About this Recording
8.573247 - MESSIAEN, O.: Poèmes pour Mi / Vocalise-Étude / Chants de Terre et de Ciel (Bruun, Hyldig)
English  French 

Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992)
Poèmes pour Mi • Vocalise-Étude • Chants de Terre et de Ciel


The song cycles occupy a strikingly important musical and biographical position within Messiaen’s life and career, though they are confined to a space of less than a decade: 1936–1945. These years mark the period between the appearance of Poèmes pour Mi (recorded here) in 1936 and the large-scale cycle Harawi (1945), part of the famous Tristan trilogy of the postwar period (performed by the same artists on Naxos 8.572189). Between these two great cycles comes the in some ways lighter, but still musically demanding and highly characteristic Chants de Terre et de Ciel (1938).

Within the music of these three cycles we have a palpable sense of excitement and vitality, of a moving forward. They convey an expressive and aesthetic evolution in Messiaen’s life and art. He is moving forward both psychologically and artistically—confidently in so many ways, but not without self-doubt and looming shadows, too. The cycles imaginatively reflect this human and artistic dimension of his life, without becoming merely anecdotal or losing their artistic independence. They retain great presence and communicative power, fully on their own terms.

Not only is the subject matter important to Messiaen, humanly speaking, but he is working at the very forefront of his technical and expressive capacities as they existed at this time. The modal and rhythmic experimentations of the 1930s found in this great outpouring of song a brilliant composing workshop in which Messiaen’s latest ideas about modality and metrical innovation could be intensively developed and worked up into pieces which combine (1) the expressive power of the human voice with the opportunity for other musical invention and pianistic detail; and (2) the need for sustained compositional invention over a relatively long span, via a series of self-contained linked poems—‘miniature’ movements, in effect, which are nevertheless big in imaginative and expressive reach.

The music of the song cycles embodies Messiaen’s distinctive harmonic and expressive world in a way that goes in parallel with the more radical and extended instrumental developments found in the Quartet for the End of Time (1941) [Naxos 8.554824] and in the even greater range and pianistic brilliance of Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus (1944) [Naxos 8.550829-30]. The songs’ particular lyric-dramatic character arises from two linked phenomena: (1) Messiaen’s concentration on finding new shades and intensities of harmonic colour and rhythmic propulsion, while also achieving maximum inventiveness in his pianistic écriture, and (2) his exploration of the full range and variety of expressive vocal writing available to the human voice—recitational, intimate, lyric, declamatory, melismatic, ecstatic.

As well as the two great cycles of 1936 and 1938, this recording includes the Vocalise-Étude, composed in 1935 and published by Leduc (rather than by Durand) in 1936. This is ostensibly a concert study for soprano voice, without text and hence fully melismatic. But in Messiaen’s hands it becomes a beautiful work of art in its own right, echoing the extended melismatic passages in the cycles and evoking his art of the secular alleluia, such as we find indeed at the end of the first song in Poèmes pour Mi, and in the final song of Chants de Terre et de Ciel.

Poèmes pour Mi and Chants de Terre et de Ciel

The Poèmes pour Mi mark an important moment, both personally and compositionally, in Messiaen’s life. They were written in the summer of 1936, and were the first of his pieces to be composed in his idyllic holiday home at Petichet (Isère), a very simple summer dwelling on the shores of the Lac de Laffrey. This beautiful stretch of water is situated just below the great initial rise of the Alps a few miles off to the east, within sight of the looming grandeur of the mountain of the Grand Serre. Petichet was his creative retreat. Here, in the future, he would compose the vast majority of his new works, during the summer months away from the hustle and bustle and the incessant distracting demands of Paris.

‘Mi’ was Messiaen’s affectionate name for his beloved first wife, Claire Delbos, and this cycle is his extended lyric hymn to their love: both a celebration, and an offering. These are his poems to her, expressed through his music at its highest stage of development, as it stood in 1936. But the songs are very far from being mere lyric miniatures. Still less are they calm and unclouded throughout. On the contrary, the expressive tone is powerful, intense, heroic even. There are shadows, and moments of apparent darkness. The cycle is laid out, musically, on the largest scale and is composed for a big soprano voice, what Messiaen described explicitly as a ‘grand soprano dramatique’ on the cover of the Durand score. The style is rich—melodically, rhythmically, harmonically. The piano textures are full of light-filled clusters and colour and vibrancy: beautifully harmonised and intricately worked. This supports and irradiates the soprano as she goes along above the accompaniment. The detail in both the piano and the voice is carefully controlled, and the whole texture is kept mobile and buoyant at all tempi, however fast or slow, through Messiaen’s innovative approach to metre and rhythm. The vocal line and the piano textures which sustain it maintain a gently irregular, carefully suspended flow of rhythm that combines surprise and predictability with a skilfully managed onward momentum and a cumulatively expressive line.

