Messiaen: ‘Noel’ (Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jesus, no. 13)
Cordelia Williams: piano
Recorded at Salisbury Cathedral, 18th August 2015
With thanks to ICA Films (www.icafilms.co.uk)
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
According to all involved, the Messiaen 2015 study day at KCL on Tuesday 28th April was an unequivocal success. There was an inspiring range of speakers and topics on offer, and the chance to hear academic papers alongside live performance, poetry reading and discussion between artists and scholars was exciting and thought-provoking.
Session 1: Messiaen’s World
Dr Jeremy Thurlow gave us a whirlwind five minute introduction to Messiaen’s music and his place within (or without) the development of twentieth century music. Dr Edward Forman then delved into the circumstances in which the Vingt Regards were commissioned, composed and first performed against the bleak backdrop of Occupied Paris and looked at the music’s origins in the writings of Dom Columba Marmion and Maurice Toesca.
11.45am Messiaen, Truth and Reality
Professor Christopher Dingle explored Messiaen’s frequent self-contradiction and ‘poetic licence’, and questioned how the composer could have such fluid notions of ‘truth’ when the concept of ‘Truth’ is so central to his thinking. He played many musical excerpts, including a wonderful passage from Saint Francoise d’Assise. The final words of Saint Francis: “Free me, inebriate me, dazzle me forever with your excess of truth.” (Ideas of dazzlement and ‘excess of truth’ will be explored further at the event on Monday 8th June at Westminster Abbey.)
Cordelia Williams gave a staggering performance of six movements of the Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus: Regard du Père, Regard de la Vierge, Regard des prophètes, des bergers et des Mages, Regard des anges, Regard du silence and Regard de l’Esprit de joie. The following review appeared on starcourse.blogspot.co.uk:
“Yesterday to Kings College London for the lunchtime recital which had Cordelia Williams performing 6 of the Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus as part of her brilliant Messiaen 2015 project… I recall the enormous trombones of the Angels as they learn with astonishment that God had chosen to unite himself, not with them, but with humans. In a very insightful talk before the performance she pointed out that there were (real) terrifying angels, not the prettified ones of Victoriana. She also spoke of the paradox of a movement representing silence and of the complex framing of the Shepherds and the Magi by the prophets.
However, excellent though her talk was, it was mightily surpassed by the brilliance of the performance. It was utterly transporting and the only feasible reactions at many points were to shut one’s eyes and listen in an almost trance-like state. Words pretty much fail me.”
Session 3: Theological and Musical Meaning within Messiaen’s Vingt Regards
Following her performance, Cordelia unravelled some of Messiaen’s idiosyncratic compositional techniques, such as non-retrogradable rhythm (i.e. rhythmic palindromes), symmetry and birdsong, and looked at how he uses these to express specific theological ideas.
“In a rhythmical palindrome, the future is the same as the past and it does not change whether played forwards or backwards, but merely repeats itself. This quality of stepping outside linear time, as it were, means that non-retrogradable rhythms, for Messiaen, signify and imitate eternity.”
Session 4: Artistic responses to the music of Messiaen
Cordelia then invited poet Michael Symmons Roberts and artist Sophie Hacker to join her for a discussion of the ways they have each responded to the Vingt Regards in order to create their commissions for Messiaen 2015. We were also lucky enough to hear Michael reading one of his poems – Cordelia requested the poem answering Messiaen’s thirteenth movement, Noël, which Michael has written as ‘Nativity scene in bullet time’.
Session 5: Messiaen and the Unsecular Modern
Professor Ben Quash, of King’s College London, explored the – perhaps surprising – persistence of religious themes and styles among 20th- and 21st-century artists, including some of the painters, sculptors and architects who were contemporaries of Messiaen. He discussed David Jones, Raqib Shaw (below) and Norman Adams and compared the highly influential Catholic Modernism of Jacques Maritain with the theology of Messiaen.
Finally, all the contributors returned to discuss thoughts that had arisen during the day and to take questions from the audience.
And then speakers and listeners gathered for a well-deserved glass of wine!
Transcripts or recordings of the day’s sessions will be made available shortly.
On Sunday 22nd February a full house gathered at Temple Lodge Church, a beautifully peaceful oasis amidst the bustle of Hammersmith, for the first event in the Messiaen 2015 series. Peter van Breda’s pre-concert talk, looking at Messiaen’s childhood, artistic influences and musical aims, gave a wonderful introduction to the performance and project.
