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ClassicsOnline Home » LANGLAIS: Suite Medievale / Cinq Meditations sur l'Apocalypse
American Record Guide
Jean Langlais (1970-1991)
Langlais' music is steeped in Gregorian chant, which he regarded as his personal domain. Was it also his personal folklore? One might be tempted to think so, since he did not hesitate to introduce a reminiscence of plainsong into his American Suite. However, while his early church music was programme music, he later on preferred to group his works into Masses. The Suite Médiévale and the first five pieces of the Hommage à Frescobaldi are entitled (or subtitled) Prélude, Offertoire, Elévation and Communion, and his Acclamations and Fantaisie provide excellent postludes, as do Te Deum pour une solennité and Incantation pour l'office de la Vigile pascale.
The Suite Médiévale is a low Mass composed in 1947. It combines all the Gregorian themes of the Roman Catholic Mass into a whole which is never far removed from the polyphony of Guillaume de Machaut' s Messe de Notre Dame (1365). After the opening mood of imploration comes the adoration of the Host leading up to the jubilation in honour of Christ Victorious: Christus vincit.
Father Frédéric Noël
In his sumptuous Prélude, Langlais discreetly announces the Asperges. At the Elevation, he hints at the Adoro te devote, and this allusion is more effective than any exhortation could be. At the Communion, he meditates on the Holy Thursday antiphon Ubi caritas linked with the Jesu dulcis memoria. Finally, he dismisses the congregation to the sound of the great canticle Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat. By contrast, his Tiento d'offertoire uses the Kyrie, which has no place at this part of the service. Though it is not the main theme, the fact that it is heard on its own brings it into the foreground. The imitative theme on the manuals is just as important and much more decorative than the liturgical theme. It is also much more appropriate to the celebrationof a feast - necessarily a solemn one since the Kyrie used is the Fons bonitatis.
Father P. Giraud
Cinq Méditations sur l' Apocalypse
Compared with Messiaen's complex style, Langlais' is both simple and assertive. Consequently, the task of commenting on the Cinq Méditations sur l' Apocalypse would appear to be a relatively straightforward one.
This is not the case, however, for as Langlais himself wrote: "The complexity of my Apocalypse is entirely due to the fact that it was conceived over a period of more than thirty years and implemented using the skills I had accumulated in the course of a lifetime." This probably accounts for the dismay of the audience at the first performance, which was given by the composer himself at the organ of Notre-Dame de Paris on 28th April 1974. The listeners were surprised by the very esoteric nature of the piece, quite different from Langlais's usual work, in particular his Suite baroque composed at practically the same time (Spring 1973). Incidentally, Cinq Méditations sur l'Apocalypse is one of the composer's few uncommissioned pieces, and this detail is significant, since the absence of imposed limits and subject matter allowed Langlais to give a free rein to the music which dwelt in him. The point of departure for the new work was the heart attack which almost killed him in January 1973. On his recovery , he decided to write a score about death and spent his long convalescence reading The Revelation of St John the Divine - not once, but tens of times, in an attempt to grasp the work's hidden message.
Why five Méditations and not nine, for instance, which was the figure that Messiaen used? (Nine is the sacred three times three.) In the first place, because Langlais' work is much shorter than Messiaen's: forty-five minutes of music as against eighty minutes. Another reason is that Langlais, who was essentially instinctive, seems to have preferred the poetic element in the Apocalypse to its theological implication, and this led him to be less inclined than Messiaen to long abstract developments.
A further difference between Messiaen and Langlais is that the latter gave each of his Meditations a title:
Celui qui ades oreilles, qu'il écoute (He that has ears, let him hear)
Il était, Il est et Il vient (He is, He was and He is to come)
Visions prophetiques (Prophetic visions)
Oh oui, viens, Seigneur Jésus (Even so, come, Lord Jesus)
La cinquiéme trompette (The fifth trumpet)
These quotations all come from The Revelation of St John the Divine.
It would seem that Langlais' intention was not to reproduce or even to summarise St John's long final epistle, but rather to give expression to a small number of powerful visions or notions which he, as a Christian poet-musician, experienced after repeated re-readings of this monument of the New Testament.
