Program Notes


Essay on earthy life and blissful eternity, 1928

Messiaen was a master of evoking atmospheres, moods, and climates. In his second piece for organ, a wonderful piece that is rarely heard, Messiaen creates two distinct worlds for the listener. The first is this world that we humans live in, going about our daily tasks, becoming irritated over the inconsequential details that occupy our everyday existence. The second is the opposite: it is heaven, paradise; it is the world that Christians hope to live in after their earthly life. The first part moves quickly, in an agitated manner, sighing, worrying, complaining. The second part moves quite slowly - time is no longer important; it is eternity, calm, serene.

Diptyque usually means a pair of paintings composed of two hinged panels. Here, it is a musical composition of two large contrasting parts that have been joined together through the use of a common theme: the second part uses a transformed version of the theme of part one.

This piece was written when Messiaen was only 20 years old. It is dedicated to Marcel Dupré and Paul Dukas, his organ and composition teachers at the conservatory. The first part, where we are even reminded of Dukas’s L’Apprenti sorcier in one section, is clearly in homage to them. In the second part, however, we clearly hear the true voice of Messiaen in one of his most exquisite and ravishing slow movements. He later transcribed this slow part for violin and piano (transposed) as the last movement, Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus, of his Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps (1941).


Les Corps Glorieux

The Glorified Bodies, 1939

Les Corps Glorieux is a very mature work of the young organist/composer. It was completed on August 25, 1939, in Petichet (near Grenoble where Messiaen had a second home), only one week before the declaration of WWII. However, it was not published until 1942 and was not heard in public until April 15, 1945, when Messiaen himself performed it at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris. Many think of this work as the culmination of Messiaen’s first period of composition.

It is subtitled Seven Short Visions of the Life of the Resurrected, and it is one of  Messiaen’s most mystical compositions. The seven movements describe quite vividly the life of the  resurrected (life after death). What imagination the composer had to write these visions, and what imagination the performer must have to play them. The success of this music relies to a great extent on the performer feeling it very deeply and from communicating these feelings very strongly, feelings which are often portrayed with delicate colors. Therefore, this is not a work where the audience is going to be overwhelmed and dazzled by loud registrations and fast tempos; but, it is a piece that will deeply move its listeners if the performer can draw them into the mystical world of Messiaen and communicate its sublime message.

How did Messiaen create this sublime, mystical work? He drew on several different sources, some of which are not characteristic of organ playing - but of singing and of the orchestra. He was also very sensitive to subtle shades of colors and tempo and very carefully planned the effect of one movement progressing to the next.


I. Subtilité des Corps Glorieux

Refinement of the Glorified Bodies

 “Their bodies are sown natural bodies; they are raised spiritual bodies. And they will be pure as the angels of God in heaven.” 1 Corinthians 15:44; St. Matthew 22:3

The pure quality of spiritual bodies, of the resurrected – that is the subject of this piece. The quoted phrase from St. Matthew begins, “For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven.” Thus, we realize that resurrected ones are virtuous and chaste, like the angels: they no longer have human (animal) needs – they are pure. That is the refinement or subtlety to which Messiaen’s title refers. To communicate this idea Messiaen chose the pure qualities of both plainsong and the radiant-colored cornet stops of the organ. Yet, plainsong is not an instrumental medium at all. It is something to be sung. But, its unaccompanied unison lines with repetitive, melismatic phrases, their gentle up-and-down movement and frequent cadences, immediately evoke the spiritual and mystical. Those qualities give it a hypnotic, mesmerizing quality, bestowing on it the possibility of leading us from our everyday lives into the atmosphere of another world. That is exactly why Messiaen chose to adapt this vocal style to the organ: the purpose of this piece is to coax us into forgetting our daily cares and to entice us into thinking about the Divine while we meditate with Messiaen, for almost an hour, about Jesus and his resurrection and our own lives after death. Plainsong is perhaps the sole musical device which is capable of transporting us into another world with such immediate effect. Instead of quoting an actual plainsong melody (as Messiaen does in some of his other works), this piece is completely original. However, it is constructed exactly like plainsong, with some of its phrases being inspired by the antiphon Salve Regina.


