As promised about a couple of weeks ago, I have continued my traversal of Warner Classics’ Olivier Messiaen edition by moving on to the organ works. This section includes five CDs of Messiaen playing the Cavaillé-Coll organ at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité (church of the Holy Trinity) in Paris, four based on recordings made in 1956 and one from a recording made in 1972. Then there is a single CD of “landmark” interpretations. Of the twelve tracks on this disc, the first eleven are taken by Marie-Clair Alain playing the organ of the Hofkirche in Lucerne. while the final track was recorded at Sainte-Trinité by Naji Hakim, Messiaen’s successor as titular organist.
The story of how Messiaen became an organist and came to compose for the instrument is a fascinating one, which was related on this site in an article about Colin Andrews’ recording of Messiaen’s complete works for organ, which appeared this past December. The abbreviation of that story begins in the autumn of 1927, when Messiaen decided to learn about the organ from Marcel Dupré and turned out to be a prodigiously quick study. On the composition side, he wrote “Le Banquet céleste” (the heavenly banquet) in 1928, which predates his first published music, the eight piano preludes. By 1929 he was filling in for the ailing titular organist Charles Quef at Sainte-Trinité. After Quef died, Messiaen applied to replace him with a letter of recommendation from Charles-Marie Widor and support from Dupré. Messiaen would hold that post for over 60 years.
Prior to the Second World War Messiaen composed three major cycles of organ compositions, L’Ascension (the Ascension, 1934), La Nativité du Seigneur (the Lord’s Nativity, 1935), and Les Corps glorieux (the glorious bodies, 1939). It is probably not the case that these were written for concert performances or, for that matter, to be played, beginning-to-end, as “cycles.” What is more likely is that each of these pieces was a collection of individual compositions, each intended to provide music for meditation during a specific service. This could well have been the same motivation behind Johann Sebastian Bach’s Orgelbüchlein (little organ book), a collection of 46 chorale preludes ordered according to the services in the liturgical year. Indeed, the nine pieces in La Nativité du Seigneur are explicitly called “meditations;” and would probably have been distributed according to the Gospel texts being read at services between Christmas Eve and Epiphany. In the case of the other two cycles, each piece explicitly cites a passage of sacred text, primarily, but not exclusively, from the New Testament.
The Warner collection includes Messiaen playing all of these cycles, as well as “Le Banquet céleste,” the “Diptyque” (which he described as an “essay on life on earth and the joy of eternity”), composed in 1929, and the “Apparition de l’Église éternelle” (apparition of the eternal church), composed in 1932. The only other recording of Messiaen at the organ is of the 1969 cycle Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte-Trinité (meditations on the mystery of the Holy Trinity). The “landmark” CD gives Alain’s interpretations of both “Le Banquet céleste” and “Apparition de l’Église éternelle,” as well as the Nativité cycle. The Livre du Saint-Sacrement (book of the Holy Sacrament) is represented by Hakim, but only through the fourteenth of the eighteen movements, “Prière après la Communion” (prayer after Communion).
While most, if not all, of Messiaen’s organ works have been given recital performances, it is important to remember that he was more interested in liturgical practices than in the sort of attentive listening one aspires to bring to a concert setting. Thus, while all of the recordings of Messiaen himself in this portion of the collection make for thoroughly compelling listening, one should not be afraid to approach the individual tracks in a piecemeal fashion. Indeed, our current age of “digital listening” is probably more conducive to such an approach than cultural dispositions were at the time that Messiaen was recorded in Sainte-Trinité.
Nevertheless, particularly where the cycles are concerned, it is important that the listener not approach this music as if it were some sort of marathon experience. Rather, one should just let the circumstances of the immediate present, one’s own dispositions, and one’s knowledge of the liturgical connections guide how one chooses to listen to this music. Mind you, the absence of a liturgical setting may be somewhat of a disadvantage; but “the mind’s eye” should be able to compensate for the loss of that aspect of the listening experience. More significant is background knowledge of sacred texts and the ability for mind to build bridges between the denotations and connotations of those texts and the inventiveness behind Messiaen’s approaches to composition.