The best way to approach Messlaen's Neuf Méditiations is to study the score as a whole, in line with the composer's own view that the work forms an indivisible whole. However, Langlais' Cinq Méditations are best approached one after the other, in order to bring out their contrasts and the successive tableaux which they compose.
We need to remernber that the Book of Revelations concludes the New Testament. It is a summary of Christ's revelations to St John concerning "things which must shortly come to pass". From the twenty-two chapters of this all-important, esoteric, fantastic book, Langlais selected a number of phrases and images which he set to music.
I. CeIui qui ades oreilles, qu'il écoute (He that hath ears, let him hear)
The title comes from Revelations 2, 7 (He that hath ears, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches), where it stands as a kind of preface to St John's description of the Apocalypse, but it also concludes each of Christ's injunctions to the seven churches as a warning that whoever remains deaf to the Holy Ghost will be punished by the death of the spirit.
Langlais grasped the full importance of the phrase. His score looks forward to the complexity of St John's revelation in the form of a very tight four-part fugue: bass, tenor, alto and treble subjects enter successively a bar apart, immediately followed by their answers in a masterly series of stretti signifying that the Apocalypse has a double, triple or quadruple meaning. To symbolize the seven churches which St John has been instructed to address (What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergarnos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea Revelations 1,11), Langlais superimposes on the fugue - scored in Toumernire's favourite combination of Fonds 8, Gambe, Voix Céleste, Voix Humaine and Trémolo on the Récit - the short theme of the Gregorian fourth mode played seven times over in slightly different rhythms on a soft pedal-board Clairon 4.
Like Messiaen, Langlais seems anxious to preserve the theological truth of his text. Both alert their listeners in advance to the nature of the code used to portray theological abstractions: language communicable in Messiaen, the symbolism of the seven churches in Langlais.
II. Il était, Il est et Il vient (He is, He was and He is to came)
This is one of the most original and most esoteric pieces in the work. Based on a phrase at the beginning of Revelation (Grace be unto you, and peace, from him which is, which was, and which is to come Revelations 1, 4), the piece defines Christ (He who is, was and is to come) by reference to eternity, whereas Messiaen's Neuf Méditations present Christ mainly in his rôle as love: Christ is love, He loves mankind.
Langlais depicts the eternity of He who is, was and is to come by a tied whole note on F (held for 38 bars in the first section, 40 bars in the third and 36 bars in the last), which opens and closes the piece on its own. (The final section even contains the instruction Put a weight on the F, so that the other three parts can be played more easily.)
To complete his portrayal of eternity - what could be more eternal than a note held indefinitely? - Langlais uses Gregorian plainsong. Christ is always with us (the held F); we crucified Him (the appearance in the second section of the Vexilla regis from the Good Friday service), played in the tenor on the Trompette du Grand-Orgue; but we have also glorified Him (presence of the Corpus Christi sequence Lauda Sion salvatorem fortissimo on the pedal-board in the fourth section).
The term "section" is used deliberately and repeatedly here because it is impossible to ignore the five very different sections comprising the work, the F of eternity never appearing at the same time as the plainsong. The theological sequence is thus as follows:
1. Eternity. (Beneath the F, a melodic one-part counterpoint: He was.)
2. The Christ we crucified. (Vexilla regis on block chords.) :
3. Eternity. (Beneath the F, a two-part counterpoint: He is.)
4. The Christ we glorified. (Lauda Sion on block chords.)
5. Eternity. (Beneath the F, a one- and two-part counterpoint: He is to come.)
The F of Christ's eternity opens and closes the piece on its own, completing the highly formal aspect of this second Méditation, my understanding of which is due to the fact that Langlais himself explained it to me.
The thematic matter which Langlais added to the plainsong is also directed toward the notion of eternity, since the melodic motifs used as counterpoint to the F in the first and third sections twist and turn close to that note (E, D#, F# and so on).
Other remarkable features are the halting rhythm of the fourth section (quaver, crotchet, crotchet) and the demisemiquaver arabesques providing a counterpoint to eternity in the final section.
