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ClassicsOnline Home » MESSIAEN, O.: Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum / Le tombeau resplendissant / Hymne (Lyon National Orchestra, Markl)
Olivier Messiaen’s uniquely distinctive and powerfully expressive musical voice drew strength from religious faith and nature. A prestigious commission, Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum commemorates the dead of two World Wars through the transcendence of Christ’s Resurrection. Scored for winds and percussion, the work is conceived for and conjures up vast spaces. Le tombeau resplendissant and Hymne are early works, but equally filled with mystery and symbolism. Fanfare magazine described Jun Märkl’s previous volume in this series (Poèmes pour Mi / 8.572174) as “the best recording around of a mesmerizing masterwork”.
Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992)
Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum • Le tombeau resplendissant • Hymne
Olivier Messiaen was born on 10 December 1908 in Avignon into a literary family. His father was an eminent translator of English literature and his mother, Cécile Sauvage, was a published poet. Messiaen displayed a precocious musical talent from an early age, being accepted by the time he was eleven into the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied piano, composition and organ. After graduation, he served as organist at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité in Paris from 1931 until his death, and his own contribution to the organ repertoire is arguably greater than that of any other composer since Bach.
In 1932 Messiaen married the violinist Claire Delbos and they had a son five years later. During World War II he was captured while serving as a medical auxiliary and held as a prisoner of war at Görlitz in Silesia. It was there that he wrote one of his most famous works, the Quatuor pour le fin de temps (Quartet for the End of Time) (Naxos 8.554824), which was given its first performance in the camp by four of the prisoners. After his release in 1941 Messiaen returned to Paris and took up a Professorship at the Conservatoire. Towards the end of war his wife developed mental health problems following an operation. Her condition worsened steadily and she was eventually hospitalised until her death in 1959.
Messiaen had been fascinated by birdsong since his teenage years; he once described birds as ‘probably the greatest musicians to inhabit our planet’. In 1953 he began travelling around France, meticulously notating different birdsong and using it in his music. By the 1960s as his growing international reputation was taking him further afield (including Japan, Iran, Argentina and Australia), he extended concert trips to further his birdsong research, often accompanied by his second wife, the pianist Yvonne Loriod, whom he had married in 1961.
The late 1960s and 1970s were dominated by a series of monumental works which embodied the ideas and phenomena that inspired him most: the oratorio La transfiguration de notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (1965–9) and the opera Saint-François d’Assise (1975–83) were acts of devotion to his Roman Catholic faith, and the orchestral work Des Canyons aux étoiles…(1971–4) was inspired by birdsong as well as the colours and majesty of the Bryce Canyon in Utah which he visited in 1972. Messiaen retired from teaching in 1978, but continued composing until shortly before his death.
Messiaen lived and worked at a time when Western composers were rejecting many of the styles that had evolved over the previous three centuries and inventing new ones. Although Messiaen himself was a musical innovator, he stood aside from his contemporaries as his music was born of a deep religious faith and a wonder of nature, in an age when secularism and detachment were much more in vogue. As a teacher he was a major influence on a new generation of ground-breaking composers, including Boulez and Stockhausen, but whereas these composers aimed to break totally free from tradition, Messiaen’s sound world always has a shimmering beauty that seems to be the natural successor to the ravishing harmonies of early twentieth-century French composers, such as Debussy, who had first awakened his own passion for music.
Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (And I await the resurrection of the dead) was commissioned in 1964 by the French Minister of Cultural Affairs, novelist and art theorist André Malraux. This was an extremely prestigious commission that firmly cemented Messiaen’s position in the French cultural establishment. Malraux’s original brief was for a work that would commemorate the dead of the two World Wars. Instead of writing a Requiem or memorial to the dead, however, Messiaen chose not to focus on the horrors of combat, and produced a more universal meditation on the transcendence of death through the Resurrection of Christ, conceived for performance in vast spaces: churches, cathedrals or even outdoors, high up in the mountains. The work, scored for an orchestra of woodwind, brass and metal percussion, is in five movements, each prefaced by a quotation from the Bible. The music is typically rich in symbolism, much of which is explained by Messiaen in detailed notes in the published score.
