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Olivier Messiaen's "Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jésus"
December 13, 2012 8:56 PM   Subscribe

To say that Messiaen's Vingt Regards sur L'Enfant-Jesus (Twenty Contemplations on the Infant Jesus) is a masterpiece is a gross understatement. Over sixty years after its composition, it has rightfully earned the recognition of being one of the most important piano works of the 20th century. ... [It] is one of the most personal and intimate pieces Messiaen ever wrote, and it gives the listener a close look at Messiaen the person. Messiaen was a deeply religious person, and although his faith influenced every single piece he wrote, the Vingt Regards is almost like his own personal spiritual diary. - Keith Kerchoff posted by Egg Shen (16 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
Is there a reliable list of the most important piano works of the 20th century? Or composers? and how long is such a list? if it even exists?
posted by polymodus at 9:28 PM on December 13, 2012


Had the chance to hear this played live once back in the 1990s, by this guy in an old gothic-style, stone church building with lots of natural reverb. It's a long work, and takes some effort as a listener to stay focused through the whole thing, but definitely worth hearing.
posted by Nat "King" Cole Porter Wagoner at 9:32 PM on December 13, 2012


This guy (on faculty at UW-Madison) was regarded as a coup when we hired him. He apparently performed the Messiaen on Tuesday night. (There's a video of an excerpt at that link.) I know he's done it fairly often, and the New York Times review published yesterday listed it as "a calling card" for him now. Specifically, he plays the whole thing from memory; the score is 176 pages long. If you scroll down on this page, there's a DVD available.

One of the interesting things about Taylor is that he actually has an undergraduate degree in mathematics from Harvard, so his championing of difficult and unusual contemporary pieces is in some ways influenced by a mathematical/scientific ways of looking at things (no pun intended). I think he still publishes mathematical things every so often.

For overviews of piano music, you could start with something like this book.

In terms of general 20th century music history, with important composers for more than just piano, you might try the Norton Anthology, which is something we studied in undergraduate music courses. It only goes through 1983, though. This could supplement. I also used this book in a separate survey course and enjoyed it quite a bit. Almost any book like this should have a companion CD.

This might be a good read.
posted by Madamina at 9:50 PM on December 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


Truly magnificent music. Messiaen organ works are something to hear too. And 'The Rest Is Noise' is indeed a good read (and it's a terrific play on words).
posted by methinks at 10:01 PM on December 13, 2012


Oh, this is wonderful. Thanks, Egg Shen.
posted by homunculus at 10:47 PM on December 13, 2012


Great to have the score in the videoclips.
posted by megob at 10:58 PM on December 13, 2012


Madamina, I'm impressed, and somewhat flabbergasted, that someone could memorize this entire score. I can't imagine how many hours in total Taylor had to put in to be able to do that, but I'm guessing, to paraphrase David Mamet, the operative concept is "lots and lots."

Also, not for nothin', but when I saw this performed, the title was translated as "Twenty views of the infant Jesus." Google Translate says the French "regards" also can be translated into English as "looks," which makes sense, too. Any Francophone MeFi-ites care to weigh in on which of these (contemplations/views/looks) seems most correct?
posted by Nat "King" Cole Porter Wagoner at 11:31 PM on December 13, 2012


This may be completely unrelated, but I've always been struck by the comparison between "vingt regards..." and Wallace Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" [original text] It was published much earlier -- 1917 to Messiaen's 1944. Messiaen was well known for his use of actual birdsong melodies in his work, and "Vingt regards" is likely inspired in some way. Later, in 1952, he wrote a flute piece (Le Merle Noir) incorporating blackbird song.

There have been at least two projects that make some sort of connection.

The Rest Is Noise apparently includes a pretty significant chunk about Messiaen.
posted by Madamina at 12:22 AM on December 14, 2012


"The Rest is Noise" is a great read. I can't recommend it highly enough. It's chock-full of facts yet personal and engaging. It's scope is very wide, yet it retains a laser like focus throughout. It's thought provoking, extremely interesting, well written (to say the least) and it makes you want to do nothing but listen to the 20th Century. One of the greatest music books ever written, I'd say.

And, yes, it includes a pretty significant chunk about Messiaen.
posted by soundofsuburbia at 12:48 AM on December 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


One of my favorite works. The recording I like best is Håkon Austbø's on Naxos.
posted by dfan at 9:19 AM on December 14, 2012


XV. Le Baiser de l'Enfant Jésus has always been my favorite movement. I think it's some of the finest octatonic writing in the literature, treading as it does that fine line between projecting a tonal center and not more delicately than any other piece I can remember.
posted by invitapriore at 9:52 AM on December 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thank you for this post. Messiaen makes me so happy, it's such personal and meaningful music. And this piece is lovely and topical for Christmas.
posted by Nelson at 4:39 PM on December 14, 2012


On the topic of "regards," the French preposition, "sur," is usually translated "upon." So I think "contemplations" or "perspectives" makes the most sense in translation, rather than the subjectivally-ambiguous "looks." The individual movements are titled things like, "The Perspective of the Father," "The Perspective of the Stars" and so on.
posted by kurtiss at 6:27 PM on December 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


Is there a reliable list of the most important piano works of the 20th century? Or composers? and how long is such a list? if it even exists?

- Vingt Regards
- The People United Will Never Be Defeated
- Time Curve Preludes
posted by kenko at 6:41 PM on December 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Finally sitting down to listen to this. Is it me, or is the sixth piece "Par Lui..." pretty jazzy?
posted by Nelson at 8:29 AM on December 16, 2012


- Vingt Regards
- The People United Will Never Be Defeated
- Time Curve Preludes
...The Concord Sonata (Ives).
Ludus Tonalis (Hindemith).
The Shostakovich preludes and fugues.
If prepared piano counts, then La Monte Young's "Well Tuned Piano" and Cage's "Sonatas and Interludes"...
posted by and so but then, we at 9:26 PM on December 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


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