Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus – Olivier Messiaen

Steven Osborne, piano

6 November 2019, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre

Messiaen builds cathedrals in sound. From a single candle gently flickering in a quiet side chapel to the glorious fan traceries of the main transept, the private place for solitary prayer and contemplation to the awe-inspiring painted spaces where the many gather to celebrate the glory of God, his music is monumental in its scale and breadth, a hypnotic Sainte-Trinité in sound.

And if Messiaen is the architect, then the pianist who performs his music is the guide, sometimes tenderly, sometimes violently, always colourfully leading us through the aisles and passageways, the arches and niches, past gilded icons and kaleidoscopic stained glass.

Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jésus is arguably the greatest piano work of the 20th century, a work which more than holds its own against Bach’s Goldberg’s or Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas in its scale and breadth, its many challenges, technical, artistic and physical. It is a work of immense beauty, sensuous, powerful, sometimes brutal, thrilling, awestruck and awe-inspiring, ecstatic and intimate. It is also deeply personal and emotionally direct in its expression of the composer’s own profound Catholic faith; humble too in Messiaen’s ability to ground the music in a way that makes it accessible through his use of recurring themes and devices, in particular his beloved birdsong. These elements also give this tremendous work a cohesive, comprehensive architecture – and it is only by hearing the work in one sitting, as opposed to listening to individual movements from it, that one can fully appreciate Messiaen’s compositional skill and vision. Like a great symphony, the work moves inexorably through its movements towards a gripping finale.

I adore this music.

It begins with a whisper, barely a heatbeat, delicate chords, softly-spoken yet vividly hued (colour is so signficant to the synaesthesic Messiaen) and repeated octaves, occasionally interrupted by luminous bell sounds; a profound, introspective contemplation. And then, some 130 minutes later, it ends in a blaze of glory, bells clanging across in the keyboard in ecstasy, “all the passion of our arms around the Invisible One….”

The extraordinary narrative arc and cumulative power of the Vingt Regards is akin to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, though its message is closer to one of his Passions. The expressive sweep of the work is vast, from the intimate, aching tenderness of Regarde de la Vierge (IV) to primal brutality of Par Lui tout a éte fait (VI) and the concentrated stillness of Je dors, mais mon coeur veille (XIV). As a consequence the work is rarely performed without an interval, but pianist Steven Osborne, who has been playing this incredible music for almost 20 years, believes it should be played as a whole, without a break, to create “a deeper sense of engagement with the work as a whole, for both myself and the listener.”

Steven Osborne, London 30 May 2013
Steven Osborne

The journey is remarkable, immense, exhilarating and overwhelming. Osborne knows this music so well that one feels at once totally at ease with him guiding us on this epic voyage yet also acutely alert, as he is, to every shift in harmony and tonal colour, every nuance and emotion. Speaking to him in the bar after the concert, I remarked that he seems very settled in the music (I first heard him play this work in 2013) and he commented that one just has to “go with it”. Such a modest description of such monumentality!

His virtuosity is restrained, yet his every gesture is freighted with meaning; he creates an extraordinary range of colours and tone – translucent filigree arabesques, shimmering, flickering trills, brilliant chirruping birdsong, plangent bass chords, rumbling, rolling Lisztian arpeggios….. And all despatched with an almost effortlesss sprezzatura, the music freshly wrought, as new sonorities, new meanings are revealed.

The performance was perfectly paced, the silences as poised and significant as the notes themselves, Osborne’s clear sense of continuity allowing each movement to be heard as a single statement in its own right, while also contributing to the cumulative, architectural effect of the whole. Here the rapture and ecstasy of Messiaen’s faith was captured in a profoundly concentrated performance that reverberated with passion, spirituality, awe and joy.

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This week I was delighted to attend the launch of an exciting new project celebrating the piano music of Olivier Messiaen, in particular his monumental and extraordinary Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jesus (Twenty Contemplations of the Infant Jesus). The event was held at the beautiful Knightsbridge home of Lord and Lady Vernon Ellis, committed and active patrons of music and the arts. I was there as a guest of the pianist and director of the project, Cordelia Williams.

Olivier Messiaen

Messiaen’s music has a special appeal and fascination for many musicians, musicologists, scholars and listeners. He composed the Vingt Regards in 1944 when Paris was still under Nazi occupation, yet his music is suffused with love, wonder, awe, joy, colour, quiet contemplation, passion and, above all, faith.  Messiaen drew inspiration from many sources (including many non-musical sources): colour, paintings by Durer, Michelangelo and the Surrealist artist de Chirico, birdsong, religious tracts, Buddhist philosophy, physics and the ancient rhythms of Hindu and Greek music and poetry. Yet, despite these complex and often profound inspirations, his music is accessible, full of variety and often incredibly beautiful and sensitive.