The talk was followed by half an hour of tea, scones, cake and an exhibition of the nine commissioned paintings so far completed by Sophie Hacker.
Left to right: First Communion of the Virgin, The Exchange, I Sleep but my Heart Wakes, Gaze of the Spirit of Joy.
Left to right: Kiss of the Infant Jesus, Gaze of the Star, Gaze of the Heights, Christmas.
The concert that we returned to was a wonderful collaboration between Cordelia Williams and Sophie Hacker. After giving a short introduction to the Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus, Cordelia performed the nine movements corresponding to the paintings on display. Preceding each movement, Sophie spoke about the answering painting and about which elements of the music and of Messiaen’s theology had particularly reached out to her. One listener described the evening as ‘utterly sublime’; it was quite magical to hear the music in conjunction with this new art, and vice versa, as each shed new light on the other. We came away feeling illuminated and uplifted.
Interview with Cordelia Williams click to read
With thanks to Martin Kendrick of ICA films
On 4th December, in the beautiful Knightsbridge home of Lord and Lady Ellis, we had the pleasure of seeing the Messiaen 2015 project finally go public. It was an honour and a delight to share the event with a full house, including contributors to the project, scholars, journalists, friends, and even acquaintances of Messiaen himself.
Guests were welcomed in from the winter’s night with champagne and Christmassy canapés; merriment increased as people viewed the three paintings brought by artist Sophie Hacker for the evening, and the room became busier and busier until we had to find more chairs.
When everyone had found a seat the evening was introduced by Jeremy Begbie, Professor and Lecturer in Music and Theology at the University of Cambridge and Duke University, NC. Jeremy spoke about the project’s potential to find new relationships between music, art and poetry, and to provoke new and exciting ways of thinking in the arts. Cordelia Williams, pianist and director of the project, then gave a short insight into the origins of the ‘Messiaen 2015’ idea : she was invited to perform the complete Vingt Regards at King’s College, Cambridge, and during the sixteen months it took to learn the work she discovered how fascinating and wide-ranging Messiaen’s sources of inspiration were. The composer’s own interests in literature, art and theology are precisely what led to the commissions and events of Messiaen 2015.
Cordelia then introduced artist Sophie Hacker and poet Michael Symmons Roberts, who each gave a fascinating glimpse into the process of responding to their commission; both spoke about how the project had challenged them and led their work in a new and unexpected direction. The audience was then treated to an inspiring and moving performance by Cordelia and Michael: three movements of Vingt Regards – Première communion de la Vierge (“The Virgin’s first communion”), Noël (“Christmas”), and Regard de l’Esprit de joie(“Contemplation of the joyful Spirit”) – interwoven with Michael’s readings of three of his poems, which explore the idea of an infant born in a city under occupation. The combination of the music with the poetry readings, alongside the paintings displayed on stage, was a unique experience and people were excited to see how each artist responded independently to the music.
Cordelia rounded off a wonderful evening by sharing the events planned for 2015 and by thanking everyone without whom the project would not be possible: Lord and Lady Ellis, Veronica and Ruth for their assistance at the venue, City Music Foundation for their generous support, Louise Gaskell for her invaluable help as Producer of the series, and someone special for ‘constant encouragement and reassurance over the last two years, and putting up with her night-time panics that she would definitely never be able to learn movement number 6 and that all the events would fall through’.
Photography by Sophie Wright
Olivier Messiaen wrote his piano masterpiece Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (Twenty Contemplations of the Infant Jesus) in 1944, surrounded by war in occupied Paris, yet the music is suffused with themes of love, colour, passion, silence and faith. Pianist Cordelia Williams presents ‘Between Heaven and the Clouds’, a year-long series of events setting Vingt Regards alongside words and images, including specially commissioned poetry and paintings, in order to explore these universal themes and Messiaen’s rich variety of inspiration.
Commission of twenty poems by award-winning British poet Michael Symmons Roberts responding to the twenty movements of Vingt Regards.
Commission of a Suite of paintings by British artist Sophie Hacker in response to the ideas and theology of Vingt Regards.
Commission of one poem by former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Rowan Williams, inspired by Messiaen the man, his music and his faith.
The events, taking place around the country, will include performances of the work alongside poetry readings and exhibition of the art, discussion panels and a study day. ‘Between Heaven and the Clouds’ aims to discover anew this wonderful music and to encourage cross-discipline collaboration between artists and academics.
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.”