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Messiaen,  Le Livre du Saint Sacrament: Jennifer Bate (organ), Westminster Cathedral, Victoria, London 21.5.2008 (AO)

Every day for sixty years, Messiaen played the organ at his parish church, Ste. Trinité in Paris.  This was so central to his life that it’s probably not possible to truly appreciate his music without an understanding of what this meant to him.  The church itself is unprepossessing, a late 19th century utilitarian building built for ordinary, working class Parisians.  Even the organ isn’t specially glamorous.  But this is what makes Messiaen’s music so powerful. It celebrates the glory of life, pure and simple. To quote Boulez, “Beneath the very real complexities of his intellectual world, he always remained simple and capable of wonder – and that alone is enough to win our hearts”.

What’s even more surprising though, is how “un” churchy Messiaen’s music really is.  There’s something quite radically refreshing about his vision, which subverts clichés about what religious music ought to be.  It was good, then, that this recital took place in an oddly un-Establishment setting. Westminster Cathedral was consecrated as recently as 1910. Only decades before Catholics didn’t even have civil rights, and remained associated with the Irish poor, and with foreigners. That “outsider” status still informs the Cathedral. Here is buried one of the English Martyrs who was hung, drawn and quartered near what is now Marble Arch.  Just as the Trinité in Paris devotes much effort to helping the poor in Africa and Asia, Westminster Cathedral isn’t insular. Even its bizarre Byzantine décor is worlds away from straight laced convention.

Much of Le Livre du Saint Sacrament was created in the Trinité. Messiaen would improvise at certain parts of the Mass, such as after communion when it’s difficult to estimate how long it will take for people to trek back to the pews. Perhaps this is what makes the piece feels so lively and spontaneous, even though it’s on an ambitious scale.  Two hours of liturgical music in a dark church may not be most people’s idea of a great night out but this was such a vivid performance that time seemed to slip away.

Le Livre du Ste. Sacrament is a companion piece to Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant-Jésus, for both are mediations on different aspects of Messiaen’s beliefs. You don’t need to know the theology behind this music to appreciate it, any more than you need to be Lutheran to like Bach.  But the character of this music is clearly inspired by intense commitment, so a little basic knowledge helps reveal its depths. The first four movements dwell on the mystery of faith. The first movement begins with a massive wall of sound, the lowest registers of the organ reverberating so profoundly that the floor seems to shake. Gradually a distinct melodic line emerges, evoking more typical liturgical plainsong. Messiaen’s own music may be very different but he acknowledges centuries of tradition. This third movement, Le Dieu caché stands out as it is the heart of the opening group. It ends with a gloriously long fade out, calm and serenely floating out into eternity.  “Firmly I believe, and truly” is the hidden text behind the fourth movement, which begins with wild discords and ends in confident single chords. 

The first piece in the second section, (No.5 in the whole), reflects the nativity and is fairly easy to follow with its joyous cadences. Yet it is the mystery of the resurrection and of Communion which inspires this whole work, and is much more difficult to express in straightforward imagery. This is where Messiaen’s “rainbow theology” comes in. He uses sound to express complex concepts. For example, the seventh movement tells of Jesus’s promise that the humble act of breaking bread represents the union of god and man. The section positively glows with warmth. The tenth section, The Resurrection is so powerful it blasts you out of your seat.  Christ has conquered death, as shall all who follow him. It’s a huge statement, and Messiaen literally lets out all the stops.  It’s loud yet gloriously rich : intensely triumphant notes  open ever outwards, spreading endlessly into the performance space, “lighting” every crypt and corner with its power. Its impact is intensified by the movements that lead to it.  The eighth movement, for example, is quiet and solemn for it represents the holiest moment in a Mass, when the host is blessed. It’s so important that everything goes quiet, the better to concentrate on the central mystery.  Here Messiaen captures the purity of the moment with snippets of birdsong, as if heard from afar and also as if he were once again in Ste. Trinité, hearing the sounds of life outside.   Even more striking is the 11th movement where the risen Christ appears to St Mary Magdalene. Of course she can’t believe it since she saw him die on the cross. But there he is and he’s real !  Messiaen captures the human saint, her shock and disbelief dissolving into delirious ecstacy.  But the miracle is  still a mystery, and the music evaporates elusively in solemn, peaceful chords.

After this there was an interval which rather broke the magic at this performance. This isn’t ordinary concert music, so you don’t “need” a drink, especially in a cathedral where there’s no bar.  Still, it marked the transition from Bible narrative to more complex theological concepts. The 12th movement. Transubstantiation, refers to the idea that the communion host is miraculously turned into Jesus himself, not merely symbolically.  In the 16th century, Europeans fought wars over this very subject and western Christianity has remained divided ever since. Messiaen combines  ancient plainsong with his own transcription of birdsong to express the mystery.  It’s a very direct and simple expression of faith. It just “is”, as the music suggests.  In contrast follows the tumultuous 13th section, The Two Walls of Water, referring to the parting of the Red Sea in Exodus.  Huge mountains of sound well up and are separated; toccatas separated by the wavering cadences of birdsong. Vulnerability against strength.  But are the fragile songs of the birds not the more enduring ? Another mystery to ponder.   The Hebrews escape  after all, as will those who have faith be delivered.  After the concert I heard Bate tell a friend “I thought I was going to fall over”. I’m not sure if this was the moment she was referring to, as there are many passages which demand a lot of an organist  physically, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

Messaien then returns to contemplative mode. Again, he takes his cue from the Mass, where the moments after communion are private contemplation.  “Say but the word and my soul shall be healed” goes the text in St Matthew, for the act of communion symbolises salvation.   Messiaen’s birds are no mere decoration. They symbolise the vulnerability of human life, yet they have endured longer than man, longer than even dinosaurs, as Messiaen was quick to point out. He uses exotic birdsong to remind us too, that the world is vast and there are cultures beyond our own, all of which can be united. The final movement, the 18th, The Offering and Alleluia, is thus a celebration. Again it follows the way a Mass ends,  with peace and renewal, for communion was for the composer the basis of his faith.  Huge plateaux of sound pour from the vast organ pipes, progressing relentlessly forward. Inventive passages interject light and happiness, but what endures are the profound, deeply expressive single chords as they boom out into the cathedral and into the night.

Twenty two years ago, Messiaen himself sat in Westminster Cathedral, listening as Jennifer Bate gave the first UK performance of this great work, barely a few months after it was completed.  Bate’s expertise comes direct from the pure source. She keeps the notes he wrote for her, and a copy of the manuscript marked with his comments. There were also people present who remembered the first performance and knew the work well. One lady said to Bate, “I remember seeing you and Messiaen huddled together over a score”.  Because the organ is an instrument audiences can’t see, they often don’t appreciate just how demanding it must be to play. All those stops to be adjusted, those pedals, and the physical effort of getting sound from huge pipes!  Bate manages to coax enormous volume, and sustain it until it fades into inaudibility. This is central to Messiaen’s style.  Yet she also manages the most delicate passages evoking the fluttering of birds and their fragile song. In many ways this is even more spectacular, technically and interpretively, than booming chords. To get such refinement from an instrument the size of an cathedral organ is no mean feat.  But that’s the magic that is Messiaen. He summed up his music quite simply. “I want to speak from heart to heart”.

For details of the Messiaen commemoration at the Église de Sainte-Trinité in Paris, see here and for  details of the South Bank Messiaen series “From the Canyons to the Stars”, click here .

Anne Ozorio

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