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Olivier Messiaen


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- l’Église de la Sainte-Trinité, Paris, 1956

Olivier Messiaen was a French composer, organist and ornithologist, widely regarded as one of the major composers of the 20th century. His music is rhythmically complex (he was interested in rhythms from ancient Greek and from Hindu sources); harmonically and melodically it is based on modes of limited transposition, which he abstracted from his early compositions and improvisations. Many of his compositions depict what he termed "the marvellous aspects of the faith", and drew on his deeply held Roman Catholicism. He said he perceived colours when he heard certain musical chords, particularly those built from his modes (a phenomenon known as synaesthesia); combinations of these colours, he said, were important in his compositional process.

Messiaen entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 11 and was taught by Paul Dukas, Maurice Emmanuel, Charles-Marie Widor and Marcel Dupré, among others. He was appointed organist at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité in Paris in 1931, a post held until his death. He was appointed professor of harmony soon after his release in 1941, and professor of composition in 1966 at the Paris Conservatoire, positions he held until his retirement in 1978.
(From Wikipedia)


These recordings are of course mandatory if one wishes to play and interpret the music of Messiaen. They were recorded in La Trinité in June and July 1956, and are in many ways electrifying, but they are not without flaws. I’ll here draw attention to a very detailed article on the subject by Timothy Tikker from 2008, originally posted in ”The American Organist” (“Messiaen Plays Messiaen,”, The American Organist, November 2008 (vol. 42, no. 11)) :

"Granted, the 1956 recordings are not without their flaws. The sound is monophonie (even though stereo was available then), and the fidelity merely adequate - certainly no match for the extraordinary engineering that Mercury Living Presence recordings had already achieved at that time. Also, the organ is in a poor state of repair: sometimes painfully out of tune (the coupled-flutes solo in Diptyque becomes excruciating, as can most registrations with mutations or mixtures) with some poor regulation (the 16' Basson solo low C doubles down something fierce), dead notes (treble D disappears from the Tierce in the monophony of "Offertoire" from Messe de la Pentecôte, p. 4), and sometimes inadequate wind (e.g., the sagging final chord of "Dieu parmi nous"; it figures that if seven stops and a pneumatic lever were added to an organ without increasing its wind capacity, there could be trouble!).”

I really encourage you to read this article and Tikker is of course right. There are some serious flaws in the recordings. The organ is some places hopelessly out of tune and the fidelity of the sound taken in account recordings took place in 1956 is simply too Low-Fi. One story goes, that when Messiaen was asked whether he wanted the organ tuned for the recordings, he replied, “Why, no? It’s only been 15 years since it was tuned the last time”.


Messiaen's performances differ quite a lot from modern performances. They are very pragmatic in the terms of tempo, rhythms and even registrations (even though he plays the works at the exact instrument for which they were composed!).
Some critics say that Messiaen wasn’t really an organist and therefore his rendering of his organ music cannot be trusted as his original intentions. Some critics say that they lack on the technical side simply that Messiaen wasn’t technically up for the job playing his organ music. I think both arguments are quite simply wrong. It’s clear that Messiaen plays his works with brilliance, deep understanding, and he is all the way through technically in total command. When he chooses to go alternative ways compared to the text, it’s because he wants to do it that way. I don’t like to hail any recording as the definitive recording, but these recordings are a fascinating view into the musicianship and aesthetic of Olivier Messiaen.


Timothy Tikker reflects further on Messiaens performance style and history:

“Identifying Messiaen as a romantic performer may seem surprising, when so many think of him as the ultra-modernist who, for example, did so much to introduce total serialism in composition. And yet, he admitted plainly: "I'm not ashamed of being a romantic. The romantics were magnificent craftsmen . . . The romantics were aware of the beauties of nature, of the grandeur of divinity; they were grandiose, and many of our contemporaries would gain from being 'romanticized.'

This, of course, leads to the questions of tempo rubato, and of meter and rhythm. Rhythm was of absolute, primal importance to Messiaen. Some have thought that Messiaen's complex rhythms are simply indications of rubato - a conclusion that, however, Messiaen emphatically denied. [..]


