Listening Log – [Pt. I- Proj. 2]-Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Messe de la Pentecôte” (from 1949-50)
Listening Log – [Pt. I- Proj. 2]-Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Messe de la Pentecôte” (from 1949-50)
Exercise 2.0; Mass Music. Olivier Messiaen- ‘Messe de la Pentecôte (from 1949-50)
On August 17th 2008, on a Sunday afternoon in Westminster Abbey I sat down to listen to one of my favourite organ pieces of all time; Messiaen’s ‘La Nativité du Seigneur’, performed by the British organist Jennifer Bate for the ‘From the Canyons to the Stars Festival’. Jennifer Bate was Messiaen’s organist of choice for the latter part of his life and he left her many of his notes and manuscripts. I was fortunate enough to get a chance to speak to her after her performance and she mentioned having performed the piece following his markings and instructions. Hearing my favourite piece performed on the organ in the Abbey was in itself almost a religious experience and affected me on a deeply emotional and meditative level. The piece itself is of course also religious and consists of nine meditations, or movements, on the birth of Jesus. Musically it is an early example of what has become synonymous with Messiaen’s style, the use of birdsong, Indian and Ancient Greek rhythmical influences and his particular ‘limited modes of transposition’- a set of symmetrical/pivoting scales described by him in his book ‘La technique de mon langage musical’. At the time of this performance however I had no theoretical understanding of Messiaen’s compositional style or what made his music sound so different to other Western Art Music. All I knew is the he was one of the few ‘Classical’ composers I could relate to. Now it seems obvious to me that his influences of Ancient and Indian music as well as the use of Octatonic scales and other compositional devises are the exact ingredients which attracted me to his music, simply because they are also my influences.
Since my introduction to Messiaen through ‘Quartet for the end of Time, ‘Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jésus’ and the above-mentioned piece I have expanded my musical knowledge, both in general and with regards to Messiaen in particular. This led me to familiarise myself with most of his repertoire, including of course his Pentecostal organ mass from 1949-50; ‘Messe de la Pentecôte’. This mass supposedly evolved out of Messiaen’s improvisations as the organist at the Roman Catholic Church ‘Église de la Sainte-Trinité’ in Paris and was written to correspond to the length of a low mass, messe basse (mid-day Sunday mass) with sections matching those of the service and according to Messiaen himself;
‘… proper to each mystery, the colour, poetry, emotional expression and sentiment particular to each time and each festival.’
He ‘premiered’ it during a Eucharist celebration in 1951. I am curious to know what the parishioners would have thought and felt when hearing it and part of me wishes I had a time machine so that I could transport myself to 1950’s Paris to share in this experience. I simply love Messiaen’s music, the weirdness of it and the inclusion of birdsong and his deep reverence of nature. This appreciation of the environment which is woven into the fabric of his music seems very ahead of it’s time and even more pertinent to our generation today as we are at the potential precipice of unparalleled and global natural disasters such as climate change, chemical and plastic pollution and the mass extinction of many animal, insect and plant species. I love this Mass because it brings an appreciation of our Earth into spiritual worship. It is generally a combination only found in Pagan religions or Eastern philosophies such as Buddhism and Shinto. It is reassuring to come across it in a Christian setting.
Messiaen himself included an analysis of the mass in his seven volume ‘Treatise on Rhythm, Colour and Ornithology.’ I have quoted some descriptions from this treatise in the sections below and also referred to some of his ‘performance directions’ for the organist.
Messe de la Pentecôte, five movements:
Introit/Entrance (les langues de feu); ‘Tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them’. (Acts 2:3 )
Ancient Greek ‘irrational’ rhythms, metres and feet like Adonic, Pherecratean and Sapphic.
Offertoire/Offertory (Les choses visibles et invisibles); ‘Things visible and invisible’ (Nicene Creed)
Imitates birdsong in bars 50–57 (taken from a flute passage in Turangalîla-Symphonie, described by Messiaen as melodic ‘garlands resembling birdsong in slow-motion. The bird songs transcribed in this movement are mainly of blackbirds and robins. The rhythms in this movement are based on the hindu rhythms; tritîya, caturthaka, nihçankalîla. Other elements incorporated are a reinterpretation of plainchant, like in the figure.
Consécration/Consecration (Ledon de Sagesse); ‘The Holy Spirit shall bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you’ (John 14:26).
This one of the movements in which adaptations of plainchant in the form of Messiaen’s monody is used.
Communion/Communion (Les oiseaux et les sources/birds and springs); ‘O ye Waters that be above the firmament, bless ye the Lord; O all ye Fowls of the air, bless ye the Lord’ (Benedicite/Canticle of Daniel).
Messiaen seized on this opportunity to include more bird song in the fourth movement. You can hear a nightingale imitation in bars 201-205 and a blackbird (identical to the birdsong phrase from ‘Ile de Feu’), cuckoos and larks.
According to himself: ‘It is customary after communion to recite, and by way of giving thanks, the Canticle of Daniel. Three young Hebrews, companions of Daniel: Ananias, Misaël, Azarias, have been thrown into a fiery furnace on the orders of King Nebuchadnezzar. Saved by the angel of the Lord, they walk calmly in the middle of the fire without being burned. The three of them improvise a song where they invite all of creation: angels, stars, atmospheric phenomena, beings which inhabit the earth – to unite with each other in praise of the Lord. One verse is addressed to the water, another to the birds: ‘springs of water, bless the Lord; birds of the sky, bless the Lord’. It was such a fine opportunity to allow birdsong to be heard, and drops of water in their melodies: I did not let it escape…’
‘… The drops of water are played on the choir on the bourdon 16 (sounds an octave below) and octavin 2 (sounds two octaves higher than notated). Hollow timbre, pianissimo nuance, staccato attacks, all converging to render this liquid articulation, very soft, very precise, of a succession of drops of water. They are real drops of water: notated according to their nature, by listening to the light seepages slip into some emerging groundwater, at the spring in my field in Petichet. They do not fall all from the same height, hence: the melodic movement; they do not fall all at equal intervals, hence: regularity or irregularity of rhythm.’