The Chants de Terre et de Ciel (Songs of Earth and Heaven; 1938) might with good reason be thought of as a lighter cycle. But it is still musically demanding both for performers and for listeners, and has an equally strong, intricately worked character. It begins, in a sense, from where Poèmes pour Mi left off. Where Poèmes expressed in almost emblematic fashion a series of poetic vignettes showing different aspects of the relationship to the Beloved—who has of course now become the Bride,—Chants expands the frame to include the child (Messiaen’s son Pascal, born in 1937). The child makes of the marriage a social group—transforming the spiritual and erotic bond of man and wife through the naïve force of his childlike innocence and energy.

Chants was composed in 1938 and first performed by Messiaen and Marcelle Bunlet on 23 January 1939, before being published in April by Durand. The cycle celebrates the joy and energy of a young, newly founded family: the union with the Beloved is transfigured, not just by the sacramental experience of marriage but through the new life of the child. The individual songs celebrate this spiritual and human strength of marriage (Agreement with Mi); the contemplative mystery of silence and new life (Antiphon of Silence); the child’s dance-like energy and his aura of innocence and joy (Danse and Arc-en-ciel d’innocence); the darkness of midnight as a threatening psychological force the new spiritual growth and confidence (Minuit pile et face); and finally the experience of renascence and rebirth the Poet-Composer (Messiaen himself) undergoes, by which his God-given confidence is restored (Résurrection: pour le jour de Pâques) in an Easter-like process, joyfully expressed.

Poèmes pour Mi (1936)

[1] Action de grâces (Thanksgiving)

This richly composed song makes for a broad opening to the cycle. It embraces a wide range of vocal and pianistic writing, and a wide range of emotion too. It is also in close relationship to Nature, as the Poet-Composer gives thanks for the world and his new-found happiness: Mon Dieu, Alléluia, alléluia. The brilliant, subtly coloured piano chords and the insistently swaying rhythms (using Messiaen’s characteristic ‘valeurs ajoutées’) set the tone for the cycle as a whole.

[2] Paysage (Landscape)

The luminous landscape is that of the Lac de Laffrey, viewed from the wild garden of Messiaen’s summer home as it slopes down towards the water. The first words of the poem, Le laccomme un gros bijou bleu, locates the poem in space (looking out over the lake) and time (a light-filled summer vacation) while also marking the gently transcendent character of the scene as a whole, as the music evocatively portrays it. More important still, the landscape contains a vision of the Beloved.

[3] La maison (The Little House)

This refers specifically to the summer retreat at Petichet (Isère) which would always have for Messiaen an idyllic, spiritual quality. It also symbolises the togetherness of husband and wife during the summer months. This song associates in the simplest way the place of creativity with the place of beauty and happiness where man and woman co-exist in communion, with each other and with Nature. The ‘artless’ simplicity of the song expresses this in a straightforward way, without exaggeration and without pretension. A time is foreseen, however, when they will have to take their leave of even this simple earthly haven.

[4] Épouvante (Terror)

All three cycles include songs of darkness and anguish. This is the first, and comes as a surprise after the rich confidence of the first song and the lyric beauty and relative tranquillity of the second and third. What does it mean? Messiaen takes nothing for granted, and his wish to inhabit a world of light and joy (‘un musicien de la joie’ was how Yvonne Loriod described him) could not blind him to the fact of his own fears and terrors, or to the darkness of the world. He knew the threat of anguish and despair (désespoir) and the burning strength of fire (les puissances du feu). His clear religious faith did not mean he did not confront the human realities of darkness and anguish. In his poetic world, this dark world of fear and apprehension is to be faced, fairly and squarely, before being put to flight by the gift of love—his beloved ‘Mi’, their shared love of God and Nature.