This does not, however, in any way mean that Messiaen did not use rubato in performance. On the contrary, we hear rubato extensively in his recordings. Many lyric phrases begin with the first note or two somewhat held back, then with a ritenuto at the end of the phrase. The highest note of a phrase may be prolonged: "Les Bergers," p. 9, the right-hand A in m. 16 and high D in m. 19; "Les Anges," p. 1, the right-hand B's in the first system. We hear cadential ritardandos that are not indicated in the scores, e.g., the middle of "Les Eaux de la Grâce" (p. 5, m. 4), or the close of the opening monody of "l'Ange aux Parfums." One conspicuous rhythmic alteration is the quickening of groups of 32nd notes, e.g., the pick-up figures in "Force et Agilité des Corps glorieux," as well as several figures in "Les Anges." This is a very typical romantic performance practice: the "enhancement" of shorter note values by quickening them. We hear an especially striking use of rubato in the toccata section of the fifth Trinité Mèditation, in which the pedal melody's sixteenth/eighth downward fifth (p. 42, m. 6; p. 43, m. 6) is emphasized, particularly by stretching the 16th. Surprising though it may seem to use rubato in such a relentlessly motoric texture, the effect is wonderfully powerful and dramatic, making other performances seem stiff and lifeless by comparison." 


I completely agree with Timothy Tikker. It’s very clear that Olivier Messiaen was grounded in the romantic performance style and perhaps his music should be approached in that way. Many contemporary or later organists of Messiaen tend to play his music only “as written” which makes their performances seem “stiff and lifeless by comparison” again quoting Timothy Tikker.

We have the same situation with the piano music of Bela Bartok and Sergei Prokofiev - they were also educated in the romantic tradition and also played their music in that manner (cf. their many recorded performances of their own works), but since they suggested a new and much more percussive approach to the piano, many pianist afterwards tend to have all their focus on that element forgetting that the music was shaped with the romantic idiom in mind.


Timothy Tikker concludes his article:


“After listening to these recordings for over 30 years, I still find them worthy of deep and careful study. By no means is this to say that one should slavishly imitate the composer's performances. In fact, just as when teaching composition he encouraged each student to find his or her own voice as a composer, Messiaen encouraged performers to develop their own interpretations of his music. Rather, Messiaen's recordings can help us to fathom the real spirit of his organ music, which spirit can then "incarnate" in each interpreter in richly varied and individualized ways. In that spirit, I strongly recommend these recordings to all who would study and perform Messiaen's music.“


A note on the recordings:

It’s clear that the music was recorded on magnetic tape; there are some rough cuts here and there, cuts which only were possible with magnetic tape. The sound quality is, as mentioned, very poor compared to other organ recordings produced in the mid 1950s. Lastly but not least perhaps the only thing not entirely up for the job was perhaps the organ, which sounds like it’s in much disrepair. These three things taken into account and the fact that if Olivier Messiaen, as the towering personality he was, also among his contemporaries, had wanted it otherwise, he could most definitely had had it, show him as a very free and pragmatic musician. It’s perhaps a view musicians could incorporate more into the interpretations of his music today?


As mentioned I’m very reluctant in naming the definitive renditions of any works, but Messiaens own interpretation of the Apparition is simply amazing. His tempo is extremely slow but never dragging and his overall musical perception of the piece is so incredible grand.


In fact looking over just a few other recordings of this piece puts Messiaens version as the slowest:

Olivier Messiaen (1956) 10:05, Latry (rec. 2000) 9:45, Rudolf Innig (1996) 9:16, Jennifer Bate (1982) 10:00, Susan Landale (1986) 7:36, Thomas Trotter (1993) 9:48, Louis Thiry (1972) 8:01.

The overall timing of a piece doesn’t directly tell anything about the actual tempo (or tempi) in a piece. There are many other factors in play, just listen to the very big pauses Messiaen has between some of the sections, but the overall timing can tell us a little of the performer's overall grasp of the whole piece.


The Corps Glorieux are done with a strong personality and commanding interpretation, but still very spontaneous and with great elegance and plasticity. Especially I can recommend the “Les Eaux”, in which he almost make the organ dance in the middle section, and the fiendishly difficult last part is done in a very virtuoso style.

Thanks to Anders Riber for providing the transfers of these important documents from the original LPs. No digital noise reduction has been applied, so there is a little background hiss and click here and there.

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