Sortie/Recessional (Le vent de l’Esprit): ‘A mighty rushing wind filled all the house’ (Acts 2:2)
Dominated by a motif called ‘le vent/the wind’ and by a choir of larks set against a complex rhythm.
In his own words; ‘The best moment in the whole piece. It mixes the most lively and the most free things there are: a lark’s song, – with one of the most extremely rigorous rhythmic combinations. The progressive acceleration, by constant uniform augmentation of the speed (obtained here by shorter and shorter chromatic values: with each new value we lose a semi-quaver) – the progressive deceleration, by constant uniform diminution of the speed (obtained here by longer and longer chromatic values: with each new value we gain a semi-quaver) – these two cases are well known in kinematics (part of the mechanics which treat the relations between movement and time), and are designated by the words: uniformly and progressively accelerated or retarded movement. The superimposition of the two movements: acceleration, deceleration, gives us two aspects of the division of time: one positive, one negative.’
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
Figure 1. Messiaen, O. (1951) Messiaen ‘Messe de la Pentecote’. Introit/Entree Section: Ancient Greek MetreExample. [Sheet Music] Paris: Alphonse Leduc.
Figure 2. Messiaen, O. (1951) Messiaen ‘Messe de la Pentecote’ Offertory Section: Plainchant. [Sheet Music] Paris: Alphonse Leduc.
Figure 3. Messiaen, O. (1951) Messiaen ‘Messe de la Pentecote’ Consecration Section: Monody Example. [Sheet Music] Paris: Alphonse Leduc.
Figure 4. Messiaen, O. (1951) Messiaen. ‘Messe de la Pentecote’ ‘Communion’ Section; Black Bird Melody. [Sheet Music] Paris: Alphonse Leduc.
Figure 5. Messiaen, O. (1951) Messiaen ‘Messe de la Pentecote’ Sortie Section: Choir of Larks. [Sheet Music] Paris: Alphonse Leduc.
Adams, N. (2002) Messiaen’s Messe de la Pentecôte. [Unpublished Paper ] At: https://www.academia.edu/2611719/Messiaens_Messe_de_la_Pentec%C3%B4te (Accessed On 06 August 2019)
Amici Ensemble (2001) Olivier Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time; Theme and Variations. [CD] Salford: Naxos Records.
Bandnotes (s.d) The Medieval Church Modes, Dorian Scales & Mixolydian Scales. At: https://bandnotes.info/tidbits/tidbits-feb.htm (Accessed on: 03 June 2019)
Bate, J. (2001) Messiaen L’Ascension. [CD] Milborne St Andrew: Regis Record.
Bate, J. (2001) Messiaen: Organ Works – Livre d’Orgue / Messe de la Pentecote / Meditations sur le mystere de la Sainte Trinite. [CD] Milborne St Andrew: Regis Record.
Bate, J. (2002) Messiaen: La Nativité du Seigneur. [CD] Milborne St Andrew: Regis Record.
Brazelton, C. (s.d) The Text of the Ordinary of the Mass. At: http://www.kitbraz.com/tchr/hist/med/mass_ordinary_text.html#BENEDICTUS (Accessed on: 03 June 2019)
Classical Artists Worldwide (s.d) Jennifer Bate, Concert Organist. [online] Available At: http://www.classical-artists.com/jbate/ (Accessed On 06 August 2019)
Encyclopaedia Brittanica (2007) Mass. At: https://www.britannica.com/art/mass-music#ref285695 (Accessed on: 03 June 2019)
Messiaen, O. (1950) Messe de la Pentecôte. At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7zJj200RQQA (Accessed On 06 August 2019)
Messiaen, O. (1951) Messe de la Pentecôte Pour Orgue. [Sheet Music] Paris: Alphonse Leduc.
Messiaen, O. (1957) Messiaen: Messe de la Pentecôte (À l’orgue de la Sainte-Trinité de Paris). [music download] Available At: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Messiaen-Messe-Pentec%C3%B4te-lorgue-Sainte-Trinit%C3%A9/dp/B07QXSDP6R/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=messe+de+la+pentecote+messiaen&qid=1567181759&s=instant-video&sr=8-1 (Accessed On 06 August 2019)
Messiaen, O. (2000) Olivier Messiaen: Technique de Mon Langage Musical (Version Anglaise) Piano Paperback. Paris: Alphonse Leduc.
Messiaen, O. (2005) Olivier Messiaen: Treatise on Rhythm, Colour and Ornithology – Tome VI. Paris: Alphonse Leduc.
The Organ Mag (2008) The Music of Olivier Messiaen: The ‘From the Canyons to the Stars Festival’ and the BBC Proms Westminster Abbey, Westminster Cathedral, Royal Albert Hall, Cadogan Hall. [performance review online] Available At: http://www.theorganmag.com/liverevs/2008-08-31-messiaen.html (Accessed On 06 August 2019)
Rockstro, W. (1900) A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Modes, The Ecclesiastical. At: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/A_Dictionary_of_Music_and_Musicians/Modes,_The_Ecclesiastical (Accessed on: 03 June 2019)