About this Recording
8.573332 - MESSIAEN, O.: Nativité du Seigneur (La) (Winpenny)
English  French 

Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992)
La Nativité du Seigneur (The Birth of the Saviour)


Olivier Messiaen was a towering figure of twentieth-century European music. His highly personal musical language drew heavily on the natural world, the music of Eastern cultures and, above all, his devout Catholicism. A talented pianist, Messiaen entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1919 at a remarkably early age, and in 1927 joined Marcel Dupré’s organ class, although he had never previously set eyes on an organ console. Dupré spent the first class demonstrating the instrument, and Messiaen returned the following week, having learnt Bach’s Fantasia in C minor to an impressive standard. In 1931 he was appointed Organist at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité in Paris, with support for his candidacy from Charles Tournemire and Charles-Marie Widor—two of the city’s eminent organists. He would remain at La Trinité for more than sixty years, until his death.

Messiaen’s early organ music, and works such as the song cycle Poèmes pour Mi (1936–37) [Naxos 8.572174], established him as an important figure in contemporary music. Captured whilst serving as a medical auxiliary during World War II, he composed the Quatuor pour la fin du temps (1940–41) [Naxos 8.554824] for performance with three fellow prisoners. On his release he was appointed Professor of Harmony (and later Professor of Composition) at the Paris Conservatoire. An inspiring teacher, from 1949 Messiaen taught at the annual Darmstadt Summer School, where his influence was profound. His pupils included the composers Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and George Benjamin. The underlying principles of Messiaen’s highly individual style are set out in his two treatises: the Technique de mon langage musical (1944) and the Traité de rythme, de couleur, et d’ornithologie (unfinished at the time of his death, and completed by his wife Yvonne Loriod). Rather than attempting to impose his own style on his pupils, he would encourage them to find their own musical voice. Thus the individuality of Messiaen’s music has always set it apart from that of other composers.

La Nativité du Seigneur (The Birth of the Saviour) was composed in Grenoble in summer 1935. The first performance, at La Trinité in February 1936, was shared between the organists Daniel-Lesur, Jean Langlais and Jean-Jacques Grunenwald. It followed the work which brought him attention as a composer for the organ, L’Ascension (1933–34: a transcription of an orchestral work, but with a spectacular new third movement, Transports de joie). Messiaen experienced a mild form of synaesthesia, and perceived specific colours on hearing different harmonies. Colour—in both harmony and timbre—is at the centre of Messiaen’s musical ideology and plays a structural, rather than merely superficial rôle in all his works.

La Nativité established Messiaen as a visionary composer for the organ. It was one of a number of large-scale works for the instrument, which culminated in the monumental Livre du Saint Sacrement (1984)—one of many later works in which his passion for birdsong (which he transcribed into musical notation) features prominently. The achievement of his highly-personal style can be traced back to his time at the Conservatoire: Dupré had demonstrated the organ’s possibilities for virtuosic display, Paul Dukas (his composition teacher) advanced the use of modality, and Maurice Emmanuel (his teacher of music history) had been an advocate of rhythmic freedom. Years later, Messiaen would describe himself as ‘a musician—that is my profession: a rhythmologist—that is my speciality: and an ornithologist—that is my passion’.

The music of La Nativité can be seen as a synthesis of the innovations that had occupied Messiaen in the preceding years. In the lengthy preface to the published score, the composer sets out his Modes of limited transposition—special scales that form the basis of the intensely colourful harmonies in the cycle. Equally significant is Messiaen’s use of rhythm, which is precisely notated but nevertheless sounds extremely flexible. Often, the rhythms are derived from Hindu tâlas and from the fluidity of Gregorian chant. Rarely is a bar written in a ‘conventional’ metre.

Each movement of La Nativité serves as a musical commentary on a different aspect of the Christmas story. The number of movements—nine—is symbolic of the months of the gestation of the Christ Child. The opening movement—La Vierge et l’Enfant (The Virgin and Child)—is a triptych. A graceful and enchanting melody governs the outer sections, which evoke the Virgin’s hushed awe as she cradles the infant Jesus. The central section depicts her joy and rapture at the birth: the pedal figuration suggests bells, whilst rising and falling chords evoke the rocking of the cradle. Against this is set an elaborate right hand melody based around the plainsong hymn Puer natus est nobis (Unto us a Child is born), representing Mary’s joy.

A pictorial impulse is central to the second movement, Les Bergers (The Shepherds), as the shepherds kneel in wonder around the crib. Then, rising from their obeisance, they praise God as they return to their fields, piping joyful, carol-like melodies.

