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ClassicsOnline Home » MESSIAEN, O.: Vingt regards sur l'Enfant-Jesus (J. de Oliveira)
When Messiaen was commissioned in 1944 to write twelve short pieces on the theme of the Nativity, few could have guessed that he would respond by producing one of the most ambitious works ever written for solo piano. Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus is an epic set of meditations on the nativity which broke the boundaries of religious expression in music. It was written for the brilliant young pianist Yvonne Loriod who had become Messiaen’s muse since joining his composition class in 1941 and who almost two decades later would become his wife.
Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992)
Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus
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), which was first performed 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, Claire 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 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 en 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.
Messiaen wrote Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus between March and September 1944. The origins of the work lay in a request from the writer Maurice Toesca for twelve short piano pieces to accompany his poetry on the Nativity in a radio production. However, Messiaen strayed extensively from his brief to produce his largest, most ambitious work to date. Vingt Regards places enormous technical and musical demands on the pianist; it is a work of great contrasts, ranging from the aching tenderness of Regard de la Vierge, through the awesome mystery of L’échange (referring to the divine trade whereby God became man in order that men could become gods) to the primal brutality of Par Lui tout a éte fait. Today, the work is rarely heard in full, though shorter sections or individual movements are often included in recital programmes.
The twenty Regards, variously translated as ‘gazes’, ‘aspects’ or ‘glances’, are twenty contemplations on the Infant Jesus, seen from different perspectives; in other words the Regard du Père represents a contemplation on Jesus by God the Father, Regard de l’étoile by the star, Regard de la Vierge by the Virgin,and so on.
The architecture of the work is informed by many elements important to Messiaen’s thinking, such as numerology, birdsong, Hinduism and mathematically constructed melodic lines and rhythms. There are three main cyclic themes which appear in different guises throughout the work. The most significant of these, the Thème de Dieu (Theme of God) is heard at the very opening of work. It represents all aspects of the Holy Trinity, and its most prominent appearances occur in every fifth movement (the number five being the sacred number of the Hindu god Shiva). In No 1 it represents God the Father; in Nos 5 and 10 God the Son; in No 15 God the Holy Spirit; and in No 20 the Church as the Body of Christ. The shared theme of movements 2 and 7, the Thème de l’étoile et de la Croix (Theme of the Star and the Cross), marks both the beginning of Christ’s life (the star) and the end (the cross). The third cyclic theme is the Thème d’accords (Theme of Chords), a series of four chords in no particular rhythm which is heard in various forms throughout the work. A fourth recurring theme—the Thème d’amour (Theme of Love), heard in Nos 6, 10, 19 and 20—was used by Messiaen in several later works, including the Turangalîla-Symphonie and Cinq rechants.
Messiaen makes clear markings throughout the score of Vingt Regards to help the performer understand both the context of the music and the sound he was looking for. The cyclic themes mentioned above are marked each time they appear. In the movements which feature birdsong, the name of the bird is noted in the section that evokes its song. Vingt Regards was the first work in which Messiaen features birdsong as a melodic element as opposed to a mere effect. This is most evident in Regard des hauteurs in which we hear the song of the nightingale, blackbird and the lark. Elsewhere in the score, sections are marked with the names of orchestral instruments, such as the xylophone in Regard de la Vierge, bells in Noël and the tam tam and oboe in Regard des prophetes, des bergers and des Mages. This gives an insight into how Messiaen conceived the music. An entry in his diary dated 31 May 1944 suggests that he was considering making an orchestral version of the work, though this idea was never realised.
Vingt Regards had its première on 26 March 1945 at the Salle Gaveau in Paris with Yvonne Loriod, the work’s dedicatee, who was only twenty-one years old at the time. The event divided critical opinion, with one critic paying homage to ‘a very great musician who proclaims himself triumphantly in the Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus’, while another vehemently asserted that the composer was ‘attempting to translate the sublime utterances of the Apocalypse through muddled literature and music, smelling of the hair-shirt, in which it is impossible to detect either any usefulness or pleasure’. Over half a century later, the work has stood the test of time and is regarded today as a keystone in twentieth-century piano repertoire.
David McCleery, 2009
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