About this Recording
8.573471 - MESSIAEN, O.: Organ Works - L'Ascension / Diptyque / Offrande au Saint-Sacrement / Prélude / Le Banquet Céleste (Winpenny)
English  French 

Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992)
L’Ascension and other works


Olivier Messiaen was a towering figure in 20th 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 Dupre’s organ class, although he had never previously set eyes on an organ console. Dupre 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 Eglise de la Sainte-Trinite (La Trinite) 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 Trinite 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 8.573247 / 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 of war. 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. The individuality of Messiaen’s music has thus always set it apart from that of other composers.

During his student years Messiaen began deputising at La Trinite for the ailing organist Charles Quef. Messiaen was already gaining recognition as a composer (his first published work, Préludes for piano, was issued in 1930), and the richly-voiced orchestral colours of the church’s Cavaille-Coll instrument were undoubtedly an inspiration for him as a relative latecomer to the organ. Similarly inescapable was the influence of other Parisian organist-composers such as his teacher Marcel Dupre, Louis Vierne, Charles-Marie Widor, and the enigmatic Charles Tournemire. Messiaen clearly found a kindred spirit in Tournemire, who was renowned for his liturgical extemporisations. Later in life Messiaen declared Tournemire ‘a composer of genius and a marvellous improviser’, and explained that Christian devotion was fundamental to the music of both composers. Tournemire’s vast liturgical organ cycle L’Orgue Mystique was written between 1927 and 1932, just as Messiaen was beginning to compose for the organ. The cycle is remarkable for its atmospheric treatment of plainsong melodies and its response to specific scriptural lines. Contrasting changes of texture and timbre abound, and the pedal line is regularly released from its traditional role as the bass. Messiaen’s innovative textures in Le Banquet Céleste, Alléluias sereins and Offrande au Saint-Sacrement all find their roots in Tournemire’s work, whilst Diptyque and Prélude demonstrate evolution of the more-traditional symphonic form of Widor, Vierne and Dupre.

Le Banquet céleste (1928), Messiaen’s first published organ work, is a tender meditation on Holy Communion. It reworks the slow second theme of an incomplete symphonic poem, Le Banquet eucharistique, which Messiaen began in 1926 whilst a student of Dukas. Astonishingly, this youthful work displays many of the mature characteristics of the composer’s style: the longbreathed and extremely slow phrases are given momentum by avoiding any resolution of the dissonant, yet rich, harmonies. The rhythmic pulse remains integral to its expansive twenty-five bars, and is underlined at the entry of staccato ‘drops of water’, played in the pedal.

Composed in 1928 or 1930, Diptyque is dedicated to Dukas and Dupre and is subtitled ‘Essai sur la vie terrestre et l’eternite bienheureuse’ (‘Essay on earthly life and blissful eternity’). The restless first section depicts the anxieties of earthly life: the opening seven-note theme recurs frequently, and at the climax it is heard in canon between manuals and pedal. Throughout, the harmony is highly chromatic, though it retains a tonal centre: its style is redolent of the work’s dedicatees. The agitated mood dissipates into the second tableau, a serene representation of the ‘immovable light of joy and peace’ of Paradise. Here, the harmonic language is more individual, based around the octatonic scale which Messiaen would later define as a Mode of limited transposition. He would later re-use this entrancing section as the last movement of the Quatuor pour la fin du temps.

Apparition de l’Église éternelle (1932) is a powerful representation of an appearance of the eternal church emerging then fading from view. The sustained crescendo builds until the full resources of the organ are employed for a triumphant C major chord; the vision then recedes; all the while, the relentless pedal motif continues to provide rhythmic impetus.

