ends a verse: distant notes under the moon, an abruptly loud and victorious conclusion, long warbling until it is out of breath. The ash-trees look down on the reeds of the great lake. In the middle of the meadow the grey alders stand by the hazels.

Then dawn covers the sky, the fields, the meadow with pink. The great lake also turns pink. The song of the Garden Warbler, hidden in the ash-trees, the willows, the bushes by the great lake. Two first attempts, then a solo. The little Wren throws out some rapid, loud notes, with a trill in the middle of the verse. The Garden Warbler sings again, her voice limpid, always with new features.

Five o’clock in the morning. The arrival of the day turns the alder foliage silver, brings to life the scent of mauve mint and green grass. A Blackbird whistles. The Green Woodpecker laughs aloud. From the other side of the bank, near Lake Petichet, a Sky Lark rises up in the air, rejoicing with a piercing dominant. The Garden Warbler starts a new solo: its rapid vocalises, its tireless virtuosity, the regular flow of its discourse, seem to bring time to a halt…

Meanwhile, the morning grows on, and here is the threat of a storm. The great Lake Laffrey is divided into green and violet stripes. Two Chaffinches answer each other, with variations in their codetta. Suddenly a rasping, grating, sour voice rises in the reeds of the great lake, alternating heavy rhythms with shrill cries: it is the Great Reed Warbler. But the sun has returned, and there is another voice, unexpected, wonderfully gilded, rich in harmonics: it is a migratory Golden Oriole, coming to eat some cherries. The Garden Warbler continues its solos, interrupted now and again by the hoarse croaking of the Crows, the hard, dry alarms of the Red-Backed Shrike, the quivering cries of the Black Kite. The Grand Serre stands, with its great mass, against the elegant rise of the Swallows. In contrast to the unmoving bare mountain are the ripples in the water. The Garden Warbler sings and sings again, untiring. A new contrast: the flight of the Black Kite and the sudden calm of the great lake. The Kite climbs and descends, describing great spirals in the sky, and the circles of its flight interlock (the turns of its tail helping the movement of its wings), until it finally touches the surface of the water. The sun spreads light and warmth. These are the most beautiful hours of the afternoon, and the great lake extends its blue surface, with all shades of blue: peacock blue, azure, sapphire. The silence is only broken by the Chaffinches, the ringing sound of the Goldfinch, and the simple repeated note of the Yellowhammer. The heights of the mountain are green and gold…

Towards evening the Garden Warbler starts a solo again. The Blackcap, less of a virtuoso, has a more brilliant refrain, fluting and liquid in tone. After this refrain the voice of the Nightingale rises, announcing sunset. The sky turns red, orange, violet. The Crow and the Red-Backed Shrike give the alarm. The Green Woodpecker gives a last laugh. Night comes…

Nine o’clock in the evening. In the growing silence the double cry of the Tawny Owl is heard, wild and terrifying. The great lake is now feebly lit by the light of the moon. The silhouettes of the alders are quite black. Everything sinks into the great shadow of memory.

And the Grand Serre is always there, above the night…

Keith Anderson

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