The slow, dark melodies of the first movement, Des profondeurs de l’abîme je crie vers toi, Seigneur: Écoute ma voix! (Out of the depths I call to thee, O Lord: hear my voice!), are reminiscent of plainchant and represent the cries of souls in Purgatory. The second movement, Le Christ, ressuscité des morts, ne meurt plus; la mort n’a plus sur lui l’empire (Christ, risen from the dead, no longer dies; death has no dominion over him), is a highly symbolic description of Christ’s Resurrection: the theme on cowbells incorporates the Indian rhythms simhavikrama (meaning ‘the power of the lion’) and the vijaya (‘victory’)—this is a reference to Christ’s depiction in Revelation as ‘the Lion of the tribe of Judah’ who gained victory over death. This combined rhythm has fifteen matras or beats and is dedicated to the Indian god Shiva, the vanquisher of death and sometimes known as the fivefold god; the five of Shiva multiplied by the three of the Holy Trinity equal the fifteen beats of the simhavikrama.
The third movement, L’heure vient où les morts entendront la voix du Fils de Dieu…(The time comes when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God…), represents the moment when the dead hear the voice of the Son of God. It features the song (heard at the opening of the movement) of the Uirapuru, a bird of the Amazonian jungle, which according to legend is only heard immediately before death. The birdsong sections are interspersed with long silences, chimes, and long, monumentally powerful rolls on the tamtam. The fourth movement, Ils ressusciteront, glorieux, avec un nom nouveau—dans le concert joyeux des étoiles et les acclamations des fils du ciel (They shall rise again in glory, with a new name—in the joyful music of the stars and the acclamations of the sons of heaven), celebrates the rising of the dead, featuring two plainchants from the Easter Mass: the Introit, heard on cowbells and chimes, and the Alleluia played by the trumpets. These, together with the song of the Calandra Lark on winds, are played in short sections, interspersed with three strikes of the tamtam, symbolising the call of the Trinity. The fifth movement, Et j’entendis la voix d’une foule immense…(And I heard the sound of a great crowd…), is a powerful and solemn song of praise, representing the final transcendence of death through the Resurrection.
The work was given its première on 7 May 1965 at La Sainte-Chapelle in Paris conducted by Serge Baudo, with subsequent performances in Chartres Cathedral (attended by de Gaulle himself) and the Théâtre de l’Odéon.
Le tombeau resplendissant was written in 1931 when Messiaen was just 23 years old. This work, written for full symphony orchestra, has a simple fast-slow-fast-slow structure and the dynamic fury of much of the fast sections seems at first to be at odds with the ‘resplendent tomb’ of the title. An explanation, however, is found in Messiaen’s own poetic preface for the work, the four paragraphs of which reflect the nature of the four sections of the piece. The tomb in question is the tomb of the composer’s youth. In the first and third sections, Messiaen vents furious rage and despair as his youth slips away, while the second and fourth sections are tinged with a quieter sense of melancholy and an attempt to appease his anger with a quotation from the Sermon on the Mount. Where did this anger come from? Could the 23-year-old Messiaen really not accept growing older? Or was he perhaps still dealing with the death of his beloved mother four years previously? Messiaen rarely expressed himself publicly about painful issues in his personal life and we will probably never know the answer to these questions. Following the première of Le tombeau on 12 February 1933 with the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris under Pierre Monteux, Messiaen was unwilling for the work to have further performances or even to be discussed. The first commercial recording did not appear until 1994, and the printed score was not made available until 1997.
Hymne is another early orchestral work with a mysterious history. The original version was written in 1932 and had its première the following year, with the title Hymne au Saint-Sacrement. In 1942, however, Messiaen’s publishers sent to Lyon the only copy of the score and parts, which were promptly lost en route. Four years later, when Leopold Stokowski expressed interest in performing the work, Messiaen set about reconstructing the piece entirely from memory. The reconstructed version was given the shorter title Hymne and was presented to a New York audience in 1947 billed—slightly disingenuously—as a world première. It is impossible for us to know how close this version is to the original; given Messiaen’s prodigious musical memory, however, and the consistency in style to other of Messiaen’s early works, we can reasonably assume that it is a fairly accurate reconstruction. It is also interesting to compare the composer’s own programme notes of the two ‘premières’. At the time of the American performance, Messiaen had been subject to harsh criticism in the press in 1945–6 over his complex theological explanations of his music and his desire to read these out publicly before performances of his work. It may have been owing to this criticism that his note for the New York audience dealt purely with musical analysis. It is perhaps more enlightening to us today to look back to the earlier note to understand Hymne. This attributes specific religious symbolism to a loose sonata-form structure. The first theme represents the glory of God, and the second the union of love between Christ and the communicant. The development section explores man’s battle against sin, and the final section celebrates the promise of eternal joy in Heaven.
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