Sunday, November 23, 2008


23 November

Each Sunday that I've been here I have jumped on the RER and gone down to Saint-Eustache for a 5:30 organ recital. These are brief experiences--they function as a prelude to the 6:00 Mass (which I do not attend)--but powerful. All but one (a Bach recital) have featured the music of Olivier Messiaen, whose hundredth anniversary is being celebrated all over Paris this fall. And from the effect of Messiaen's singularly modernist music blasted into this flawlessly high Gothic interior space, I have learned to hear the organ in a new way.

If you don't know the music of Messiaen, you should. I discovered him through his "Quartet for the End of Time," a work composed (incredibly) in a prison camp in 1940. It is the most luminous piece of music I have ever heard. After that I listened to some of his piano works that evoke birdsong: Messiaen traveled all over the world, from Morocco to Utah to Japan, notebook in hand, transcribing the music of birds. Though he composed for many instruments, Messiaen was foremost an organist, a professor at the Conservatoire de Paris and the regular Sunday organist at l'Église de la Sainte-Trinité in Paris. I had heard his organ music here and there, but never listened to it systematically, as this fall's festival has allowed me to do. 

A fervent Christian, Messiaen's organ works are often directed toward mystical experience: his nine "Méditations sur le mystère de la sainte Trinité" (1969) were a substantial part of the programming at Saint-Eustache. As a teacher of composition--and a wildly inventive musical genius--he also looked constantly for ways to expand the vocabulary of musical composition and the technical possibilities of both the organ and the piano (he wrote for his wife, a virtuoso pianist). At another anniversary concert, this one at Saint-Sulpice, I was lucky to hear excerpts from his Livre d'Orgue, a notebook of bold, often powerfully dissonant inventions not often performed--and I was lucky to hear it there, in the same church where the teen-aged Messiaen came on Sundays to hear the improvisations of his teacher Marcel Dupré, France's other great modernist composer for organ. Small world, Paris.

What I suddenly realized one evening at Saint-Eustache is that for Messiaen the organ itself is only half of the composer's equipment. The other half is the resonant chamber of the church, and in the case of Saint-Eustache, it is a magnificent instrument. All those lofty spaces, those stone indentations and galleries, transepts and ambulatory, they all hold and return the vibrations from the pipes at variable intervals that build and overlay the sound. Knowing this, Messiaen inserts spacing into his scores. A fortissimo blast of one of his impossibly dense chords will sound, then be followed by silence while the sound finishes its circuitous journey through this echo chamber. (I did not detect this effect in Bach, glorious as it was in other ways.) The space likewise separates out the layers of sound characteristic of Messiaen's work: in the 9th meditation, the one I heard this evening, he builds up from a sort of bass ostinato in the pedals, with one melody in the middle range and another reedy bird-like melody played in the highest register. Each layer resonates differently, so that while they are simultaneous, they persist in quite different temporalities, hanging there in nether space. In this way Messiaen, the organ, and the Gothic space are able to simulate something like what the Scholastics described as the convergence of time in eternity. 


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home