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Hyperion Records

CDA67351/2 - Messiaen: Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus

Recording details: November 2001
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Release date: September 2002
DISCID: A10CC60A 9410E50A
Total duration: 126 minutes 26 seconds


'An ideal combination of spirituality and transcendent virtuosity. This is an outstanding achievement. If you enjoy Messiaen's music, you need to hear this' (BBC Radio 3 CD Review)

'There are two reasons for saluting this new set: because it is an extremely fine performance of the Vingt Regards and because it reveals a pianist of exceptional gifts … Steven Osborne's performance is one of towering authority and technical achievement … [he] rises to the challenges of the work magnificently and succeeds in delivering one of Hyperion's finest piano recordings—quite an achievement in a catalogue of outstanding piano discs' (Gramophone)

'Few possess the spiritual, emotional and physical stamina required for a successful interpretation of the complete cycle … Steven Osborne’s new account certainly demonstrates these qualities in abundance' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Playing of absorbing intensity … one of the most successful and spectacular piano discs of recent years' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Hyperion’s presentation, like the recorded sound, complements Osborne’s magnificent grasp of the music … it is without question one of the finest versions of the Vingt Regards to have appeared' (International Record Review)

'Anyone looking for a recording of Messiaen's most famous piano work can do no better than Osborne's' (The Guardian)

'Awe-inspiring' (The Sunday Times)

'Osborne's revelatory performance is a blinding tour de force of interpretive and pianistic incandescence. Awesome' (Classic FM Magazine)

'Breathtaking … not just a first-class performance, magnificently recorded, but a very important structural statement on playing one of the last century's masterpieces of piano literature' (The Herald)

'Every movement gives a new cause for wonder at the luminosity, the sensitivity of touch or the febrile energy revealed in Osborne’s playing. He is accurate but daring, precise but impassioned, strong but gentle, as excellent in detail as in overall shape. Maybe you’d just better go and buy it' (Pianist)

'An original and personal reading … this newcomer then, is a compelling addition to the catalogue, beautifully set down … recommended' (International Piano)

Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus
Regard du Père  [8'11]
L'échange  [3'38]
Regard du Temps  [2'45]
Noël  [4'11]
Regard des Anges  [4'50]

Messiaen's Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus is one of the most grandly conceived works in the piano literature. It was composed in 1944 in Paris, during terribly troubled times. Although it met with a mixed critical reception, the Vingt Regards are now recognized as one of the most important piano works of the twentieth century.

Steven Osborne is the ideal interpreter of this deeply religious, joyfully ecstatic music. He has played the complete Vingt Regards many times in concert, and after one performance at London's Wigmore Hall, The Independent wrote: "No pianist, surely, can have done it more justice … Osborne had a wonderful sense of sweep and colour [and] had his listeners rapt for no less than two hours and 10 minutes without an interval. Even unbelievers might have felt like falling to their knees".

Combining virtuoso aplomb with a deep spiritual understanding, we believe that this recording captures the atmosphere of this great music more than any other. Osborne's Messiaen is an overwhelming and intensely fulfilling musical experience—one not to be missed.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus is one of the most grandly conceived works in the piano literature, and it was written during troubled times. It was composed in Paris between 23 March and 8 September 1944, according to the dates given by the composer in the programme for the first performance (and later on the title page of the first edition), during one of the most turbulent years in modern Parisian history.

The grim final months of the German Occupation saw a broken city on the brink of collapse: food was extremely scarce, fuel even more so, and by July the electricity supply had become so unpredictable that the Paris Opéra was forced to close its doors. Paper shortages were so acute that music publishing had almost ground to a standstill, and L’Information Musicale, the most important musical magazine to be published in Paris during the Occupation, shrank to a meagre four pages by the time of its last issue on 19 May 1944: in a front-page editorial, the reasons for the magazine’s closure were given as ‘the present restrictions [on paper], the complete loss of gas supplies, and the almost complete loss of electricity at its printing workshop’.

