A beautifully written programme note on movement 11 of the Vingt Regards, ‘First communion of the Virgin’.
Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus is one of the greatest twentieth-century additions to the repertoire. The whole cycle of twenty pieces, taking about two hours to play and filling 177 pages in the published score, was composed in just six months in 1944. Each of the twenty contemplations on the Infant Jesus provides a view or gaze, a mediation, as well as a theological exploration. Première communion de la Vierge is the eleventh piece in the cycle. As such, it is typically heard after an interval, in order to allow some recovery time from the ecstatic virtuosity of the tenth piece, the Regard de l’Esprit de joie. This piece is utterly different. It is an essay in stillness, both of the Virgin, and of ourselves, as we contemplate the mystery of the word made flesh. In the period between the Annunciation and the Nativity, the Virgin contemplates in adoration the child within: the child yet to be born. The music grows from four slow chords, the theme of God, transfigured with flickering light and birdsong. Later in the piece, the chords become more rhythmic and animated: Mary’s Magnificat begins, at first hesitatingly, and with more than a hint of jazz. The outburst of joy eventually subsides and we hear, low in the bass, the rapid heartbeats of the child. At the end we return to stillness and expectation.
With thanks to Timothy Hone