Keith Kirchoff

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Olivier Messiaen

Olivier Messiaen:



 Edward Burne-Jones: Nativity

Vingt Regards sur L'Enfant-Jésus


To say that Messiaen's Vingt Regards sur L'Enfant-Jesus (Twenty Contemplations on the Infant Jesus) is a masterpiece is a gross understatement. Over sixty years after its composition, it has rightfully earned the recognition of being one of the most important piano works of the 20th century. There are very few pieces in all of the piano literature that can match it for not only its great size (over two hours), but also its tight compositional structure and thematic cohesiveness. Furthermore, the piece is such a highly expressive and personal work, that no listener can truly remain unchanged after a complete hearing. Yet despite the work's recognition and the incredible cumulative effect of experiencing the piece in entirety, it is seldomly presented in its complete form.

Although pianists are rarely apt to program the entire work, it is not uncommon to hear one or perhaps two of the work's twenty movements on a recital, as many concert artists from all over the world have a couple of movements in their repertoire. Students in universities and conservatories often select a movement of the work to program on their graduation recitals or enter in a competition. Undoubtedly, each individual movement is an amazing piece and can more-or-less stand on its own. But so, too, is each individual movement of a Beethoven Symphony; yet we infrequently, if ever, perform only the finale of the ninth symphony, for example, without the preceding movements. Why? Simply because the symphony as a whole is a journey, and the music of the finale, however gripping, loses some of its effectiveness when removed from the rest of the piece. The same can be said for the Vingt Regards: in playing only one or two excerpts, for that is truly what an individual movement is, one is taking the music quite out of context.

When one listens to the entire piece, it becomes quickly apparent that the Vingt Regards sur L'Enfant-Jesus is not merely a collection of twenty pieces, but rather is a complex rondo or a set of theme and variations, no less tightly knit than the Bach's Goldberg Variations. All twenty movements are based upon one of three themes, together which tell the story of Christ's birth and God's subsequent relationship to humankind. The central theme, or leitmotiff, is a five chord chorale subtitled the "Theme of God." Peter Hill, in his book Messiaen, describes it best: "The work's momentum derives from... the way the 'Theme of God' is transformed, with each change marking one of the main staging posts in the theological journey: from God the Father and the Son (nos. 1 and 5), via the convulsive energy of creation and its counterpart in the 'Spirit of Joy' (nos. 6 and 10), to the events of the nativity (nos. 11 and 15) and finally to the glory of the eternal Church (nos. 19 and 20)." [New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2005.]

As each theme returns again and again throughout the cycle, Messiaen attaches to each return a specific theological and programatic significance. The second theme, the "Theme of the Star and of the Cross," is a perfect case-in-point. This theme--a single monophonic, melody--seems simple on its own, but in context is treated in various ways to symbolize either the innocent beginnings of Christ's life (the star) or the dark portent of things to come (the cross).

The Vingt Regards is one of the most personal and intimate pieces Messiaen ever wrote, and it gives the listener a close look at Messiaen the person. Messiaen was a deeply religious person, and although his faith influenced every single piece he wrote, the Vingt Regards is almost like his own personal spiritual diary: upon hearing the piece, there becomes little doubt how much significance Messiaen placed upon Christ's birth. For that reason, it holds a very unique position in his oeuvre: composed in 1944 when he was 36, it was the last piece of sacred music Messiaen would write until 1960, and the only sacred work he would write for solo piano. The piece also holds a rather unique distinction in all of the classical music literature as being the longest piece of sacred music for solo piano ever written. [The next longest that I know of is Liszt's 90 minute cycle, Harmonies poetiques et religieuses.]

In addition to its theological significance, the work was a springboard for a new style for Messiaen. At the time of its composition, it was the longest piece Messiaen had ever composed, and through it he learned a great deal about large-scale form. Rarely using traditional forms, much of the piece is in the blocky, non-continuious style that would later be commonly associated with his work. The composition also features his early experiments with birdsong and distorted non-metrical rhythm, both primary characteristics of his later works.

The Vingt Regards is such an extraordinary piece that there is no bad time to hear the work in it's entirety. However, 2009 marks one of the most important years for this listening experience, for it is Messiaen's centennial celebration. What better opportunity, then, to revisit this extraordinary masterpiece, study its intricate details, reveal its subtle messages, and learn more about one of the 20th century's most important composers, teachers, and theorists: a man who influenced and taught Boulez, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Nono, and dozens of other composers, including the young composers of today.

Therefore, in addition to the performance of the complete Vingt Regards sur L'Enfant-Jesus, my recital presentation will include a lecture discussion regarding the piece's significant position in history and its effect on Messiaen's later work, as well as how it influenced composers from younger generations, Boulez to the current day. I will also discuss the program behind the piece: the theological and psychological message Messiaen attached to each movement and the work as a whole. This will include a reading of the captions that Messiaen read at the world premier performance.

If you are interested in booking this program or would like more information, please send me an email.