Desseins éternels (Eternal Purposes) portrays a more abstract image: our predestination, through Jesus Christ, to be God’s adopted sons. A long-breathed melody—marked ‘extremely slow and tender’ and harmonised with slow-moving, shimmering chords—evokes a sense of the title’s vision of timelessness.

The fourth movement, Le Verbe (The Word), signifies the birth of the Word of God. Its opening section, powerful and majestic, denotes God descending to earth in human form. The solemn second part presents a long, incantatory and exquisitely lyrical melody portraying the eternal, divine and ever-present Word.

The rhythmically charged opening of the next movement, Les Enfants de Dieu (The Children of God), grows in excitement and energy until for the first time in the cycle (and at its midpoint) the full resources of the organ are employed. This impassioned outburst subsides into calm and quiet, expressing the confident call of Christians, reborn as God’s children.

The appearance of the angels in the next movement, Les Anges (The Angels), is vividly captured. Written for the manuals only, its brightness and rhythmic drive imaginatively convey the beating wings of the heavenly host, which descends, pauses in homage, and then ascends—circling ever higher until out of sight.

The seventh movement, Jésus accepte la souffrance (Jesus accepts Suffering), marks a change in character. This dramatic movement starkly presents the agony of the Crucifixion which Christ will suffer in order to redeem mankind. The symbol of the Cross is heard in the prominent recurring four-pitch pedal motif. Highly chromatic passages alternate with arresting fortissimo chords, before the cross motif, repeated and gaining in strength, draws the movement into a blaze of glory: Christ the Redeemer has appeared.

Les Mages (The Magi) evokes the journey of the Wise Men through the desert. The pedal part, freed, as often in Messiaen’s organ music, from its usual rôle as the bass, plays a high melody representing the constant guiding star. The melody’s contour suggests the plainsong hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus (Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire). The manual chords evoke the passage of the caravan through the arid landscape.

The concluding movement, Dieu parmi nous (God among us), draws together the ideas of the preceding movements. The imposing theme from Le Verbe, signifying the descending Word of God, is heard in powerful chords which proceed to bottom C in the pedal and announce the Incarnation. A short reflection introduces a ‘theme of love’, the Communion between Christ and his people. The joyous and vital third theme signifies Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat, its rhythmic vigour and flexibility showing the influence of birdsong. In the following section, the ‘theme of love’ is developed, as the harmonic tension becomes more impassioned. An ascending statement of part of the ‘Word of God’ theme heralds the start of an exhilarating toccata, in the radiant key of E major. This masterly section—inspired, according to Messiaen’s diaries, by the mountains close to Grenoble—evolves into a monumental conclusion.

The Organ of St Albans Cathedral
Harrison & Harrison, Durham, UK, 1962
Restored and rebuilt Harrison & Harrison, 2007–09

Great Organ Pedal Organ Swell Organ Nave Organ (prepared for)
16′ Principal 32′ Sub Bass 8′ Open Diapason 16′ Bourdon
16′ Bourdon 16′ Principal 8′ Rohr Flute 8′ Diapason
8′ Principal 16′ Major Bass 8′ Viola 8′ Rohr Flute
8′ Diapason 16′ Bourdon 8′ Celeste (tenor C) 4′ Octave
8′ Spitzflute 10⅔′ Quint 4′ Principal 4′ Spitzflute
8′ Stopped Diapason 8′ Octave 4′ Open Flute 2′ Super Octave
4′ Octave 8′ Gedackt 2⅔′ Nazard Mixture IV
4′ Stopped Flute 5⅓′ Nazard 2′ Octave 16′ Pedal Sub Bass
2⅔′ Quint 4′ Choral Bass 2′ Gemshorn Nave on Great
2′ Super Octave 2′ Open Flute 1⅗′ Tierce Nave on Solo
2′ Blockflute Mixture IV Mixture III Combination couplers
Mixture IV-VI 32′ Fagotto Cimbel III Great and Pedal
16′ Bass Trumpet 16′ Bombardon 8′ Hautboy Combinations
8′ Trumpet 16′ Fagotto (from 32′) 8′ Vox Humana Coupled
4′ Clarion 16′ Bass Trumpet (Great) 16′ Corno di Bassetto Generals on Toe
Grand Cornet (tenor G) 8′ Tromba 8′ Trumpet Pistons
Choir to Great 4′ Shawm 4′ Clarion  
Swell to Great Choir to Pedal Tremulant Balanced Swell Pedal (mechanical)
Solo to Great Great to Pedal Octave Adjustable Choir
Choir Organ Swell to Pedal Sub Octave Organ shutters (rotary dial)
16′ Quintaton Solo to Pedal Unison Off  
8′ Open Diapason   Solo Organ The manual compass is CC–a, 58 notes; and the pedalboard compass is CCC–G, 32 notes
8′ Gedackt-pommer   16′ Corno di Bassetto (Swell)  
8′ Flauto traverso   Grand Cornet V (Great)  
4′ Octave   8′ Fanfare Trumpet  
4′ Rohrflute   Cimbelstern (6 bells)  
2′ Waldflute   Octave  
1⅓′ Larigot   Unison Off  
Sesquialtera II   Great Reeds on Solo  
Mixture IV      
8′ Cromorne      
Unison Off      
Swell to Choir      
Solo to Choir      

