Performing Messiaen's Organ Music: 66 Masterclasses

Performing Messiaen's Organ Music: 66 Masterclasses

by Jon Gillock

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Overview

Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992) was the most influential composer for the organ in the 20th century. Shaped by French tradition as well as the innovations of Debussy, Stravinsky, and Bartók, Messiaen developed a unique style that would become his signature. Using Messiaen's own analytical and aesthetic notes as a point of departure, Jon Gillock offers detailed commentary on the performance of Messiaen's 66 organ works. Gillock provides background information on the composition and premiere of each piece, a translation of Messiaen's related writings, and a systematic explanation of performance considerations. Gillock also supplies details about the organ at La Trinité in Paris, the instrument for which most of Messiaen's pieces were imagined.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253353733
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 12/14/2009
Series: Insight Explore Guides Series
Pages: 428
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.50(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Jon Gillock studied with Messiaen at the Paris Conservatory and premiered several of his late organ works in the United States and Japan. Gillock has performed several concerts on the organ at La Trinité in Paris, the church at which Messiaen served as organist for more than 60 years.

Read an Excerpt

Performing Messiaen's Organ Music

66 Masterclasses


By Jon Gillock

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2010 Jon Gillock
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35373-3



CHAPTER 1

Le Banquet céleste

[The Celestial Banquet, 1928]


Celui qui mange ma chair et boit mon sang demeure en moi et moi en lui. — Évangile selon Saint Jean, VI, 56

[He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in Him. — Gospel according to St. John 6:56]

This work uses the 2nd "mode of limited transpositions" in its three transpositions applied to the three good degrees: tonic, dominant, subdominant. Its subject is the Holy Communion and it is especially appropriate to play it on the day of the Feast of the Holy Sacrament (or Corpus Christi, 11 days after Pentecost). Olivier Messiaen


MASTERCLASS 1

Messiaen's first published work, Le Banquet céleste, began life as the slow, second theme of a symphonic poem entitled Le Banquet eucharistique, which used the Latin text O Sacrum Convivium (O Sacred Feast) as its subtitle. This work was begun around 1926–27, while Messiaen was a composition student of Paul Dukas, and it was never finished. Thus, his first organ work is really a transcription. A note at the end of this piece says that it was "written in 1926 at Fuligny near Ville sur Terre." This date, of course, refers to the orchestral version. Messiaen's own personal, chronological catalogue of his works definitely gives 1928 as the date of composition for this organ piece. (Fuligny is a tiny village in the southern part of the Champagne region of France, not too far from Troyes, almost bordering Burgundy.)

Though it was written when he was around eighteen or nineteen years old, we can already hear in this piece certain unmistakable traits of Messiaen's very personal musical style: modes other than major and minor (his "modes of limited transpositions") as the basis for harmony and melody, and slow, sustained, expressive writing evoking the celestial and mystical. It consists of only twenty-five measures of music but requires 7–8 minutes to perform. Looking back at his total output, we can easily see that this kind of spiritual sweetness played an important role throughout his career.

What a simple piece this is, and what a difficult one it is to play and interpret! Simple writing is often very difficult to perform merely because there is nothing to distract the listener from the message of the music. In flashy toccatas, brilliant passagework, or other kinds of technical show-off pieces, it is very easy to forget that the music has a message. Often, the public is content (or even prefers) to be wowed by the technical prowess of the performer, forgetting that the purpose of real music-making is to communicate a message, a message difficult to express in words. That is the great power of music in the truest sense, and it is certainly the purpose of all of Messiaen's compositions. It is in Messiaen's simple, sweet music that many of his most sublime messages are revealed.

This piece is a tender meditation on the Eucharist. In other words, it is one in which the composer, performer, and listeners contemplate the great mystery of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, how that sacrifice could save humankind, how ordinary bread and wine can become the body and blood of Jesus during the Eucharistic celebration, and the connection Christians feel with the Almighty and each other when this act is experienced.