II. Les Eaux de la Grâce

The Waters of Grace

“For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall lead them unto living fountains of waters.” Revelation 7:17

While the first movement was inspired by a choral means of expression, the second movement is clearly treated orchestrally.

Three different orchestral timbres are heard simultaneously, with their three different movements: muted strings in chords singing in a mixture of eighth note and half note movement, a solo woodwind instrument in sixteenth note movement, a flute in eighth note movement. All these move in the same register – intermingled, “the Lamb in the midst of the throne” - and create a gentle, undulating, liquid quality, veiled, distant, dreamlike.


III. L’Ange aux Parfums

The Angel with the Incense

“And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand.” Revelation 8:4

The first movement was inspired by vocal monody and the second movement by the orchestra. The third movement combines elements of both. By pitting various sections of the orchestra against one another, this piece progress by sections. Form: A, B, A, C, B, A, C.

A) The movement opens with monody. The Angel picks up her instrument and begins to play. A solo Clarinet leads us through these phrases, with their repeated note endings like a mantra, enticing us to follow it into the dreamlike atmosphere it creates, fading away at the end.

B) We move to three different woodwind choirs in the orchestra, all playing in exactly the same range, which immediately reminds us of movement II: “the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne…” The Angel has paused to listen to the voice of the Lamb, still calling the elected toward the saving waters.

A) This section varies the A theme by adding an accompaniment. And now, we move to two new sections of the orchestra: an exotic wind instrument (composed of various organ stops), which plays the theme, and the muted strings with a voluptuous, sensual quality. Their movement is that of the Angel’s garments, which gently shift as the Angel quietly moves through the air, floating on this plainsong-like melody, carrying her thurible.

C) Suddenly, through its very unusual registration, we hear (see and smell) the burning incense the Angel is carrying and swinging back and forth in the censer. This smoke floats around in space, curling in every which direction, obscuring the view. It is a development of the A theme. The Angel comes to rest.

B) Again, in the triple texture of woodwinds, we hear the beckoning of the Lamb.

A) The Angel plays one last, haunting, monodic phrase.

C) Then, with a final sway of her thurible, we see the last cloud of spiraling, curling, floating smoke rise and disappear through an open clerestory window: the prayers of the saints ascend up before God out of the Angle’s hand.

We are left with a mystical in a dreamlike, trance-like state.


IV. Combat de la Mort et de la Vie

Combat of Death and Life

“Death and Life are engaged in a stupendous conflict: The Prince of Life, who died, now lives and reigns. And he says: My Father, I am risen, I am still with Thee.” Mass for Easter Day, Sequence and Introit

The great central vision of this set of meditations is also central to Christian theology: the miraculous Resurrection of the Son three days after his crucifixion. This movement is a great interpretation of Christ’s Passion, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and finally, in the sunny peace of the resurrection, Eternal Life with the Father. It is the only real organinspired movement in the set, and it is another diptych.

The first part is a toccata, demanding all the manual dexterity the organist possesses, but it is not simply a toccata. In between its tumultuous sections, the real theme of the piece is heard: first as a single line as an introduction (Jesus picking up his heavy cross starting toward calvary), second in two-part counterpoint, third in three-part counterpoint, fourth in the pedal as a single line where it is developed by fragmentation and augmentation underneath the toccata, and finally as the theme of the second part, eternity.

To me, the first part represents two different aspects of the passion. First, the opening, intense theme heard as a single line and in various developments, each time becoming more and more intense, is the agony of Christ bearing the weight of the cross, profound, serious, heavy, legato. Second, the boisterous, swirling toccatas, full of anguish and conflict which interrupt this theme, represent what is going on in Christ’s mind after stumbling and falling with his cross - the weight being unbearable, he being hot, thirsty, dizzy, and human! All this culminates in loud shrieks from the organ, excruciating, as Christ is being nailed to the cross. During a short diminuendo He dies; and, in one upward, glissando-like gesture, His soul is taken up into heaven. This and the silence that follows symbolize his resurrection.