August was a momentous month. The unions called a railway strike on 10 August and this soon spread to other industries. There were also widespread calls for insurrection. By mid-August the Allied armies were poised to enter the city, and in a last gruesome act of inhumanity the Nazis sent a final train of Jews from Drancy to Auschwitz on 17 August. The French police had become far too independent-minded for their German masters (who had started to disarm them), and three Resistance groups within the police went on strike on 15 August, taking over the Préfecture at the Quai des Orfèvres. One of their first actions was to hoist the Tricolore, flying the French flag in Paris for the first time in four years. With virtually no police on the streets, a campaign of anti-German insurrection was given a free hand: fights broke out between French protestors and German soldiers, with loss of life on both sides, and for a few days there was a fear that the city might descend into a bloody civil war. But on the evening of 24 August a few Allied tanks slipped into the city – virtually unnoticed – and parked in front of the Hôtel de Ville. The main Allied forces, led by General Leclerc’s Deuxième Division blindée arrived the next morning; and though the Allies encountered some heavy German defence near Les Invalides, the occupation of Paris ended on 25 August. General de Gaulle led the triumphant parade from the Arc de Triomphe to Notre Dame the next day.

Messiaen’s home was in the 19th arrondissement – in the North-East of the city – at 13, villa du Danube, an area where French résitants had erected barricades in the streets (one barricade, in nearby Belleville, was memorably photographed by Robert Doisneau). Surrounded by insurrection and the chaos of war, it is extraordinary to reflect that at the time of the Liberation, Messiaen was only a fortnight away from completing the Vingt Regards, his longest work to date. De Gaulle’s stirring speech of 25 August (‘Paris! Paris humiliated! Paris broken! Paris martyrised! But Paris liberated!’) would undoubtedly have moved the composer: De Gaulle was the only political leader about whom he ever made any public remarks. In an interview published in 1973, he explained the reasons for his admiration:

I’m now sixty-three years old. This means that as a child I witnessed the First World War, and that I participated in the Second. In 1940 I was taken prisoner […] and this was a moment when all seemed lost to me and my companions. In our despair, a single name rose up, a name to which everyone clung, and it was that of General de Gaulle. He did not yet have the recognition which was to follow, since he was still a clandestine figure if you like. But despite all the precautions taken by the Germans, the prisoners very quickly found out about him, and put their hope in him. His was a flame which glowed in the darkness.

Messiaen’s support was no passing matter, and on those who admired the general in 1944 but later changed their allegiance, he was blunt:

I think those who did not follow him were wrong – precisely because, whatever their opinions, General de Gaulle represented France. He was someone who truly loved France, who personified France, who symbolised France and who was part of French mythology.

Messiaen’s 1944 diary
Messiaen’s pocket diary for 1944 survives. As part of the work being undertaken jointly by the present writer and Peter Hill on a documentary biography of the composer, this hitherto unknown diary was transcribed in 2001 with the enthusiastic encouragement and kind permission of its owner, Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen. While this remarkable document makes no mention of the historic events unfolding in Paris that year – an appointment diary is hardly likely to do so – it does include numerous references to the Vingt Regards and to a very closely related project which evolved in parallel – the provision of twelve pieces (‘Douze Regards’ to use Messiaen’s description) as incidental music for a radio broadcast, written to accompany poems by Maurice Toesca about the Nativity. Toesca (1904–1988), whose real name was Maurice Royat, was a poet who worked as a civil servant and later in broadcasting. His name crops up a number of times in the 1944 diary. On 31 March, Messiaen noted that he needed to ‘prepare music for the Douze Regards’, a particularly interesting reference given that he began composition of the Vingt Regards a week earlier, on 23 March. A tantalising reference to the Toesca project appeared on 31 May: ‘Write music for Toesca: ready and orchestrated for 1 November at the latest’. This is the only time there is any suggestion that the work might be scored for forces other than solo piano. On 7 June (the day after the D-Day landings) Messiaen was the pianist in a private performance of the Quatuor pour la fin du Temps in the large salon at the home of his friend Guy Bernard-Delapierre (where Messiaen also gave his famous private classes for ‘Les flèches’ from 1943 onwards), and Toesca was in the audience. The next day he wrote to Messiaen, expressing his boundless enthusiasm:

Nothing weighed me down this evening, […] your music lifted me above human levels […] I listened to your work. It is beyond criticism. Of the eight sections, two transported me – above all that of the Danse de [la] fureur pour les sept trompettes. What fury, what drama, what clamour! Here music transcends words. […] My dear Messiaen, you have given us one of the great [musical] peaks from which we can glimpse the future.