It is a piece with two themes: the first, slow, sustained, far away, mysterious, representing the love God has for us by sacrificing his Son to save mankind; the second, a melody played by the feet, like "drops of water," representing Christ's blood "that was shed for us for the remission of sins." The second theme enters midway through the piece, and over this second theme the first theme is developed in an orchestral crescendo and diminuendo.

Messiaen's interpretation of this act is one of utter gentleness and love. The first indications of this are the F# major key signature, Messiaen's tonality of love, and the registration, Gambe and Voix c‚leste, Messiaen's sound of love. The word extatique is another important sign: the piece is dominated by this intense emotion of love, the love that dwells in those who believe in him, in those who eat his flesh and drink his blood. Those are words of comfort and hope, and that is exactly what those who listen to this piece should feel.

Très lent, extatique, pp (very slow, ecstatic, pianissimo), lointain, mystérieux, legatissimo (far away, mysterious, very, very legato): those are the directions for interpretation given at the beginning of the piece.

The work begins far away in the heavens — on the strings of the R‚cit, imitating muted strings of the orchestra, with the Swell box completely closed. We can just barely hear it. It is the voice of God slowly, gently, lovingly entering our hearts and minds. It transports us out of our everyday world. We begin to contemplate the spiritual. It speaks of a great mystery, the Communion, an act that has united Christians for centuries, one they must believe by faith alone.

The piece as a whole is one long crescendo and diminuendo, one long archform. Further, that elongated arch is composed of smaller arch-type phrases (which are further subdivided into waves), which always build to the peak of the large arch and then release and descend from that point to the end, where there is complete repose. This long arch-form begins at the bottom of the keyboard, rises to the top, and then descends again.

The touch in the hands must be absolutely legato. At times, this is very difficult to accomplish because of the large chords involved and their spacing. The touch for the feet is completely different. Messiaen says that their theme should have a "short staccato" touch and sound like "drops of water." This is much easier to accomplish in a reverberant space than in a dry room.

It is not easy to find just the right tempo. Messiaen even issued a second edition of this piece in 1960 in note values twice as long as the original to help visually communicate its slowness. He even added a metronome mark (very rare for him in organ music) to indicate the speed of the eighth note. It is important to have the tempo of the eighth note in mind when performing this piece — certainly, we should count eighth notes — but that is not the unit that we as interpreters should feel or communicate to the audience. That value is surely the half note. After all, Messiaen used a traditional meter in this work: [??], three beats to the measure, the half note being the beat. Of course, with music moving so slowly it is very difficult to feel this unit when starting to learn this piece.

Nevertheless, once we get the idea that this piece is rhythmically in three, I think that gets us started in the right direction. Coming to that conclusion, the next thing to determine is where the strong and weak beats occur in this meter of three. Certainly, this is neither a piece of twelve equal eighth notes per measure nor of six equal quarter note beats per measure. It is not even a piece of three equal half notes per measure! Meter itself implies strong and weak. To me, the first beats seem the strongest, the second beats the weakest, and the third beats are somewhere in between, usually giving the feeling of some kind of lift (stretch) to the next first beat. Of course, in a sublime piece like this, all of that must be treated very subtly.

Once we can think in three, the slow tempo becomes much easier and more meaningful. Meter and tempo must work together to help communicate the mood of this piece. The slow tempo wants to give the impression of the timelessness of eternity — slow, never in a hurry, almost imperceptible. The passage of time has little or no importance in eternity. Meter, with its strong and weak sensations, gives a kind of regular movement or undulation to this slow passage of time.

Let's see how all of these elements are put to use in the first theme of this piece, the first phrase, measures 1–4.

First, we must imagine that this music is always going on — just as the universe is always in motion. As the piece begins (as we begin to play), we are simply allowed to hear it. This idea is kind of like listening to a recording with the volume turned completely off — the CD is spinning but we hear nothing, and when we turn up the volume very, very slowly we begin to hear what is on the CD. That is similar to the concept here. The music of the universe is always happening; it is already set into motion. As we begin to play, we are going to tune into it and let it speak to us, but we are not going to set it into motion.

