About this Recording
8.573682 - MESSIAEN, O.: Corps Glorieux (Les) / Messe de la PentecĂ´te (Winpenny)
English  French 

Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992)
Les Corps glorieux • Messe de la Pentecôte


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 Dupré’s organ class, although he had never previously set eyes on an organ console. In the first class, Dupré demonstrated 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 (La 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) established him as an important figure in contemporary music. Captured while serving as a medical auxiliary during World War II, he composed the Quatuor pour la fin du temps (1940–41) 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.

Composed more than a decade apart, Les Corps glorieux (1939) and Messe de la Pentecôte (1949–50) represent two stylistically different periods of Messiaen’s music. A successor to the composer’s Christmas cycle for organ, La Nativité du Seigneur (1935), Les Corps glorieux (The Glorified Bodies) concerns resurrection. It develops textures, harmonic modes and Hindu rhythms similar to those in La Nativité, but its movements are more rigorously interlinked. For many years Messiaen considered it his favourite work—perhaps a summation of his first compositional period. Les Corps glorieux was completed in late August 1939, shortly before Messiaen was called up for military service at the outbreak of the Second World War. Captured in June 1940, he was transported to the Görlitz prisoner-of-war camp in Silesia. The enforced separation from the organ loft stimulated Messiaen’s interest in birdsong which, significantly, he incorporated into the Quatuor pour la fin du temps, composed in the camp. He later stated ‘It is an instinctive passion. Birdsong is also my refuge.’ Most of his compositions in the 1940s (he was released in 1941) centred on the piano—his imagination fired by the young pianist in his class at the Paris Conservatoire, Yvonne Loriod, whom he would marry after the death of his wife, the composer Claire Delbos. In his weekly organ improvisations at La Trinité he began experimenting with more abstract music, incorporating birdsong and mathematical procedures. Messe de la Pentecôte (Pentecost Mass) is a distillation of Messiaen’s liturgical extemporisations of the late 1940s, and prefigures his even more radical compositions of the 1950s.

Les Corps glorieux opens with a flowing single-voiced (monodic) movement—Subtilité des Corps glorieux—reflecting the suppleness of resurrected bodies. Messiaen’s first monody, it is an elaboration of the opening phrases of the plainsong Salve Regina, applying rhythmic additions and chromatic alterations, and is played on the organ’s diverse and luminous cornet registers. Elements of the theme reappear in the final movement.

Three textures combine in Les Eaux de la Grâce to depict the flowing waters described in the book of Revelation. The rising pedal line (at a high register, heard in the middle of the texture) opposes the tonality of the left hand’s undulating pattern. Above, harmonised in one of Messiaen’s characteristic modes, soars a graceful melody.

The structure of L’Ange aux parfums, cast in seven sections, reflects that of the entire work. The opening monody returns in the third section in the pedal—adorned by shimmering manual chords—and as a fleeting sixth section. The second and fifth sections present another theme in the pedal whilst the rhythm of each hand’s accompanying chords is given in mirror image. The rapid fourth and final sections are two-part inventions, depicting incense rising before God, and are based on fragments of the initial material.

The central movement, Combat de la Mort et de la Vie, is a vivid two-fold representation of the battle between life and death. A low, snarling melody opens the movement, preceding a forceful toccata featuring ascending and descending chords which build to a monumental climax—the vanquishing of death. The soaring melody of the second tableau—heard in a flute stop—unfolds quietly and tranquilly, portraying the serenity of resurrected life. It is marked ‘in the sun-drenched peace of Divine Love’.

Force et Agilité des Corps glorieux is a nimble dance, in octaves, conveying the strength and agility of the resurrected. It employs the theme heard in the L’Ange aux parfums. Rising chords herald the dance’s conclusion; the final sustained chord fades into eternity.

The joy and brightness of the resurrected is demonstrated in Joie et Clarté des Corps glorieux by Messiaen’s use of unashamedly jazzy harmonies. An improvisatory solo trumpet melody dominates the movement: it alternates with the reflective sections, but concludes with an exuberant flourish.

An austere conclusion, Le Mystère de la Sainte-Trinité is replete with Trinitarian symbolism. The voices of the trio texture represent (from the bass) the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, whilst the movement’s tripartite structure corresponds to the division of the nine-fold Kyrie eleison. The unusual sonority—a combination of very high and low registers—represents, according to the composer, ‘a double halo of mystery’. The middle voice is given greater prominence: ‘alone, the Son draws near to us visibly through his incarnation.’

Messe de la Pentecôte was composed as an organ mass for the feast of Pentecost—the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles. Its movements correspond in character and duration to the improvised elements of Messiaen’s church duties.

Entrée: Les langues de feu announces—at the priests’ entrance—the fire of the Holy Spirit through a bold clarion call, played as a recitative in the pedals. The movement adapts ancient Greek rhythms, and the interjections on the manuals suggest sparks of flames.