The Benedictine monastery of St Alban, founded about 739, was built on the site of the execution of Britain’s first martyr, St Alban (d. c.250 AD). Various small organs are recorded as having existed in the Abbey Church before the monastery’s dissolution in 1539, but after that there is no record of an organ in the building until 1820, three centuries after the townspeople of St Albans had bought the Abbey as their Parish Church. In 1861 a three manual organ by William Hill was installed: in 1885 it was enlarged and remodelled by Abbott & Smith of Leeds during the restoration of the building, which coincided with its elevation (in 1877) to Cathedral status. Further work was undertaken in subsequent decades to improve the projection of sound throughout the 521-foot-long building: new organ cases, designed by John Oldrid Scott, were installed in 1908 and in 1929 the organ was re-voiced by Henry Willis to be much louder.

In 1958 Peter Hurford was appointed as the Cathedral’s organist: he was quickly gaining an international reputation as a brilliant performer and his appointment coincided with further restoration work to the Cathedral’s fabric, which necessitated the dismantling of the mechanically-unreliable and tonally-inadequate organ. Working closely with an adviser, Ralph Downes, Hurford drew up a specification for a new instrument inspired by the latest trends in organ building from Europe; it would accompany services—in particular the core English cathedral repertoire—in both the nave and quire, and would also serve well for most of the solo repertoire. It would become the first English cathedral instrument to be built on neo-classical principles. The contract was placed with organ builders Harrison & Harrison of Durham: assembly in the Abbey began at Easter 1962 and the organ was dedicated in November of that year.

The instrument is based on the principles of open-foot voicing and relatively low wind-pressures that Downes had employed in his work on the landmark organ for the Royal Festival Hall, London in the 1950s. Downes was closely involved with the scaling and voicing of the pipes, and he considered spatial separation of all divisions, with sufficiently wide scaling of wide-open flutes, important for the projection of sound. Around one third of the pipework of the previous organ was re-used, but was completely revoiced. Scott’s 1908 cases were retained: the pipework of the Swell and Great sits in north and south cases respectively. Pedal ranks, at floor level in the organ loft, are placed in both the cases, and a new Positive case, designed by Cecil Brown, houses the Choir division. The result is a coherent classical sound—clear and focused to the listener even at the western end of the nave, and present to the performer. A fully-stocked Swell division and a wealth of 16’ and 8’ stops on other divisions make the organ highly effective and supportive for accompaniment of the traditional cathedral choral repertoire.

A comprehensive refurbishment of the organ was carried out from 2007 to 2009 by Harrisons, the original builders, under the guidance of Andrew Lucas (the Cathedral’s present Master of the Music). The soundboards were renewed and wind reservoirs restored; other parts of the instrument were returned to ‘as new’ condition. Compromises reached in the initial construction because of financial and other restraints were addressed: Principal stops at 2’ pitch (curiously lacking on the original specification) are now available, and a fourth manual has been added for the Fanfare Trumpet. Originally on the Great, this stop was intended to act both as a solo and chorus reed: new 8’ and 4’ chorus reeds were provided for the Great in the restoration. A Nave division is prepared for on the Solo manual, which will further boost congregational singing down the great length of the nave. A 32’ reed (extended to 16’ pitch) and a Cimblestern of six bells were also added, and the organ console was updated.

In 1963 Hurford founded the St Albans International Organ Festival and Competition, which secured the instrument’s place in English organ-building history. For almost fifty years this organ has proved an inspiring and remarkably versatile instrument for its liturgical and concert demands.

Tom Winpenny
A more detailed history, The Organs and Musicians of St Albans Cathedral by Andrew Lucas, is available from St Albans Cathedral: www.stalbanscathedral.org

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