Study day:Messiaen’s world and the Vingt Regards

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.)


Lunchtime concert
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

“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.