III. Visions prophétiques (Prophetic visions)
Hitherto, Langlais seems to have been interested primarily in the introductory passages of Revelation, but with Visions prophétiques he attacks the heart of the matter from a descriptive viewpoint more in line with his usual preoccupations. The vision of the Apocalypse describing "things which must shortly come to pass" is a terrifying one: the opening of the seven seals preluding death by the sword, famine, wild beasts, earthquakes, floods, the exterminating angel, the monstrous beast out of the sea, the fall of Babylon - a horrific nightmare. Instead of listing each episode, however, Langlais lumps the horrors together under the title Prophetic visions. Throughout the piece, the ten bars of discords on the full organ symbolizing the visions form a refrain which recurs in true rondo fashion. In between come very different passages - extremely important from the theological point of view - which represent the peace and joy of the new Jerusalem, the home of the faithful and the righteous, which emerges triumphant from the fight with death.
First comes a solo on the Trompette du Récit representing the words I heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet Revelations 1, 10. The trumpet tune is repeated with an accompaniment of expressive chords. Then, alternating with the refrain representing the Apocalypse, delicate arabesques twine above the Sanctus of Mass XVI played on the pedal-board. Then comes a short sequence on the full pedal-board of very wide three-note chords which, according to the composer, represent the stance of the angel with one foot on the earth and the other on the sea. (I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, and his feet were as pillars of fire. He set his right foot upon the sea, and his left on the earth Revelations 10, 1-3.) Then, before the final return of the refrain, the Gregorian alleluia (also found in Messiaen's sixth Méditation) is heard softly on the Gambe and Voix Céleste. The piece ends on a paroxysm of discords.
Analysis reveals the violent contrast between the horrific visions of the Apocalypse on the one hand, and the wonderful vision of the new Jerusalem on the other - the paradise where there will be no night and no abomination, but eternal life for the righteous, made concrete in Langlais' work by the Sanctus and the Gregorian alleluia.
IV. Oh oui, vierts, Seigneur Jésus (Even so, come, Lord Jesus)
Langlais here sets the last verse (apart from the blessing) in Revelation, hence in the Bible: He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus. The choice is symptomatic, for after the torturing visions of hell the composer, like all believers, needs to remind himself that Christ will soon return to save us.
To express the call Even so, come, Lord Jesus, Langlais provides a slow meditation on the Salicional and Bourdon, a kind of imploration of the Christian soul which becomes increasingly fervent as the melodic line moves upward to the culminating B natural at the top of the organ's range. The progressive lengthening of the note values (quavers, dotted quavers, crotchets) adds force to this supplication.
This passage is undoubtedly the most introspective passage in the whole work and not unlike other compositions by Langlais such as the Méditation in Hommage à Rameau. It is particularly reminiscent of the atmosphere of intense mysticism which reigned in his more inspired improvisations as titular organist at Sainte-Clotilde.
V. La cinquiéme trompette (The Fifth Trumpet)
Logically, chronologically even, the Méditations should stop at the end of the preceding piece, the composer's meditation on the concluding verse of Revelation. Yet the most important piece in the work - and the longest - comes at this point. In my opinion, it is one of the most impressive and most successful pieces which Langlais ever wrote.
Instead of leaving us on the call Even so, come, Lord Jesus, he returns to the visions of the Apocalypse. In particular, he draws on a long description which I shall quote in its entirety, for it is essential to a proper understanding of the piece:
And the fifth angel sounded, and I saw a star fall from heaven unto the earth: and to him was given the key of the bottomless pit. And he opened the bottomless pit; and there arose a smoke out of the pit, as the smoke of a great furnace; and the sun and the air were darkened by reason of the smoke of the pit. And there came out of the smoke locusts upon the earth: and unto them was given power, as the scorpions of the earth have power. And it was commanded them that they should not hurt the grass of the earth, neither any green thing, neither any tree; but only those men which have not the seal of God in their foreheads. And to them it was given that they should be tormented five months: and their torment was as the torment of a scorpion, when he striketh a man. And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them. And the shapes of the locusts were like unto horses prepared unto battle; and on their heads were as it were crowns like gold, and their faces were as the faces of men. And they had hair as the hair of women, and their teeth were as the teeth of lions. And they had breastplates, as it were breastplates of iron; and the sound of their wings was as the sound of chariots of many horses running to battle. And they had tails like unto scorpions, and there were stings in their tails: and their power was to hurt men five months. And they had a king over them, which is the angel of the bottomless pit, whose name in the Hebrew tongue is Abaddon, but in the Greek tongue hath his name Apollyon. Revelations 9,1-11.
