Continuing my series on Olivier Messiaen (starting here, with most links), and following last Christmas’s offering of La nativité du Seigneur, I’m finally immersing myself in the monumental Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus—composed in 1944 after Messiaen’s release from POW camp and during the liberation of Paris.
I find Joanna MacGregor’s notes a useful companion, supplementing the evocative images that Messiaen provides in the score with her own insights as a performer—pointing out flashes of boogie-woogie, Tibetan trumpets, calypso, the fluttering of angels’ wings… And regarding the birdsong that constantly decorates Messiaen’s spiritual vision, as MacGregor observes, in their proximity to God, birds can be gentle, sleepy, cheeky, melodic, hilarious, quarrelsome, triumphant. Too bad Messiaen never got to Spread the Word on Twitter …
He composed the cycle for Yvonne Loriod—her complete recording, with score, is here. Among other pianists, Jean-Rodolphe Kars has a particular affinity with Messiaen’s spirituality, as is clear from his testimony, written after he was ordained in 1981—here’s his wondrous live performance from 1976, on the eve of his conversion:
Messiaen details the themes that pervade the work:
- Thème de Dieu, in the unifying key of F sharp major, further enriched by Messiaen’s favourite extatique added-sixth chord
- Thème de l’amour mystique
- Thème de l’étoile et de la croix
- Thème d’accords.
Thème de Dieu at the opening.
In style, images, and material, the cycle constantly foreshadows Turangalîla, both opulent and ascetic. While all the visions are enthralling, I particularly relish
- 1 Regard du Père—hypnotic, with “gently reiterated C sharps in the right hand giving us the first glimpse of the gamelan”
- 5 Regard du Fils sur le Fils—contemplation adorned with birdsong
- 6 Par Lui tout a été fait—virtuosity culminating in the Thème de Dieu, victorieux et agité, combining with the Thème de l’amour mystique
- 10 Regard de l’Esprit de joie—equivalent to the exhilarating 5th movement of Turangalîla, “a clash of Western jazziness with Hindu dance rhythms”; here it is played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard:
- 15 Le baiser de l’enfant-Jésus—“the bringing-together of spirituality and sensuality: of Roman Catholic iconography and Eastern eroticism”
- 19 Je dors, mais mon coeur veille—the heart of the meditation, basking in F sharp major; played here by Joanna MacGregor:
—leading to the massive finale Regard de l’Église d’amour, which brings together “all the themes, angels, birds, bells, gongs, and tam-tams that we’ve heard in the previous two hours”.
Click here for a precious film of Messiaen himself improvising on the Nativity at the Saint-Trinité organ in 1985!