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8.572436-37 - MESSIAEN, O.: Livre du Saint Sacrement (P. Jacobs)
English  French 

Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992)
Livre du Saint-Sacrement


A prodigiously gifted musician from his earliest youth, Olivier Messiaen was one of the most idiosyncratic composers of the twentieth century, one whose intensely personal compositional language defies classification into any generalized stylistic trend. Born in Avignon to Pierre Messiaen, an English teacher, and his wife, the poet Cécile Sauvage, Olivier was a precocious child who by the age of eight was reading Shakespeare and studying the operas of Mozart and Wagner. He entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of ten, studying with such luminaries as Charles-Marie Widor, Paul Dukas, and Marcel Dupré. By the time he left the Conservatoire in 1931, Messiaen had achieved first prizes in counterpoint and fugue, piano accompaniment, music history, organ and improvisation, and composition.

Messiaen served as a medical auxiliary during the early years of World War II. He was captured in May 1940 and spent the next year in the Stalag VIII-A prison camp in Görlitz. It was here that he composed Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time / Naxos 8.554824), one of his most enduringly popular and widely known works. Upon his release in 1941, he was appointed professor of harmony at the Paris Conservatoire, a position through which he exerted an important influence on many of the most important composers of the mid-twentieth-century, among them Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez and Iannis Xenakis.

Although Messiaen enjoyed increasing success and international fame throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, his private life was clouded by the prolonged mental deterioration of his wife, Claire Delbos, who was institutionalized in 1953 and died in 1959. His compositions from this period display both an increasing interest in avant-garde techniques and a fascination with extremely long forms, typified by Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus (Twenty Gazes on the Infant Jesus, 1944 / Naxos 8.550829–30) and Turangalîla-Symphonie (1946–48). Messiaen’s ever-present interest in birdsong also came to the fore in the late 50s, culminating in the seven-volume Catalogue d’oiseaux (Bird Catalogue, 1956–58).

Messiaen’s later years were dedicated as much to travelling, teaching, and collaborating as to composition. Important works from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s include La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (The Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ, 1965–69), Des canyons aux étoiles…(From the Canyons to the Stars…, 1971–74), the opera Saint-François d’Assise (St Francis of Assisi, 1975–1983), and Livre du Saint-Sacrement.

Messiaen was a deeply religious man whose strong Roman Catholic convictions and interest in mysticism set him apart from many of his contemporaries and help to explain his deep and abiding interest in the organ. His organ works represent a vital component of his output, and a corner-stone of modern repertoire for the instrument. Messiaen first encountered the organ shortly before enrolling in Dupré’s organ class, and his affinity for the instrument’s nearly inexhaustible palette of tone colour was immediately apparent. In 1931 he was appointed organist at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité in Paris, a post he retained for over sixty yeas. Most of his multi-movement organ works were composed during the 1930s and 1940s. He wrote only four pieces after 1952, two of which were major cycles on the scale of his earlier works. Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité (Meditations on the Mystery of the Holy Trinity, 1969) introduced a new compositional technique: the “communicable language”, a system in which a specific note (with fixed octave and duration) is assigned to each letter of the alphabet, allowing Messiaen to spell out words or phrases in the music.

Livre du Saint-Sacrement (The Book of the Blessed Sacrament, 1984), is Messiaen’s last, and longest work for the instrument. Officially written on a commission from Ray Ferguson for the 1986 convention of the American Guild of Organists (AGO) in Detroit, Michigan, the genesis of the work actually dates back to 1980, when, in the midst of work on Saint-François, Messiaen had planned a series of short études for the organ.¹ The conception evolved into a thematic cycle based on the sacrament of Communion around 1981, with the final version of the work comprised of eighteen movements (many based on his recorded improvisations) arranged into three thematic groups. Movements 1–4 represent acts of adoration before Communion, 5–11 depict events in the life of Christ, and 12–18 reflect on aspects the sacrament itself.²

Messiaen’s music draws on several principal elements: his “modes of limited transposition” (scales that have fewer than twelve unique transpositions), symmetrical and irrational rhythms, birdsong, and a deep commitment to Roman Catholicism. One encounters all these and the “communicable language” in Livre du Saint Sacrement. As with many of his other works, each movement is prefaced by Bible verses or quotations from other religious literature (Aquinas, Bonaventure, etc.) which help to clarify the titles and illuminate the themes.

Adoro te (I Adore Thee) is a slow-moving homophonic texture full of dense harmonies. La Source de Vie (The Source of Life) presents a melody and accompaniment texture making use of a classic Messiaen solo registration. Le Dieu caché (The Hidden God) begins with a monophonic quotation and variation of a Communion chant, followed by various birdsongs. Acte de Foi (Act of Faith) is an energetic piece on nearly full organ, demonstrating Messiaen’s fondness for juxtaposing different textures.

The first piece in the group depicting the life of Christ is based on the Christmas chant from which it draws its title: Puer natus est nobis (Unto Us a Child is Born). Messiaen again juxtaposes simple statements of the chant melody with harmonically dense variations on it, with the opening motive of the chant (G–D–D) as a recurrent gesture. La manne et le Pain de Vie (Manna and the Bread of Life) alludes not only to Christ as the bread of life, but to the bread from heaven sent to the Hebrews wandering in the desert, as recounted in Exodus 16. The imagery here is particularly vivid: a stark musical landscape full of harsh registrations, songs of desert birds, desert winds, and even a representation of bread falling from the sky. Les ressuscités et la lumière de Vie (The Risen and the Light of Life) represents the first use of the “communicable language” in the work. The movement begins and ends with a musical spelling of RESURRECTION on full organ. Institution de l’Eucharistie (Institution of the Eucharist) is an introspective meditation on one of the great mysteries of the Church. Les ténèbres (The Darkness) depicts three events surrounding the Crucifixion with dreadful intensity. The opening tone-clusters represent the capture of Jesus, the slowly ascending and intensifying motives of the second section represent the Crucifixion itself, and the melancholy solo line represents the death of Christ, culminating in a rumbling cluster of thirteen pitches in the lowest ranks of the organ. La Résurrection du Christ (The Resurrection of Christ) portrays its subject with powerful harmonies that continually ascend. L’apparition du Christ ressuscité à Marie-Madeleine (The Appearance of the Risen Christ to Mary Magdalene) is a lengthy programmatic piece, complete with narrative annotations, trinitarian themes borrowed from the 1969 Méditations, birdsong, and communicable language (Your father, Your God, Apocalypse).

The final section of the work begins with the issue at the heart of Communion: La Transubstantiation (The Transubstantiation), which uses birdsong and a fragment of the Puer natus est nobis chant heard earlier. Les deux murailles d’eau (The Two Walls of Water) draws a correlation between the parting of the Red Sea (Exodus 14) and the breaking of the bread. Prière avant la communion (Prayer before Communion) contrasts chant quotations and introspective harmonies. La joie de la grâce (The Joy of Grace) is an exuberant outburst composed primarily of birdsong, while Prière après la communion (Prayer after Communion) is reminiscent of La Source de Vie (The Source of Life). La Présence multipliée (The Multiplied Presence) is a forceful piece made up of brilliant harmonies and a recurrent canon. The work concludes with a toccata of sorts, Offrande et Alléluia final (Offering and Final Alleluia) with repeated virtuosic figures and a passage in communicable language, La Joie (The Joy).

David Crean


¹ Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone, Messiaen (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 330.
² Hill and Simeone, 350.

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