Even though the tempo is very slow, this music is always moving. The first phrase is actually composed of two small arches of two measures each. The first arch moves toward the high G in the soprano — it crescendos slightly (not by use of the Swell box but though movement, pacing) to that point; then, there is a slight diminuendo and a release of that forward motion through the end of that measure. In measure 3, the second small arch begins, moving toward the E in the soprano. This arch mirrors the movement in measures 1 and 2, but at a lower level of intensity because it is at a lower pitch level. At measure 5, there is a restart (where the same music as in measure 1 begins over again), the beginning of the second phrase.

These small arches are composed of several "waves" which gently take us upward and then, just as gently, let us down. Notice how the first phrase is composed of waves of ecstatically loving sighs and caresses which correspond to the strong and weak beat idea.

Measure 1. The very first chord (slightly dissonant, i.e., not major or minor), on beat 1, the strong beat, resolves downward, sighing into the second chord (a very consonant G major) on the weak part of beat 2, the weakest beat of the measure — first wave. The two eighth notes which follow on the third beat mirror that sighing motion but caressingly turn upward into the last quarter note of the measure, bringing us the light of a G major harmony (in a new position), rising to a higher level — second wave, taking us higher on this small arch.

Measure 2. That last quarter note harmony in measure 1, in turn, lifts us up to the F# major seventh chord on beat 1 of the next measure — the next strong beat: that motion is the third wave, taking us even higher on the arch. That long chord expands, sighing into the next quarter note C major chord (with the seventh, A# or B[flat]) on the weak part of the weak second beat — the fourth wave. This is the top of the arch, the climax of the first phrase. We are taken to the top only very briefly and then the phrase immediately curves and begins to descend. The two eighth notes which follow, on the third beat, mirror the same sighing motion of the corresponding rhythm in the first measure and again caressingly turn upward into the last quarter note of the measure, bringing us the light of another C major harmony — the first descending wave.

Notice also that bass notes are setting up a wave motion of their own by gently rocking between B and A#.

Measures 3–4. We return to the starting point harmony but not to a restatement of the theme. These next two measures form the second half of the theme, continuing the relaxation, the downward side of the arch, already begun in measure 2.

They are a kind of simplified version of measures 1 and 2, including its rising and falling movements. In other words, the descending part of this arch takes much more time to subside than the rising side took to mount. Its route is not as direct: it is going to slightly rise again, with a new forward-moving energy (crescendo), before it comes to rest. This forms the second small arch of the first phrase — smaller and less energetic than the first.

Thus, in these two measures the essential harmonies and ideas of measures 1 and 2 are reiterated at a slightly lower pitch level (corresponding to energy level) to allow the complete relaxation of the phrase. Movement in measure 3 is only on the strong beats: beat 1 resolves downward, sighing into the second chord on beat 3. However, it immediately turns around and ascends (just as in measure 1), lifting us up to the first beat of measure 4, another F# harmony (this time without the seventh, thus less intense).

As this F# harmony expands into the following quarter note, C major harmony (again with the seventh), we reach the top of this smaller, second arch. It immediately sighs into the long, weak second beat, again on F#. As the soprano descends chromatically on the third beat, the whole phrase sighs in complete repose as we return to the starting point in measure 5.

The feeling of phrases in all of Messiaen's music has to do with timing (pacing). Phrases naturally begin (unfold) with energy, with forward movement (crescendo), and close with repose (diminuendo), a slight giving-in to the tempo. The end of the phrase mark in measure 4 does not mean to lift or take a breath. If Messiaen had wanted a breath here he would have added another indication, such as a breath mark, a rest, or even a staccato mark.

