An Enigma Resolved: The Choral Works of Olivier Messiaen Flourish in New Album

A new album by Danish musicians and singers presents beautiful vocal works by the French avant-garde composer.

Noam Ben Zeev
Noam Ben-Zeev
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Composer Olivier Messiaen. Created a new approach to liturgical music.
Composer Olivier Messiaen. Created a new approach to liturgical music. Credit: Getty Images
Noam Ben Zeev
Noam Ben-Zeev

Father of the postwar avant-garde, Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) was a renowned musician whose boundless wisdom and knowledge nurtured composers like Pierre Boulez and Jean Barraqué at the Conservatoire de Paris, and whose famous students included Mikis Theodorakis, Iannis Xenakis and Karlheinz Stockhausen. He was also an enigmatic composer.

In a new album featuring some of his choral works, including the formative “Cinq Rechants,” that enigma resounds yet is also resolved. There is great beauty in this music. Technically, it is magnificent – and in choral form is easier to understand and experience than modern orchestral avant-garde-esque music.

Debussy’s Impressionism, Stravinsky’s rhythmic pulse, Catholicism, the music of ancient cultures and birdsong – this seemingly haphazard grouping pulls together the main sources from which Messiaen drew his inspiration. He took these sources and translated them into a new concept of musical time. To him, music can be “found” i.e., static, yet just a moment later – and sometimes, incredibly, even simultaneously – flow with broad sweeping movement. Reflection rather than drama; spirituality blending Catholicism with the cultures of the Orient; and, as in “Cinq Rechants,” cultures invented by him: this is his style.

“Turangalla-Symphonie” – about the universe and acreation, and a paean to time, love, movement, rhythm, life and death – and “Quartet for the End of Time” – composed while he was in a German wartime prison camp, and also an anthem suffused with Catholic mysticism and birdsong – are two of the French composer’s best-known works and strong reflections of his style.

The album 'L’Amour et la Foi: Vocal Music by Olivier Messiaen.'

Improvising birds

Birdsong, which Messiaen recorded throughout his life in different parts of the world, became an essential element of his style. “Birds knew the principles of Gregorian chant long before man did,” he once said. “They could improvise in a group and also sing in multivocal compositional techniques.” And he found within it the perfect expression of what he was searching for and discovered in music: a new type of rhythm, devoid of meter and beat, and completely free, being connected to very brief repeating patterns that create a sense of different layers of time. Special shades of sound, imitating birds, also appeared in his music.

All of this is beautifully brought to the fore on “L’Amour et la Foi,” which opens with “Trois Petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine,” written in the winter of 1943-44. This expansive work is full of Messiaen’s colorfulness. A female chorus, piano, chamber orchestra – and echoes of the impressionism so often present in his work, accomplished by three particular instruments: the celesta, a keyboard instrument whose hammers strike metal plates, making a heavenly sound, as the name suggests; the vibraphone, an electronic percussion instrument with metal plates and a pure sound; and an early electronic instrument called Ondes Martenot, which Messiaen made great use of. The sensual spectrum of colors in this piece attests to Messiaen’s new approach to liturgical music – an approach that, not surprisingly, also aroused some opposition.

As usual with Messiaen, the keyboard is a truly birdlike instrument here: flitting around in circles, without any set rhythm, sounds that are inconsistently repetitive, in a high pitch that onomatopoeically mimics birdsong. The blackbird, nightingale and lark figure prominently in this mix, to which the slightly chilling whistle of the Ondes Martenot is frequently added.

The text of the piece expresses love for Jesus – he is addressed directly. Pure, Christian love is the real hero here, and is expressed through effects such as softness, unison, the electronic whistle in the background, and dense orchestral accompaniment.

The performance by the singers and musicians (everyone here is Danish, apart from English conductor Marcus Creed) indicates from the get-go the high quality of this album. It’s a real pleasure to listen to the musical precision and overall sound.

The text of the 1937 choral motet “O Sacrum Convivium!” has been set to music by some of the greatest composers in history, including Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Thomas Tallis during the Renaissance period. It’s a short piece filled with Renaissance-style multivocal flourishes for an a-cappella chorus.

The concluding work here is “Cinq Rechants” for 12 solo voices. This 1948 piece shows Messiaen’s attraction to the distant past, in this case to the legend of Tristan and Isolde, an ancient tale of love and death that became a romantic symbol, for other reasons, for Richard Wagner, too – perhaps the very antithesis of Messiaen’s musical world.

“This piece is a love song – and this one word, ‘love,’ is enough to explain to the singers how to perform it,” Messiaen wrote on the “Cinq Rechants” score. The real inspiration for the piece comes from medieval times, and the text is partially composed in an “ancient” Sanskrit-like language that was invented by the composer himself. The technique of writing for a chorus is splendidly on display in this piece, which really does have everything: solo segments, multivocal segments of dizzying virtuosity, spoken declamations, wild dissonance, echoing and dialogue between groups and soloists, and romantic melodies with vocal chord-based accompaniment.

“L’Amour et la Foi: Vocal Music by Olivier Messiaen.” Track list: “Trois Petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine,” “O Sacrum Convivium!,” “Cinq Rechants,” for 12 solo voices. Danish National Concert Choir; Danish National Vocal Ensemble; Danish National Chamber Orchestra. Conductor: Marcus Creed. OUR Recordings, March 2015

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