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ClassicsOnline Home » MESSIAEN, O.: Poemes pour Mi / Les offrandes oubliees / Un sourire (Schwanewilms, Lyon National Orchestra, Markl)
Love and faith, mortality and eternity are the abiding themes of these three important and beautifully shimmering works by one of the 20th century’s most innovative composers. Les offrandes oubliées, Messiaen’s first published orchestral work, is a symphonic meditation on Christ’s loving sacrifice to redeem the sin of humanity. Poèmes pour Mi sets nine mystical texts which were written as highly personal love songs to his first wife, Claire Delbos, while Un sourire pays homage to what he saw as Mozart’s ever-smiling attitude to life’s many hardships.
By Phillip Scott
By William R. Braun
Gapplegate Music Review
Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992)
Poèmes pour Mi • Les offrandes oubliées • Un sourire
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 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), 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 the 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 adolescence; 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 to 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 (1965–69) 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…(1971–74) 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 groundbreaking
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.
In 1936 Messiaen and Claire Delbos spent the summer in their newly built house in Petichet in the French Alps. This was where Messiaen felt most at home and Poèmes pour Mi was the first of many works that he wrote here. Mi (the French word for the musical note E—the pitch of a violin’s highest open string) was Messiaen’s pet name for Claire, and this setting of nine poems by the composer himself is essentially a set of love-songs to her.
Poèmes pour Mi is not a romantic or sentimental expression of love; instead it is imbued with a deeply personal sense of mystery and spirituality, portraying human love as inextricably connected to the love of God and of nature. In Action de grâces, Messiaen thanks God for the gift of nature and of his beloved. Le paysage paints an idyllic picture of the lakes and countryside around Petichet. The opening words of La maison, ‘we will leave this house’, refer to human mortality; though comforted by love and faith, Messiaen’s portrayal of death is a gentle, transcendent one. The mood darkens in
Épouvante, with a terrifying vision of the pain of lost memories. This song is particularly poignant in the context of the amnesia and mental illness which were to plague Claire’s life from the mid-1940s. In L’épouse, Messiaen compares the union between man and wife to the union between Christ and the Church. Ta voix describes the voice of the beloved as like a bird awakening in springtime, bringing pleasure to God. In Les deux guerriers the couple are warriors, fighting darkness and evil in their march towards God. Le collier revels in sensuousness as the necklace of the title is described as the lover’s morning embrace. The cycle ends with Prière exaucée (Answered Prayer), a joyous giving of thanks for God, for human love and for nature.
Poèmes pour Mi had its première in Paris on 28 April 1937 in its original version for voice and piano. It was performed by Messiaen’s favourite soprano, Marcelle Bunlet, accompanied by the composer. The orchestral version heard on this recording, which Messiaen made in 1937, took longer to catch on, and was not performed in its entirety until 1949.
Messiaen wrote Les offrandes oubliées (The Forgotten Offerings), his first published orchestral work, in the summer of 1930, just after completing his studies at the Paris Conservatoire. Its première six months later attracted much press attention; the critic Guy Chastel remarked in Les Amitiés (1931) on the bold originality of the music, noting that such sustained, emotional music inspired by religious faith was refreshingly unusual on the contemporary music scene.
The work is subtitled ‘a symphonic meditation’ and is split into three parts: two extremely slow sections flanking a violent, ferocious one. In a short poem at the front of the score, Messiaen describes the slow, sad opening as a depiction of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross; in the middle section, he likens man’s ‘breathless, frenzied, ceaseless descent into sin’ to a descent into the grave; and the ending, marked ‘with great pity, and
great love’, represents the Eucharist, and reminds us of Christ’s love for mankind.
Un sourire (A Smile) was Messiaen’s response to a commission from the Polish conductor Marek Janowski to write an orchestral piece ‘in the spirit of Mozart’ to be given its première on 5 December 1991, the bicentenary of Mozart’s death. In his short homage Messiaen does not attempt to make any stylistic allusions to Mozart; the musical language is very much his own, with slow sections of mystical chords alternating with brittle, rhythmic passages based on birdsong. Messiaen explained that he was instead paying tribute to Mozart’s attitude to life: despite the many hardships Mozart suffered ‘…he always smiled. In his music and in his life. So I too tried to smile, and I composed Un sourire, a piece lasting nine minutes…which I hope…smiles!’.
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