The remainder of the piece is built on those ideas. In fact, the whole piece is structured in that manner. One arch-type phrase after the other builds on the previous phrases, mounting higher and higher on the arch, crescendoing, until we reach the climax of the piece in measure 17. At that point, other arch-type phrases release into each other, subsiding lower and lower, diminuendoing, until we reach the end, where there is complete repose.

We could easily say that the piece divides itself into two halves, simply because about half of the piece is for hands alone using theme 1 and then midway the feet enter with theme 2 and the two continue to the end combined. However, I do not believe we actually hear this piece that way. I hear it as one long crescendo and diminuendo constructed in this manner:

(1) Statement of the first theme (measures 1–4);

(2) First restatement of the first theme, ornamented and expanded (measures 5-11);

(3) Second restatement of the first theme, greatly expanded to include the ending, while the second theme is simultaneously stated and is also expanded until the end (measures 12–25).


For me, all of these sections flow together quite naturally to create one long, sustained piece. We should not be aware of sections at all. Furthermore, when the second theme enters it must sound completely natural, a logical complement to what has already been heard.

Let's now look at the whole in a little more detail:


I, measures 1–4

Statement of theme 1 in its simplest form, explained above in detail.


II, measures 5–10

First restatement of theme 1, now very gently crescendoing as it begins (peu à peu p, little by little piano), letting in a little more light. That distant voice is becoming a little more present. Measures 5–7 are exact repetitions of measures 1–3; measure 8 is an ornamentation of measure 4, creating a very longing sigh in the descending eighth notes, a crescendo of movement.

What follows is an expansion of the theme:

Measure 9 is a rising sequence of measure 8; the crescendo of ornamental movement is now coupled with a crescendo of sound.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Performing Messiaen's Organ Music by Jon Gillock. Copyright © 2010 Jon Gillock. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

Table of Contents
List of Figures
Foreword by Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen
Preface
Acknowledgments
Note to Reader: How to Use This Book

Part 1. The 66 Masterclasses
Introduction: A Philosophy of the Performer's Role as an Interpreter
1. Le Banquet céleste (1928)
2. Diptyque (1928)
3. Apparition de l'Église éternelle (1932)
4. L'Ascension (1933, version for organ)
I. Majesté du Christ demandant sa Gloire à son Père
II. Alléluias sereins d'une me qui désire le Ciel
III. Transports de Joie d'une Âme devant la Gloire du Christ qui est la sienne
IV. Prière du Christ montant vers son Père
5. La Nativité du Seigneur, Nine Meditations (1935)
I. La Vierge et l'Enfant
II. Les Bergers
III. Desseins éternels
IV. Le Verbe
V. Les Enfants de Dieu
VI. Les Anges
VII. Jésus accepte la Souffrance
VIII. Les Mages
IX. Dieu parmi nous
6. Les Corps glorieux, Seven Short Visions of the Life of the Resurrected (1939)
I. Subtilité des Corps Glorieux
II. Les Eaux de la Grâce
III. L'Ange aux Parfums
IV. Combat de la Mort et de la Vie
V. Force et Agilité des Corps glorieux
VI. Joie et Clarté des Corps glorieux
VII. Le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité
7. Messe de la Pentecôte (1950)
I. Entrée—Les Langues de Feu
II. Offertoire—Les Choses visibles et invisibles
III. Consécration—Le Don de Sagesse
IV. Communion—Les Oiseaux et les Sources
V. Sortie—Le Vent de l'Esprit
8. Livre d'Orgue, Seven Pieces (1951)
I. Reprises par Interversion
II. Pièce en Trio
III. Les Mains de l'Abîme
IV. Chants d'Oiseaux
V. Pièce en Trio
VI. Les Yeux dans les Roues
VII. Soixante-Quatre Durées
9. Verset pour la Fête de la Dédicace (1960)
10. Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité (1969)
I. (Le Père inengendré)
II. (La Sainteté de Jésus Christ)
III. ("La Relation réelle en Dieu est réellement identique à l'Essence")
IV. ("Je suis, je suis!")
V. (Dieu est immense, éternel, immuable—Le Souffle de l'Esprit—Dieu est Amour)
VI. (Le Fils, Verbe et Lumière)
VII. ("Le Père et le Fils aiment, par le Saint-Esprit, eux-mêmes et nous")
VIII. (Dieu est simple)
IX. ("Je suis Celui qui suis")
11. Livre du Saint Sacrement (1984)
I. Adoro te
II. La Source de Vie
III. Le Dieu caché
IV. Acte de Foi
V. Puer natus est nobis
VI. La Manne et le Pain de Vie
VII. Les Ressuscités et la Lumière de Vie
VIII. Institution de l'Eucharistie
IX. Les Ténèbres
X. La Résurrection du Christ
XI. L'Apparition du Christ ressuscité à Marie-Madeleine
XII. La Transsubstantiation
XIII. Les deux Murailles d'Eau
XIV. Prière avant la Communion
XV. La Joie de la Grâce
XVI. Prière après la Communion
XVII. La Présence multipliée
XVIII. Offrande et Alléluia final
12. Monodie (1997, posthumous)
13. Offrande au Saint Sacrement (2001, posthumous)
14. Prélude (2002, posthumous)

