As should be clear from previous discussions of Olivier Messiaen’s compositions for piano, organ, and small chamber music groups, the composer’s rhetoric is distinctively oriented around a decidedly visionary take on his approach to his Roman Catholic faith. Those visions do not necessarily follow the “letter” of either the liturgy or Scripture; but there is no question that they serve a deeply-felt sincerity. It should therefore be no surprise that the breadth of those visions come into full bloom when Messiaen turns his attention to a full orchestral ensemble, and that premise is vigorously reinforced by the orchestral selections included in Warner Classics’ Olivier Messiaen edition.
It should therefore be no surprise that Messiaen’s venture into the orchestral genre began after he began to serve as organist for services at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité (church of the Holy Trinity) in Paris. As has already been observed, Messiaen’s organ compositions were probably not composed for concert performances but rather to provide an “auditory context” for periods of meditation during a service. One may thus speculate that, even early in his career, Messiaen may have been thinking of how certain combinations of instruments might provide a better such context than the spectrum of different ranks of pipes available on the Sainte-Trinité organ.
This may be the best context for thinking about L’Ascension. As was already observed, this the earliest (composed in 1934) of Messiaen’s three major cycles of organ compositions that were probably conceived with meditation in mind. However, the organ cycle was preceded by a four-movement suite for orchestra (with rich diversity in the wind, brass, and percussion sections as well as a generous string section), which Messiaen composed between 1932 and 1933. One of the advantages of the Olivier Messiaen edition is that the attentive listener can arrange for “side-by-side” listening for these two versions, although the orchestral version is one of the “landmark” interpretations, not supervised by Messiaen himself. It comes from a 1966 performance (which may have been broadcast) by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France (known as the Orchestre Philharmonique de l’ORTF in 1966) conducted by Marius Constant. Such parallel listening would also explain why the third movement of the orchestral version, “Alleluia sur la trompette, alleluia sur la cymbale,” which explicitly cites trumpet and cymbal instrumentation, was replaced by a movement with no explicit reference to any musical instruments, “Transports de joie d'une âme 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). Messiaen probably realized that the congregants should be meditating on “the glory of Christ,” rather than trumpets and cymbals!
Nevertheless, Messiaen’s focus on meditation on Scripture clearly sustained him when his career as an organist was interrupted, during the Second World War, by his imprisonment at Stalag VIII-A. It was only after the Nazis were defeated that he began to think of orchestral resources serving more than sacred causes. Indeed, one his first projects after the war was his massive “Turangalîla-Symphonie,” whose title is based on Sanskrit nouns that do not translate easily and whose program (such as it is) derives from the Anglo-Norman legend of Tristan and Iseult.
This piece, which tends to run about 80 minutes in duration, requires an even larger ensemble than L’Ascension, particularly where the percussion section is concerned. (A minimum of eight percussionists are required.) In addition, there is a highly demanding piano part, and an ondes Martenot is added to the mix. The recording Messiaen supervised was made in London in 1977 with André Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. The ondes Martenot was played by Jeanne Loriod (as might be expected); and the pianist was Michel Béroff. However, there is also a “landmark” recording of Simon Rattle conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with Tristan Murail on ondes Martenot and Peter Donohoe at the piano.
One might argue why two different versions should be included. While I have never been a great Previn fan, there is no questioning that he managed to capture the full breadth of wild ecstasy that unfolds in this score without being carried away by it. When one compares the track listings, one sees some variation in the amount of time allotted for each movement. However, the variation goes both ways; so the respective overall durations are within one second of each other. One might try to make a case that Rattle was a bit more “clinical” than Previn; but I am not sure that the argument would hold up to a blindfold-listening test.
If an ancient tale marked Messiaen’s first departure from the sacred context, he would then continue into two other favorite interests, birds and majestic physical settings. He took on both of these with “Chronochromie,” composed in 1960, structured in seven formal sections played without interruption. In the Olivier Messiaen edition this appears only as a “landmark” performance by Antal Dorati conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra. I have to say that this was definitely a personal landmark in my own listening experiences, since the vinyl release of this 1964 recording session at Abbey Road was my first real contact with listening to Messiaen’s music.
To be honest, however, I have to confess that, for long as I kept that record in my collection, I never really knew what to make of the piece. A detractor might call it a heady mishmash of special effects with little sense of progress from beginning to end. Those wishing to be more charitable would probably say that Messiaen was just beginning to find his way in his efforts to capture his personal experiences of the natural world. Ultimately, he would begin to find his groove about a decade later after being inspired by a visit to the major National Parks in the desert regions of the southwest of the United States.
The result of that inspiration was Des canyons aux étoiles… (from the canyons to the stars), a suite of twelve movements grouped into three parts. Messiaen wrote this on a commission by Alice Tully to celebrate the bicentenary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. While it may have been more than a little ironic that Messiaen was inspired by land that was not yet part of the United States at that time, there is something uncanny in how this music reflects so powerfully on the landscapes (and avian life) that the composer encountered during his visit to our country. This may stand as the most inspirational music he ever wrote, at least for those of us who have shared the experience of that part of the land.
The music was given its first performance at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (in Alice Tully Hall, which seems appropriate). The scoring involved a more reduced orchestra that was required by the “Turangalîla-Symphonie;” but, once again, a massive percussion section was involved. There are also solo parts for piano, horn, xylorimba, and glockenspiel. Frederic Waldman conducted the Musica Aeterna Orchestra, whose members took all but the piano solo part, which was played by Messiaen’s wife, Yvonne Loriod. The following July, the piece was recorded in Paris with Constant conducting the Ensemble Ars Nova. Loriod again took the piano part, joined by Georges Barboteu on horn, Alain Jacquet on xylorimba, and François Dupin on glockenspiel. Three months later this group gave the French premiere at the Theatre de la Ville.
The orchestral (including concertante) portion of Olivier Messiaen edition is definitely a generous one. Given how much has already been discussed, it is not my intention to give a laundry list of all of the selections; nor do I wish to grouse about personal favorites that have been omitted. However, I feel it important to note that one of the “landmark” performances is of Messiaen’s last completed composition (which explains why it was never recorded under his supervision). This is the eleven-movement suite Éclairs sur l’Au-Delà … (lightning over the Beyond), which is basically a series of meditations on the Afterlife (“the Beyond”).
In this piece Messiaen returns to the use of massive orchestral resources for the profession of his personal faith, but two of the movements also incorporate his interest in birdsong. Once again, Messiaen turned to the Book of Revelation to provide the “topics” for the individual movements. Indeed, the sixth movement is entitled “Les Sept Anges aux sept trompettes” (the seven angels on the seven trumpets). Those who know their Messiaen will probably quickly recall that the sixth movement of his “Quatuor pour la fin du temps” (quartet for the end of time) is entitled “Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes” (dance of fury for the seven trumpets), which is particularly notable for the uncanny unison setting of its wild rhythms. That same unison rhetoric arises in “Les Sept Anges,” punctuated this time by an ominous percussion accompaniment.
Thus, in many ways Messiaen’s orchestral writing provides a précis of the development of what the title of one of his books called his “musical language.” From that point of view, the pieces selected for inclusion in Olivier Messiaen edition make for an informative “précis of the précis.” There is much to be gained for organizing one’s listening around this portion of the collection.