Olivier Messiaen (1908 – 1992) was one of the most celebrated composers of the 20th century, and yet he characterized himself as a “rhythmician, ornithologist and theologian”. His life and work were grounded in his profound Catholic faith. Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus (Twenty Contemplations on the Infant Jesus) is a towering masterpiece for solo piano and explores various aspects of the Christian faith, from the love of God the Father for His Son, via the contemplations of the Virgin, the Angels and the Cross, to the celebration of the Church.
“More than in all my previous works, I searched here for a language of mystical love, at once varied, powerful and tender, sometimes brutal, in a multicolored harmony.”
Messiaen took inspiration from many sources and brought ideas together in an ingenius way. In writing the Vingt Regards he gathered images from artists as varied as Durer, Michelangelo and de Cirico; quotations from (among others) Thomas Aquinas, St. Thérèse de Lisieux, the Song of Songs, Revelation, and the gospels; concepts from physics, astrophysics, surrealism and Buddhist philosophy; as well as Hindu and ancient Greek rhythms. He loved birdsong and notated the calls of birds worldwide; many of these transcriptions are incorporated into Vingt Regards.
“The greatest influence on me, by a long way, is birdsong…
They were the first to make music on this planet”
Messiaen was a synesthete: he saw colours in his head as he heard sounds. Combinations of these colours were fundamental to his compositional process and he was inspired by the dazzling effect of colour mixtures in stained glass windows.
“Each sound-complex is linked to a colour-complex that is always the same.”