The second part is directly comparable with the second part of Diptyque, the registration being almost exactly the same, this time the tempo indication is even slower. It is again tender, serene, now representing the heavenly life of Christ, eternity. It is again orchestral: over the background of muted strings and in F-sharp major, Messiaen’s timbre and tonality of love, there is an intimate dialogue - between Father and Son - represented by two different solo flutes. It portrays all those qualities we associate with loving-tenderness: caresses, sighs, intimate conversation. Its melodic lines rise and fall, ebb and flow, arching higher and higher, subsiding lower and lower. Arriving at the pinnacle, all dissolves downward to complete peacefulness. In its extraordinary slowness it transports the listener from this world into the next, by creating the feeling that the importance of time has stopped, all that exists now is eternity, which will last forever. When the piece ends, we (as humans) are no longer able to glimpse it, to hear its beauty.


V. Force et Agilité des Corps Glorieux

Power and Agility of the Glorified Bodies

“Their bodies are sown in weakness; they are raised in power.” 1 Corinthians 15:43

Although monodic like the first movement, the fifth movement is clearly treated orchestrally rather than vocally. Its notation is in octaves, and, from its registration, it is clearly intended to imitate the full string orchestra with woodwinds. Here, the emphasis is more on rhythm rather than melody. The freedom produced by Messiaen’s various rhythms, with many instruments playing in unison, is quite remarkable. The movement is full of repeated notes in a rhythm of 4+4+3, which, for me, is reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, in its vitality and power - “their bodies are sown in weakness; they are raised in power.” This repeated note motif is contrasted with various supple but strong rhythms and impetuous movements. It is a very powerful and passionate statement. The theme is a development of the Clarinet melody, section A, from movement III, difficult to recognize now because of its much quicker tempo and different registration.


VI. Joie et Clarté des Corps Glorieux

Joy and Brightness of the Glorified Bodies

“Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” St. Matthew 13:43

The sixth movement is brilliant and glowing. The main idea here is the alternation of refrain and verse, both of which use very unusual colors of the organ (again treated very orchestrally) to depict the light and illumination of the resurrected - “then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun...” The refrain employs two blocks of sounds and reminds one of a “back-up choir with soloist” - here, muted brass over which a solo trumpet “improvises”. The rhythms employed give the feeling of great freedom, especially to the trumpet: that combined with various touches and the instruction “avec fantaisie” substantially contribute to the feeling that this trumpet solo is being improvised. The accompanying brass almost always plays the same harmonic and rhythmic progressions, although the rhythm is constantly altered by various forms of augmentation and diminution: this regularity helps to mesmerize the listener, taking him into another world, another time and place. The verses are a quieter, slower, and more reflective dialogue between three orchestral-like instruments.


VII. Le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité

The Mystery of the Holy Trinity

 “O Father, who, with thine only-begotten Son, and the Holy Spirit, art one God, one Lord, in Trinity of Persons and in Unity of Substance.” Mass for Trinity Sunday, Preface The seventh and final piece is the most remarkable of the set. In fact, it is one of the most extraordinary pieces in the whole body of Messiaen’s works for organ. Here, Messiaen has given us a trio which, of course, represents the Holy Trinity - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is not unusual for the organ to play in trio form - one part being taken by each hand, the other by the feet - but, this is not your ordinary, Baroque trio, where every voice is equal. The hushed, orchestral qualities of the sounds draw the listener in immediately - one senses great mystery from the very first note. It is the middle voice, representing the Son, which dominates the three voices, and it is constructed exactly like a plainsong Kyrie eleison (nine phrases, each ending with a melodic formula representing eleison). It is played on a flute 8’ alone and “bewitches” the listener into following it. The two other voices – the upper voice, the Father, the lower voice, the Holy Spirit - are played on more distant colors, on stops that are higher and lower than the principal melody, thus surrounding it (giving it, in Messiaen’s words, “a double halo”). This main voice, representing the Son (Jesus), constantly draws the listener forward, closer and closer to his spiritual world. For me, this radiance is like the “light at the end of the tunnel” that so many people with near-death experiences have described. Near the end, one definitely has the feeling that we, as still living humans, can follow no further. As Jesus continues his journey into the spiritual world, we “hear” his light become more and more faint as he disappears into the world into which only the resurrected can enter.


Notes by Jon Gillock © 2016
For more information see: Jon Gillock’s
Performing Messiaen’s Organ Music: 66 Masterclasses, Indiana University Press