The Composer Who Listened to Birds

Olivier_Messiaen

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) was a major French composer of the 20th century. He was a devout Roman Catholic, and his music was greatly influenced by his faith with respect to style, introspection, spirituality and use of chant. He traveled extensively worldwide, and he incorporated everything into his work, from Japanese melodies to birdsong (he was a learned ornithologist), to attempts to capture colors in sound. Beyond the simple musical scale, he used his own conceived “modes of limited transposition,” and experimented with time and rhythm, harmony and serialism.

Messiaen’s organ works, while somewhat unusual to the ear, are completely experiential in that they produce an effect, a setting, a mood or a spiritual cushion upon which worshippers may find exhilaration or pathos or conflict or restfulness. Many of his organ works are specific to liturgical seasons or feast days: The Heavenly Banquet, Vision of the Eternal Church, Hymn to the Holy Sacrament, The Nativity of the Lord, The Glorious Bodies, Mass for Pentecost, Meditations on the Mystery of the Holy Trinity, just to name a few.

For the Sunday after Ascension Day (May 17), worshippers at the 10:30 a.m. service will hear two movements from Messiaen’s organ suite L’Ascension (“The Ascension”). The opening voluntary is the movement Priére du Christ montant vers son Pére (“Prayer from Christ ascending towards His Father”). Messiaen attached to this movement’s title a quote from Gospel according to St. John: “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.” This movement uses a slow, expanded melody that rises and rises. And the last chord of the piece sounds completely unfinished and is unresolved, allowing Christ to ascend to the clouds in majesty and glory.

The closing voluntary is the boldest movement of the entire suite: Transports de joie d’une âme devant la glorie du Christ qui est la sienne (“Outburst of joy from a soul before the Glory of Christ which is its own glory”). To this piece Messiaen attaches phrases of scripture from Colossians and Ephesians: “Giving thanks unto The Father which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the Saints in light… has raised us up together and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” The composer simply indicates Full Organ for the registration and Vif (“Quick”) for the tempo marking. Indeed, this is the movement in which the player is commanded by the composer to merely “launch” and not hold back.

Historic recordings of Gaston Litaize (1909-1991), organist of the Church of St. Francis Xavier in Paris, who was blind from infancy and who studied and taught for most of his life at the National Institute for the Blind in Paris:

“Prayer from Christ” from L’Ascension

“Outburst of joy” from L’Ascension

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