Messiaen 2015 Launch Event!

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 by Sophie Wright (34 of 36)

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, Michael and Sophie

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

About Vingt Regards

Olivier Messiaen

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.”



The Poetry

Commission of twenty poems by award-winning British poet Michael Symmons Roberts responding to the twenty movements of Vingt Regards

Michael Symmons Roberts has published six collections of poetry, as well as novels, libretti documentaries and dramas. His poetry has won the Forward Prize, the Costa Poetry Prize and the Whitbread Poetry Award. His continuing collaboration with composer James MacMillan has led to two BBC Proms choral commissions, song cycles, music theatre works and operas. Of these, ‘The Sacrifice’ won the Royal Philharmonic Society Award for opera and ‘Clemency’ was nominated for an Olivier Award.

His broadcast work includes ‘A Fearful Symmetry’ – for Radio 4 – which won the Sandford St Martin Prize, and ‘Last Words’ commissioned by Radio 4 to mark the first anniversary of 9/11.

 “ Michael Symmons Roberts’ poems are intense and sensual explorations of the moment when the soul quickens to some ice-cracking life” (The Observer)

Commission of one poem by Lord Rowan Williams, inspired by Messiaen the man, his music and his faith

Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams was the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury. He is also a poet, author and theologian. His works include Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction and Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love. A collection of his poetry, The Poems of Rowan Williams, was published in 2002.

Dr Williams has been involved in many theological, ecumenical and educational commissions. He is now Master of Magdelene College, Cambridge and his interests include music, fiction and languages.

The Art

Commission of a Suite of paintings by British artist Sophie Hacker in response to the ideas and theology of Vingt Regards

Sophie Hacker

Sophie Hacker graduated as a painter from the Slade School of Art and subsequently re-trained in sculpture. Her work includes the use of found objects and natural materials to highlight the beauty of the ordinary and to point to the joy and suffering at the heart of creation. Colour is used to express the vitality and vibrancy of the natural world. She also works in stained glass and textiles.

Sophie was Artist in Residence at St Mary’s in the Lace Market, Nottingham 1996-1998, and at Sarum College, Salisbury 1999-2005. She is currently Arts Consultant for Winchester Cathedral and a trustee of ACE. She has a passion for encouraging creativity in others, running regular workshops and courses and lecturing in spirituality and art.