Olivier Messiaen (December 10, 1908 – April 27, 1992) was a devout French Catholic composer. This year marks the centenary of Olivier Messiaen’s birth. From June 20-24 2008 the MESSIAEN 2008 INTERNATIONAL CENTENARY CONFERENCE is being held in Birmingham, England. Another conference entitled ‘Olivier Messiaen: The Musician as Theologian’ will be held at Southern Methodist University/Dallas, September 25-26, 2008 Among the many Messiaen concerts/series around the world is another being held in England this year, the Philharmonia Orchestra Messiaen Celebrations (February 4 – October 23 ) and one in Chicago at the University of Chicago: 2008 MESSIAEN FESTIVAL October 2-11 Ten Concerts.
One of the reasons that we are highlighting Olivier Messiaen during the centenary of his birth is because of Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus, a collection of pieces for solo piano. The French title translates “Twenty gazes/contemplations on the infant Jesus”. It is considered to be one of the greatest piano works of the twentieth century, and the summit of Messiaen’s keyboard writing. The idea of les regards, the spiritual gazes, came from the devotional book Le Christ dans ses Mystères by the Irish-Belgian Benedictine abbot Dom Columba Marmion.
The gaze is a profound moment of passionate contemplation, spiritual communication and two-way recognition: an exchange, to use one of Marmion’s favorite words, in which love and knowledge passed in both directions between God and humanity.
Some of Messiaen’s ‘gazes’ on the Infant Jesus include: Gaze of the Father, Gaze of the Star, The Exchange, Gaze of the Son upon the Son (click here to see all of the pieces)…the piece that touches on our blog’s theme is: ‘Premiere Communion de la Vierge’. (No. 11, “Virgin’s First Communion”) and represents the Virgin on her knees, worshiping the unborn Jesus within her.
Messiaen used his talents to praise God and share through his music his profound enthusiasm for the Truths of his Catholic faith. Many of his pieces were explicitly Catholic: Twenty glances upon the Infant Jesus, Hymn to the Holy Sacrament, The Lord’s Nativity, Three Small Liturgies of the Divine Presence, and the opera St. Francis of Assisi just to name a few.
In an article in the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini writes:
“The dimension of Messiaen’s music that may most set it apart derives from his spiritual life. His faith was innocent, not intellectual. As a child he loved the plays of Shakespeare, especially their “super-fairy-tale” aspects, he said. In the stories of the Catholic faith, as he told Mr. Samuel, he found the “attraction of the marvelous” he had coveted in Shakespeare, but “multiplied a hundredfold, a thousandfold.” For him the Christian stories were not theatrical fiction but true. Messiaen espoused a theology of glory, transcendence and eternity. Religious subjects permeate his works, though not the Passion and Crucifixion of Jesus. His embrace of the wondrousness of faith is reflected in the essence of his compositions.”
Our next post will feature Olivier Messaien’s personal notes explaining the “Virgin’s First Communion” with a link where to purchase this recording. We will also have a link to all his personal notes for Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus ( “Twenty gazes/ contemplations on the infant Jesus” ).
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