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Thread: What memories of Messiaen?

  1. #1
    Recruit, Pianissimo
    Join Date
    Oct 2014

    What memories of Messiaen?

    What are your earliest memories and experiences of Messiaen? I was introduced to him – never having heard even the name - by my organ teacher with Apparition de l’eglise eternelle, and later found myself – like a lot of people wanting to try something modern and exciting – attempting Dieu parmi nous.

    It is quite hard to pinpoint the reason why one is so impressed by this composer. Certainly the harmonies and rhythms are “interesting”; the emotions are everything from simple – almost naïve - to terrifyingly complex. There is, as far as I can think, no humour. The style is perhaps best thought of as impressionist, and I personally find this a good way into Messiaen’s world. He may be thought of as a successor to Debussy. Voiles and La Cathédrale engloutie are not far from Le Banquet céleste.

    From the musical standpoint, colour seems to be the central thing. This is no surprise, since nearly all French music since the Classical period has depended on the sound that is being created. Nearly all titles in those days included (or indeed were) names of stops or combinations – tierce en taille; dialogue sur les grands jeux. With Messiaen’s unusual gift of synesthesia (hearing a particular chord makes you see a particular colour), the range is immense. His combinations of stops are unlike anyone else’s.

    He wanted us to be overwhelmed – which may be a reason why, like Wagner, you either love him or loathe him. And if you are prepared to let yourself be overwhelmed, you are opening yourself up to a marvellous world of the imagination. Also, you are opening up to a realm of faith, with stories and religious mysteries wonderfully illustrated. For a good story, listen to that of Mary Magdalene on Easter morning (L’Apparition du Christ ressuscité à Marie Madeleine): Messiaen makes you visualize the dark morning, the hurried steps of Mary, her sight of what she thought was the gardener, and the joy of recognition.

    Or for a lovely and simple picture, play or listen to Les Bergers (from La Nativité), where, in the central section, they are just happy and contented as we should be in our own faith. For something a little more complex, try Les deux murailles d’eau, where, with only a little imagination, you can visualize walking amid a divided sea. I well remember how we all puzzled about the middle section of this piece when it was receiving performances and recordings, but was not yet published. How would it be written out? It remains a magical moment, where you hear the sacred bread being broken at the same time as you see those walls of water still standing yet ready to engulf the Egyptians.

    Like much great music, Messiaen’s can be grasped on several levels, and can mean different things to the same person at different times. It is the best compliment to him that his music has not been neglected since his death. There are pieces you can play, such as Le banquet céleste, which make people immediately hunger for more.

    All best wishes,


  2. #2
    Commander, Assistant Conductor Albert's Avatar
    Join Date
    Feb 2007
    Rocky Mountains, Canada
    The only Messiaen piece I have ever played in public is Le Banquet Céleste, and only at the eucharist. A spinet player I knew back when came to me after the service the first time I played it and said she found it very moving. I still find it moving. I find his bird calls distracting in some of his music, but will never say he was not a good composer. Even when I dislike something, it is I who has the problem, not the composer. Except for John Cage.

  3. #3
    Administrator Krummhorn's Avatar
    Join Date
    Aug 2006
    Tucson, Arizona
    I haven't the skill nor the instrument in which to play the works of Messiaen ... but I have the recordings of his organ compositions as performed by his students over the years. I absolutely love his organ music - for best listened to when in a quiet and totally darkened room.

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