[5] L’épouse (The Bride)

The Beloved becomes the Bride. Messiaen’s poetic world fuses religious aspiration and human emotion as few such worlds do. His aesthetic means remain those of the secular song cycle in the hands of a master craftsman, yet his richly expressed world embraces a latent sense of the sacramental.

[6] Ta voix (Your Voice)

This song evokes the Beloved’s voice in her eternal, angelic dimension.

[7] Les deux guerriers (The Two Warriors)

This powerful song, unusual within a cycle primarily about love, presents a decisive statement of the partnership between man and woman. Together they face the world and interact with it, more strongly than either could do alone, and they offer a God-given sense of human solidarity and idealism in courageous form.

[8] Le collier (The Necklace)

This radiant, mysterious song grows out of the poetic world of Baudelaire and Debussy, and yet it turns their love imagery in a different, direction. ‘Le collier’ describes what sounds initially as if it were a necklace (‘collier’) but in fact turns out to be her arms around his neck—joining the erotic with the tender, the gentle, and the intimate. This song typifies the way Messiaen’s aesthetic fully embraces the here-and-now of the known world of human emotion and passion, while still giving it a more rounded spiritual dimension than is usual in love poetry.

[9] Prière exaucée (Prayer Answered)

This song sets a seal of gratitude upon the cycle, closing the great arc opened by the opening song half an hour before. The Poet-Lover’s aspiration is fulfilled, his wishes are answered. The scale is broad, and again human feeling is embraced within a framework of religious aspiration, and, finally, overwhelming gratitude. Here we find a similar range of musical writing and a similar breadth of reflection and understanding to what we first encountered in Action de grâces. The song, and the cycle, end in exclamations of triumphant joy.

Chants de Terre et de Ciel (1938)

[11] Bail avec Mi (Agreement with Mi): For my Wife

This ‘agreement’ or ‘pledge’ represents a consensus, a coming together, of the two lovers and their entry into a higher state of things—not just as a married couple, but as complements of one another (and indeed as new parents of a child). Their love has been in some sense submitted to the refining fire: consummated spiritually, as well as erotically. But they have a union, a shared bond of existence, not a wild romantic attachment, and the song shows this.

[12] Antienne du silence (Antiphon of Silence): For the Day of Guardian Angels

This song weaves a magic spell, or, if you prefer, spins a fine veil of mystery around musicians and listeners alike: ‘Silent angel, write silence in my hands:, alleluia, alleluia, that I may breathe in the silence of heaven, alleluia, alleluia’. This veil is delicately spread across the whole atmosphere of the cycle.

[13] Danse du bébé-pilule (Dance of the Little Child):For my little Pascal

This is a gently, but insistently, rocking song, not a dance movement in any formal sense but with Debussyan dance rhythms underpinning the music more or less throughout—it is almost a gentle scherzo-dance, suited to the childlike movement of the who in his joy conveys things to the parent that could be communicated in no other way.

[14] Arc-en-ciel d’innocence (Rainbow of Innocence): For my little Pascal

This song is quieter and more reflective than the preceding Danse, but still has the insistent, joyous childlike movement that characterises the ‘dancing’ of the infant Pascal: ‘Pilule, you dance like the little hammer of an Easter bell. Bonjour, little child!’

[15] Minuit pile et face (Midnight Up and Down): For Death

This is another song of darkness. Messiaen puts scenes of anguish into all three cycles, thereby acknowledging that joy and serenity, and if necessary rebirth, come always at a high price. The terrors of suffering and death are real; even the realities of love, which finally rescue us, cannot obliterate them.

[16] Résurrection (Resurrection): For Easter Day

This is a great concluding song to the cycle—joyous and declamatory, with powerfully voiced piano chords and assertive rhythm, as well as a strong, demanding vocal line. It is also expansive, as if the emotion could not be contained within a smaller span. It has length and drive, and an almost ecstatic inner dynamic. Like the framing songs of Poèmes pour Mi, it sets the intensely human emotions of the entire cycle within a transcendent, religious dimension of experience. This is typical of Messiaen’s thought and feeling. But it in no way lessens the music’s intrinsically human (and in that sense ‘secular’) psychological and emotional impact. The aesthetic standpoint and the musical means are shot through with religious intensity, yet at the same time remain brilliantly secular, and thoroughly modern.

Philip Weller

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