Two of Messiaen’s early organ works were discovered posthumously in 1997. Offrande au Saint-Sacrement, probably composed in the 1930s, returns to the theme of Holy Communion. Its use of the voix humaine stop—unusual for Messiaen—is reminiscent of Tournemire’s music. The descending chromatic flute melody combines with the unfamiliar registration to evoke the mystery of the Blessed Sacrement. Prélude, a larger scale work, was possibly composed c. 1928–30 whilst Messiaen was a student. Its style is closely connected to Diptyque and again shows the influence of Dupre. Framed by slow sections which employ his distinctive 16’ quintaton with 4’ flute registration, the bustling central section is highly chromatic and contrapuntal. The coda is announced by the theme being played in octaves, above staccato chords, in the manner of Dupre or Widor.

The organ version of Messiaen’s cycle of four symphonic meditations, L’Ascension (1933–34), was published and first performed in January 1935, only a few days before the premiere of the orchestral version (1932–33). This extraordinary work was praised by the music press and immediately established Messiaen as one of the most important composers of his generation. The opening movement, Majesté du Christ, presents a series of solemn phrases, played on the reed stops, depicting Christ’s prayer to his Father. Centred on the note B, the relatively static harmony is combined with steady, undulating rhythms and wide dynamic variety to evoke Christ’s supplication.

Alléluias sereins opens with a single vocalise-like melodic line; its harmonic ambiguity and rhythmic flexibility establish a mystical air. This is complemented by a clarinet line decorated with fragments of the opening phrase. Delicately-scored elaborations on these opening melodies form the central section, before a final appearance—played in the pedal—of the opening material, presented ‘beneath a luminous haze of trills’. Messiaen’s ingenuity in transcribing the subtle orchestral colours for the organ demonstrates his acute sensitivity to the instrument’s distinctive timbres.

The dazzling toccata Transports de joie replaced the orchestral movement Allélulia sur la trompette, Alléluia sur la cymbale, which Messiaen believed would transcribe inadequately for the organ. The disparate elements of this movement—the arresting opening chords, the powerful solo pedal lines and the concluding moto perpetuo—root this movement firmly in the improvisatory tradition of the French organ school. Nevertheless, few organ works have come close to the cataclysmic impact of this movement’s vitality—a deep statement of faith in the power of resurrection.

Messiaen described the final movement, Prière du Christ, as the ‘emotional peak’ of L’Ascension. Marked ‘extremely slow’, its succession of richly-coloured harmonies contains an elusive melody. Messiaen wrote of his aim to ‘eloigner le temporel’—to eliminate a sense of time. The near-stasis of this serene movement, like Le Banquet céleste, approaches this desire: the harmonies rise almost imperceptibly, finally settling on a long, seemingly inconclusive, seventh chord.

Tom Winpenny

The following scriptural quotations are included in the scores:


1) Majeste du Christ demandant sa gloire a son Pere (Majesty of Christ praying that his Father should glorify him)
Father, the hour is come: glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee. John 17: 1

2) Alleluias sereins d’une ame qui desire le ciel (Serene Alleluias from a soul longing for heaven)
We beseech thee, Almighty God, that we may in mind dwell in heaven. Collect for Ascension Day

3) Transports de joie d’une ame devant la gloire du Christ qui est la sienne (Outbursts of joy from a soul before the glory
of Christ which is its own glory)
Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light… he
raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus. Colossians 1: 2, Ephesians 2: 6

4) Priere du Christ montant vers son Pere (Prayer of Christ ascending toward his Father)
And now, O Father, I have manifested thy name unto men… and now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to thee. John 17: 6, 11

Le Banquet céleste (The Celestial Banquet)
He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. John 6: 56

Apparition de l’Église éternelle (Apparition of the Eternal Church)

Made of living stones, made of the stones of heaven, it appears in the sky: it is the bride of the Lamb. It is the church of heaven, made of the stones of heaven which are the souls of the elect. They are in God and God is in them for the eternity of heaven. after the hymn Urbs beata

[Translations: L’Ascension—the published score, Le Banquet Céleste—King James Bible, Apparition de l’Eglise éternelle—Tom Winpenny].

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