The violence, not to say the cruelty , of the description of the fate a waiting men which have not the seal of God in their foreheads cannot have failed to distress a musician as sensitive as Langlais was, and it may well be that he chose to centre his work on this part of the Apocalypse. This may explain why it concludes his Méditations.
The fifth angel sounded, says the beginning of the chapter, hence the title La cinquième trompette. The first verse also contains a reference to the bottomless pit from which the locusts will come. Langlais' piece opens at the same point, with dark chords on Fonds 8 to stylize the pit. The trumpet enters almost immediately , (Trompette, Clairon and mixtures on the Récit), along with a brief foretaste of " the locusts.
Much has been made of Messiaen's bird-song. What we have here is "insect-song". From the technical point of view, the description is less precise and scientific, but the effect is rivetting. Gradually, the locusts' "song" approaches, getting more insistent and strident, with chordal interjections from the full organ symbolizing the distress of the human race confronted with an inevitable calamity . There can be no remedy: the locusts' infernal movement goes on swelling right up to the end of the piece, accompanied fortissimo on the pedal-board by a theme in long note values representing the song of the human soul. The last four chords, which are extremely discordant, symbolize man's terror. In the words of St John, In those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it. As can be seen, this is an extremely powerful piece, both symbolically and musically, the main feature being the insistent arabesques depicting the relentless onslaught of the locusts.
From the final crashing discord of La cinquième trompette Langlais' final vision of death as a horrible nightrnare might be thought deeply pessimistic - unlike Messiaen's in Neuf Méditations, which ends on the quiet song of a yellow-hammer bird. Thefact that the last two pieces of Cinq Méditations contain no plainsong (Langlais' trope for reconciliation) might accredit a pessimistic frame of mind contrasting with Messiaen's theological certitudes. Yet Langlais is known to have been much too convinced a believer to discount the bliss of eternal life, and it is imaginable that his final shriek of horror has more to do with a sensitive reader's reaction to a terrifying text than with a Christian's revolt at the approach, of death.
To conclude this parallel discussion of Messiaen's and Langlais' last works, we need to stress the amplitude and importance of these two great compositions. Messiaen is the more theological and scientific of the two, yet his style is simpler than in his preceding works. Langlais, on the contrary, is more complex and abstract than ever before. While Messiaen uses new devices such as plainsong and language communicable, Langlais certainly developed Messiaen's bird-song motif to invent entire passages of solo "insect-song" at the very top of the organ's range.
Though Messiaen's theology was in no way comparable with Langlais' intuitive mysticism, it is surely significant that at a time of crisis in the Church two musicians should each have felt the need to take solitary retreats into the mysteries of the Holy Trinity and the Apocalypse.
Translations by Roger Greaves
I wish to extend my special thanks to Mmes Marie-Claire Alain and Marie-Louise Langlais and to MM. Henri Jallot, Archiprêtre of the Cathédrale de Saint-Brieuc, Frédéric Noël, cure of the Cathédrale de Corbeil, Patrick Lecocq, titular organist of the Cathédrale de Saint-Brieuc (who kindly lent a third hand for some fast passages which could not be played on the relatively short keyboard of the Saint-Brieuc organ) and Yvon Féchant, staff photographer at Ouest France, for their invaluable collaboration
Bruno Mathieu was born in Paris on 23rd March 1958 and studied organ with a number of great players including Jean Langlais and Marie-Claire Alain. He holds the concert diploma of .the Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris and won the Prix d'Excellence of the Conservatoire National de Région de Rueil-Malmaison. He studied composition with Pierre Lantier, who dedicated his Sonate pour Orgue to him and is titular organist at the Cathédrale de Corbeil and Saint-Justin in Levallois-Perret. Bruno Mathieu teaches the organ at the Conservatoire de Melun and has given over 250 concerts throughout Europe. He has made several recordings, including Marcel Dupre's two symphonies.
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