Olivier Messiaen's organ music
May 27, 2012 6:54 AM   Subscribe

The irony in a way is that Messiaen used this great romantic organ for his most modern experiments. For Messiaen, this was a great sort of sonic paintbox, if you like, and he would come here and experiment with the extraordinary sounds that he could conjure out of this amazing instrument.

In addition to L'Ascension (1934), Messiaen's major works for the instrument are La Nativité du Seigneur (1935) - whose "Les Anges" can be heard performed by the composer here - Les Corps Glorieux (1939), and Le Livre du Saint Sacrement (1984).

Latry's performances in the Deutsche Grammophon 32 CD box set of the complete Messiaen - available by torrent - have received positive reviews. But I find greater profundity in the renditions by British organist Jennifer Bate.
posted by Trurl (10 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Don't forget Gillian Weir's recordings. And yes, these are astonishing works. A pity, of course, that it's really impossible to replicate the experience of hearing the organ live on any kind of living-room sound system.
posted by yoink at 7:09 AM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Berkshire Record Outlet has the six-CD Jennifer Bate Messiaen set for 24 bucks. The booklet graphics are a bit cheesy (typical of the Regis label, which has licensed these recordings originally done for Unicorn-Kanchana) but there are extensive liner notes, and what's on the CDs is first-class.
posted by in278s at 7:45 AM on May 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

I love Messiaen for his unapologetic mysticism. Quartet for the End of Time is my favorite, but I go to the organ pieces when I want something more textural, less narrative.

I've always wondered, he had a position as resident organist at a church. Did he play this music at actual services? I think it makes sense, given how religious the music is, but I can't imagine a church audience sitting still for this kind of modernism. Even a Parisian audience.
posted by Nelson at 8:10 AM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Netflix has or had a DVD featuring Messiaen himself at the organ, including some improvisations. The same disc has a performance of the Quartet in a ruined abbey. It's well worth queuing.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 8:21 AM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

....he had a position as resident organist at a church. Did he play this music at actual services?

Yes he did. This led me into a somewhat comedic adventure. I was spending some time visiting a French girlfriend Paris, and she offered to arrange for whatever touristical needs I might have. I could find the museums myself, I replied, and the only thing I would like some help with was locating and attending a service where Messiaen was the organist. Despite one of her friends being a professional concert pianist, this proved to be a confounding request, admittedly pre-internet, but still, they had the MiniTel.

I wasn't relenting in this request, and I became known as the pain-in-the ass American. Eventually someone thought that they had discovered a time and place, quite inconvenient, where Messiaen would be giving a concert. Lots of sighs and moans later we arrive at the location, and find that it is in the Salle de Messiaen, a hall named after him but not featuring his performance.

The concert was actually an American expat jazz band. I was lucky that it was so, my hosts informed me, because they enjoyed the concert immensely, and that I was about one hour from being sent back to New York.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:30 AM on May 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

... I met him in the church of La Trinité in Paris on 29th December, 1974, soon after I had left university where I had specialised in his music.

As I entered the church, I was met by the most glorious blaze of organ sound - full organ in the style of very resplendent Bach. What a tremendous welcome to La Trinité! When the mass I was attending had finished, a helpful lady was insistent that I should meet the organist and went to ask a priest where I should wait. ...

We were all quite overcome and struck dumb by the sight of him, but he paused as if waiting for us to speak. In the end it was I that broke the silence, and then the others joined in. Messiaen seemed interested in us, kind and friendly, and I apologised for my bad French, explaining that I was English. He asked if we were all English, so we explained our various nationalities. Messiaen enthused about the organ at La Trinité, saying what a magnificent instrument it was, and gave us a brief history of the instrument which I didn't quite grasp since he spoke only in French. He spoke of it with great warmth, affection and quiet enthusiasm. I mentioned that I knew the organist Gillian Weir and Messiaen immediately began to enthuse about her, saying what a magnificent organist she was. Was she really mon "amie?" He had a rather soft, musical voice and seemed very kindly, but also business-like and obviously didn't want to hang around for too long, though he wasn't in a hurry either. Then he turned, shook hands with me and said "Merci" really warmly, and did the same with a couple of the others. He went to join Yvonne Loriod who was already in their car, and they drove off, while we, in a state of euphoria, hardly knew where we went.
posted by Trurl at 10:01 AM on May 27, 2012

I just listened to the L'Ascension performance you linked (previously I'd only heard the orchestral version).

Powerful! And with a new movement! I really liked it.

I really like Messiaen in general, but haven't focused on his organ works. Thanks for a nice intro. to 'em.
posted by airing nerdy laundry at 10:45 AM on May 27, 2012

One of the consistent elements of Messian's music is his use of birdsongs.. here is pretty cool site that compares the original birdsong he recorded and the transcription to music.
posted by snaparapans at 12:57 PM on May 27, 2012

First of all, thanks very much for the post - longstanding Messiaen organ music fan here, and it's great to see it getting some exposure on mefi at last.

Some Messiaen improvisation footage is here. A performance on Messiaen's organ at La Trinité by Naji Hakim, the current organist, is here.

(It's well worth having a listen to Gillian Weir's performances. There isn't quite the opulence of organ sound as in Latry's, but for my money her musicality is a lot more heartfelt and consistent - and musical to the ear - than Jennifer Bate's. Also, as a bonus the liner notes in Weir's remastered version on Priory Records are superb.)
posted by paperpete at 1:13 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I will never give up hope of hearing Messiaen played on the orgue à tuyaux that most cries out for it. Namely Captain Nemo's, in the Nautilus.
posted by jfuller at 10:56 AM on May 28, 2012

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