The core of the work—Offertoire: Les choses visibles et invisibles—marks the offering of bread and wine at the altar. The opening section juxtaposes three ‘personalities’—motifs based on Hindu rhythms. An expressive recitative precedes a complex construction of chords in opposing rhythmic permutations against an isorhythmic (independentlyrepeated) pedal line. Low Cs on a strident 16 foot reed stop—in Messiaen’s words representing ‘the Beast of the Apocalypse’—bookend the following section. The recitative is repeated against pseudo-birdsong, before another theme—imitating water droplets—heralds the substantial coda.

Consécration: Le don de Sagesse opens with contrasting sonorities alongside a pedal clarion solo. Again based on Hindu rhythms, this idea alternates with a chromatically-adapted plainsong line, heard on a bold clarinet stop.

One of Messiaen’s earliest works to incorporate pure birdsong, Communion: Les oiseaux et les sources presents songs of the cuckoo, nightingale and blackbird. The outer sections’ opulent passages quote harmonic progressions from the contemporaneous Turangalîla-Symphonie and Cinq Rechants, whilst free lines quote piano works such as Cantéyodjayâ. The highest and lowest registers of the instrument combine for the final chord—signifying divine presence throughout heaven and earth.

Sortie: Le vent de l’Esprit depicts the rushing, mighty wind of Pentecost. In the central section, a chorus of larks features: simultaneously, manual chords ascend in pitch yet diminish in rhythmic value, whilst the pedal reverses this procedure. A searing cadenza across the full compass of the organ precedes the final, devastating chord.

Tom Winpenny

Scriptural quotations

Les Corps glorieux (The Glorified Bodies)
Sept visions brèves de la vie des ressuscités (Seven short visions of the life of the resurrected)

 1  I: Subtilité des Corps glorieux (Subtlety of the glorified bodies)
Leur corps, semé corps animal, ressuscitera corps spirituel. Et ils seront purs comme les anges de Dieu dans le ciel.
1 Corinthians 15: 44; Matthew 22: 30
It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. And they are pure as the angels of God in heaven.

 2  II: Les Eaux de la Grâce (The Waters of Grace)
L’Agneau, qui est au milieu du trône, conduira les élus aux sources des eaux de la vie.
Revelation 7: 17
For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall lead them unto living fountains of waters.

 3  III: L’Ange aux parfums (The Angel of Incense)
La fumée des parfums, formés des prières des saints, monta de l’ange devant Dieu.
Revelation 8: 4
The smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand.

 4  IV: Combat de la Mort et de la Vie (Battle between Death and Life)
La mort et la vie ont engagé un stupéfiant combat; l’Auteur de la vie, après être mort, vit et règne; et il dit: Mon Père, je suis ressuscité, je suis encore avec toi.
Missal, Sequence and Introit for Easter
Death and life are engaged in a stupendous battle. The Author of life, having been dead, lives and reigns. And he says: my Father, I am risen, I am still with Thee.

 5  V: Force et Agilité des Corps glorieux (Strength and Agility of the Glorified bodies)
Leur corps, semé dans la faiblesse, ressuscitera plein de force
1 Corinthians 15: 43
The bodies, sown in weakness, will be raised in power.

 6  VI: Joie et Clarté des Corps glorieux (Joy and Brightness of the Glorified bodies)
Alors les justes resplendiront comme le soleil dans le royaume de leur Père.
Matthew 13: 43
Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.

 7  VII: Le Mystère de la Sainte-Trinité (The Mystery of the Holy Trinity)
Ô Père tout puissant, qui, avec votre Fils unique et le Saint Esprit, êtes un seul Dieu ! Non dans l’unité d’une seule personne, mais dans la Trinité d’une seule substance.
Missal, Preface for Holy Trinity
O Father all-powerful, who with your only Son and the Holy Spirit are one God! Not in the unity of one person, but in the Trinity of one substance.

Messe de la Pentecôte (Pentecost Mass)

 8  I: Entrée: Les langues de feu (Introit: The Tongues of Fire)
Des langues de feu se posèrent sur chacun d’eux.
Acts of the Apostles 2: 3
Tongues like as of fire sat upon each of them.

 9  II: Offertoire: Les choses visibles et invisibles (Offertory: The Things visible and invisible)
Les choses visibles et invisibles.
The Nicene Creed
The things visible and invisible.

 10  III: Consécration: Le don de Sagesse (Consecration: The Gift of Wisdom)
L’Esprit-Saint vous rappellera ce que je vous ai dit.
Gospel according to St John 14: 26
The Holy Ghost shall bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.

 11  IV: Communion: Les oiseaux et les sources (Communion: The Birds and the Springs of Water)
Sources d’eau, bénissez le Seigneur; oiseaux du ciel, bénissez le Seigneur.
Song of the Three Children – Daniel 3: 77, 80
Springs of water, bless the Lord; birds of the air, bless the Lord.

 12  V: Sortie: Le vent de l’Esprit (Recessional: The Wind of the Spirit)
Un souffle impétueux remplit toute la maison.
Acts of the Apostles 2: 2
A rushing mighty wind filled all the house.

Translations: King James Bible; other translations by Tom Winpenny.

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