Between Heaven and the Clouds is a special collaboration between pianist Cordelia Williams, artist Sophie Hacker and poet Michael Symmons Roberts. Three of Sophie’s paintings made in response to the three movements of the Vingt Regards which Cordelia performed, were on display on the stage around the piano, and the artist introduced the paintings, explaining her personal responses to the music. Michael Symmons Roberts introduced his poetry and talked about the extraordinary effect hearing Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time had had on him. His poems are a response to the music but also explore ideas of the birth of an exceptional infant in a city under occupation.

In the short concert, Cordelia performed three movements from the Vingt Regards – Première communion de la Vierge (“The Virgin’s first communion”), Noël (“Christmas”), and Regard de l’Esprit de joie (“Contemplation of the joyful Spirit”) – and Michael Symmons Roberts read his poems which related to these movements. Cordelia’s playing displayed a deep affinity for the music – at once vibrant and sensitive, subtly nuanced to highlight the rich harmonic palette which Messiaen uses to highlight particular colours and timbres in chords. The Regard de l’Esprit de joie was an energetic expression of joy, with distinct hints of Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’.

Cordelia Williams

‘Between Heaven & the Clouds: Messiaen 2015’ is not just a series of concerts. As Cordelia explained in her introduction, the music will be explored through performances, art and poetry, as well as through talks, a study day and other events “to encourage cross-discipline collaboration between artists and academics”. The project will explore Messiaen’s compositional style, his historical and musical contexts, and his rich variety of inspiration. For those who love Messiaen’s music, this will be a rare treat. And for those who have yet to discover his music, it will be a wonderful introduction.

More about the project here

Cordelia Williams will feature in a future ‘Meet the Artist’ interview

Making Sense of Messiaen – an earlier blog post on the Vingt Regards

Olivier Messiaen composed his eight Preludes for piano in 1929. Debussy’s own Preludes were less than twenty years old at the time, and the influence of Debussy on the young Messiaen is obvious in these piano miniatures. Like Debussy, Messiaen gave each Prelude a title, suggesting a narrative for the work. Some are obvious, such as ‘La Colombe’ (‘The Dove’), a piece with delicate flutterings and cooings high in the register, or ‘Un reflet dans le vent…’ (‘A Reflection in the Wind…’), with its stormy gusts and eddies, while others have more esoteric titles: ‘Les sons impalpables de rêve…’ (‘The Intangible Sounds of the Dream’) and ‘Cloches d’angoisse et larmes d’adieu’ (‘Bells of Anguish and Tears of Farewell’).

The Debussyan influence is clear in the use of unresolved or ambiguous veiled and misty harmonies, and parallel chords which are used for pianistic colour and timbre rather than definite harmonic progression, but Messiaen’s Preludes are also mystical rather than purely impressionistic, and look forward to his great and profoundly spiritual piano works, Visions de l’Amen (for 2 pianos) and Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jesus.

Messiaen described his Preludes as  “a collection of successive states of mind and personal feelings”. Sadness, loss, and meditations on mortality are found in many of the Preludes, but there is light (physical and metaphorical) as well, as there always is in Messiaen’s music, and they contain many of the features which are so distinctive of Messiaen’s later works: a masking of literal definitions, shimmering sounds, colours, light, “flashes”, and already suggest the vastness of Messiaen’s spiritual and musical landscape, a landscape which makes the Vingt regards such extraordinary pieces to play and to hear. As Alex Ross says of Messiaen’s music in his book The Rest is Noise, it is “an evocation of the vastness of the cosmos that many experience when visiting mountains.” One has the sense, always, when playing or listening to Messiaen of something that is far, far greater than us.

Messiaen shared Debussy’s fascination with the percussive, tinkling, luminous sounds of the gamelan orchestra of Indonesia, and the piano and pianissimo measures in Messiaen’s music can be very effective if played with a slight stridency and brightness of tone (this is a very ‘French’ style of piano playing, and if you listen to Yvonne Loriod, Messiaen’s second wife, playing his music, you can hear that sparkling clarity). And Messiaen, like Debussy before him, capitalised on the piano’s sonorous potential, for example, in the inclusion of deliberately “wrong” notes (to be played more softly that the rest of the material), which create the illusion of the natural sympathetic harmonics set up by the release of the sustaining pedal.

Here is Yvonne Loriod in the second of Messiaen’s Preludes:

Yvonne Loriod – Messiaen : 8 Préludes : II Chant d’extase dans un paysage triste

And here is French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who went to study with Messiaen at the age of 12:

from the Vingt Regards – X. ‘Regard de l’Esprit de joie’

Madonna and Child (Madonna Litta) by Leonardo da Vinci 1452-1519

French composer, organist, ornithologist and devout Catholic Olivier Messiaen began his masterpiece Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus in 1944, and the work was premiered in 1945 by Messiaen’s piano student and future wife, Yvonne Loriod. The French title roughly translates as ‘Twenty gazes/ contemplations on the infant Jesus’. The entire work is a meditation on the childhood of Jesus, and it utilises recurring “themes” or leitmotifs to highlight certain ideas, such as the Star, the Cross, and the Father.