Part 2. The Organ at L'Èglise de la Sainte-Trinité, Paris
15. Les Grandes Orgues de l'Èglise de la Sainte-Trinité à Paris (A brochure by Olivier Messiaen, October 1980)
16. Evolution of the Organ, 1930–1992
17. Characteristics of the Organ since 1966

Appendix A: A Biographical Sketch of Olivier Messiaen
Appendix B: Pieces Appropriate for Specific Services and Feasts during the Liturgical Year
Glossary of Terms and Techniques Unique to Messiaen
Notes
Bibliography
Index

What People are Saying About This

New England Conservatory - Yuko Hayashi

Jon Gillock is a true messenger of Messiaen's music. . . . Through him, audiences can easily understand the musical message of the great composer Olivier Messiaen. In his performances, [Gillock] takes the listener with him into Messiaen's spiritual world from the sounding of the first note until the very end.

B. Doherty]]>

An organist and a former student of Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), Gillock has compiled a useful, comprehensive companion to the organ works of this important composer. Drawing on intensive experience with the music and his close relationship with Messiaen, the author provides organists and others interested in this music with an engaging, accessible narrative that sheds much new light on Messiaen's complex music, which has confounded performers for many years. The first of the book's two parts examines Messiaen's entire output for organ in a series of 66 master classes, each devoted to a work or movement (arranged chronologically by composition date). Historical information, performance issues, and technical and aesthetic perspectives abound; Gillock is especially adept at linking the music to its religious roots. Part 2 provides technical, aesthetic, and historical information on the organ at Paris's Église de la Sainte-Trinité—Messiaen's organ. Included is a 1980 essay by the composer on the instrument. Appendixes provide a short biographical sketch and a liturgical calendar identifying appropriate feast days for the performance of specific works. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty and professionals. —Choice

B. Doherty

An organist and a former student of Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), Gillock has compiled a useful, comprehensive companion to the organ works of this important composer. Drawing on intensive experience with the music and his close relationship with Messiaen, the author provides organists and others interested in this music with an engaging, accessible narrative that sheds much new light on Messiaen's complex music, which has confounded performers for many years. The first of the book's two parts examines Messiaen's entire output for organ in a series of 66 master classes, each devoted to a work or movement (arranged chronologically by composition date). Historical information, performance issues, and technical and aesthetic perspectives abound; Gillock is especially adept at linking the music to its religious roots. Part 2 provides technical, aesthetic, and historical information on the organ at Paris's Église de la Sainte-Trinité—Messiaen's organ. Included is a 1980 essay by the composer on the instrument. Appendixes provide a short biographical sketch and a liturgical calendar identifying appropriate feast days for the performance of specific works. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty and professionals. —Choice

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