Messiaen’s music is rhythmically complex (he was interested in the rhythms of ancient Greek and Hindu music) and draws inspiration from many sources, including Indonesian Gamelan music (which also interested and inspired Debussy), Japanese music, the landscape of Utah in the USA, and the legend of St Francis of Assisi. My own serious interest in Messiaen’s music began after I discovered he was a fellow synaesthete, who experienced colours when he heard or imagined music. He devised his own system of modes (scales) based on his synaesthesia, and in certain scores he actually notated the colours, to help the conductor in interpretation, rather than to express exactly which colours the listener should experience. He also wrote descriptions of the colours of chords, ranging from the simple “gold and brown” to the highly complex “blue-violet rocks, speckled with little grey cubes, cobalt blue, deep Prussian blue, highlighted by a bit of violet-purple, gold, red, ruby, and stars of mauve, black and white. Blue-violet is dominant”. My own synaesthesia manifests itself in a similar way to Messiaen’s, though each synaesthete’s experience is of course unique and personal, and I find his concept of colour in music – in the sense of real colours, as opposed to shadings of dynamics and articulation – entirely understandable. Indeed, my own score of the ‘Regard de la Vierge’ (No. 4 of the Vingt Regards) is littered with notes about colour.

As I teenager, I visited the Église de la Sainte-Trinité in Paris where Messiaen was organist (my mother had a penchant for visiting places with ‘artist associations’: the same trip to Paris included a fascinating tour of the studio of symbolist artist Gustave Moreau, and a pilgrimage to the Père Lachaise cemetery to see the tombs of Oscar Wilde and Fryderyk Chopin). As a pianist, I was for a long time fearful of attempting any of Messiaen’s music – indeed anything atonal (Schoenberg, Hindemith) I regarded with extreme trepidation – but I heard the ‘Regard de la Vierge’ played at a piano course I attended last year, and was very taken with it. Hearing the Quator pour le fin du temps (‘Quartet for the end of time’) at the Wigmore last winter (with Stephen Osborne on piano), a deeply arresting and emotional experience which left me in tears at the end of the concert, confirmed that this was a composer whose music I should explore.

Hearing a selection of his Preludes (1928/9) at a recent concert at the Wigmore Hall, I was struck by how close these pieces are to Debussy and Ravel, with their uncertain harmonies (chords chosen for timbre and colour rather than strict harmonic progression), and impressionistic titles, such as La Colombe (‘The Dove’) or Les sons impalpables du reve (‘The Impalpable Sounds of Dreams’). The Vingt Regards were composed some 15 years later, his compositional style had evolved a great deal, and by that time Messiaen had also experienced the full horror of the Second World War as a prisoner of war, after the fall of France to the Nazis in 1940. While his deeply-held faith undoubtedly informs this music, one does not have to be religious oneself to be affected by it. The sheer scale of it (20 movements, a work lasting around 2 hours), the sounds and images it suggests, it is music that expresses something far greater than us.

While each Regard is different, they are linked by the use of recurring motifs (Messiaen’s “themes” of all-embracing love, the Virgin, the Star, the Cross, God the Father), “flashes” (clusters of notes or fragments which reflect Messiaen’s belief that it was only possible to comprehend the totality of God in “flashes”), tolling bells and chimes, references to devotional texts, portentous passages, suggesting Jesus’s fate, repeating chord progressions, and birdsong. While Messiaen is absolutely specific in his writing, there is room for individual interpretation and variation, and, for me, this links the pieces back to the earlier Preludes, and the impressionist writings of Debussy and Ravel.

Messiaen prefaced his masterpiece with a detailed commentary, and each Regard has its own short explanatory paragraph which offer fascinating insights into his very personal visual, devotional and compositional landscape for these pieces, as well as offering useful pointers for performance.

In the ‘Regard de la Vierge’, the Virgin Mary contemplates the infant Jesus with a simple tender lullaby which demonstrates affection and recognition. A contrasting middle section, with birdsong, “flashes”, tolling bells and portentous double octaves interrupts Mary’s devoted gaze, and is a reminder of Jesus’s fate. The naive rocking theme is then restated with bell-like notes in the upper registers, as an expression of Mary’s intimate motherly response and God’s love for humankind.

Pianist Stephen Osborne is an acclaimed Messiaen-player, but for me Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s recording of the Vingt Regards is sublime, capturing the mysticism and magnitude of this great work.

Interestingly, while looking up something unrelated to Messiaen, I heard this track by Radiohead, Pyramid Song, which contains a piano riff which could easily have been lifted from one of the Vingt Regards.

Radiohead – Pyramid Song

Messiaen on Debussy and Colour

Regard de la Vierge, No. 4 of Vingt Regards, played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard

More on synaesthesia and music here