By the end of August, with composition of the cycle very close to completion, Messiaen began making arrangements for private trial performances of the Vingt Regards, naming Loriod, Toesca and Guy Bernard-Delapierre as those he wanted present. As yet, however, the work was not quite finished. On 5 September, Messiaen noted that ‘Delapierre wants to publish by subscription a recording of some Regards by Loriod’, a project which came to nothing (the earliest recording of two Regards was made by Loriod for Pathé in 1947). According to the original programme and the first edition of the Vingt Regards he completed the composition on 8 September. He wasted no time: three days later, on 11 September, at 2.30 p.m., he was ‘at Delapierre’s with Toesca, André Dubois and Loriod to play the Regards’. On 3 October another intriguing plan was mentioned: ‘Toesca wants to produce a deluxe edition of the 12 Regards, with music, text, and illustrations by Rouault and Picasso’. This idea, which could have brought together Messiaen’s music with illustrations by two of the century’s great visual artists, never came to fruition.

One of the supporters of Messiaen’s music who asked to put on an early performance of the Vingt Regards was Comte Etienne de Beaumont. On 11 October Messiaen noted that ‘M. de Beaumont has asked for the Regards for his first concert’. It is likely that Messiaen spent the end of September and the start of October making a few final adjustments to the work, since on 14 October he noted that he phoned his friend Roger Désormière to tell him that ‘my Vingt Regards are finished!’.

While Messiaen had completed a vastly more ambitious work than the one intended for Toesca, the writer was still eager to have some of the new pieces to accompany his Nativity poems. On 31 October an event is noted in Messiaen’s diary which shows that the composer was also enthusiastic about Toesca’s plans: ‘Cut the Regards so that they can be used in Toesca’s piece, and try out the cut version for him and Delapierre. Give Toesca a fragment of my manuscript for reproduction in his edition’. The publication never appeared with Messiaen’s music, and despite the elaborate preparations, it seems that the planned broadcast was also abandoned. (Toesca’s poems, under the title La Nativité, were eventually published in 1952 by the Paris firm of Sautier, with illustrations by Michel Ciry, who was a composer as well as an artist.)

In November, Messiaen showed the Vingt Regards to Pierre Capdevielle (head of chamber music at French Radio), presumably to arouse interest among broadcasters, and the following month he was also seeking a publisher: he visited the firm of Alphonse Leduc for discussions on 13 December, but eventually Durand et Cie. published the work in June 1947. On 15 December he rehearsed with Yvonne Loriod at the home of her godmother Mme Sivade, in the rue Blanche. Four days later, on 19 December at 6.15 p.m. in the Salle du Conservatoire, Loriod gave the first public performance of two Regards (‘Regard de l’Esprit de joie’ and ‘Le baiser de l’Enfant-Jésus’) at a concert put on by the enterprising Triptyque society, as part of a programme devoted to works by the group of composers known as La Jeune France (Messiaen, André Jolivet, Yves Baudrier and Daniel-Lesur).

Messiaen’s commentary for the first performance
Messiaen and Loriod were exceptionally busy at the end of March 1945, with concerts on three consecutive days: on Saturday, 24 March, the 602nd concert of the Société Nationale involved both of them, though on this occasion it was Loriod who was on the programme as a composer, with her Trois mélopées africaines for flute, ondes Martenot, piano and drum, performed by Loriod, Ginette Martenot, the flautist Jan Merry and the percussionist Jacques Boucher. (Messiaen was present to accompany the soprano Marcelle Bunlet in songs by his wife Claire Delbos and Raymond Depraz.) The next afternoon – a Sunday – saw Loriod and Messiaen at the Schola Cantorum for a concert organised by the Mouvement Artistique Evolutif where they performed Visions de l’Amen with spoken commentaries by the composer. But the most significant of these events was in the Salle Gaveau on Monday, 26 March, at 7.45 p.m. This was Messiaen’s first major première since the Liberation: the Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus, played by its dedicatee, Yvonne Loriod. On this occasion Messiaen gave a spoken introduction to each piece, but he also prepared a printed programme: a small four-page leaflet containing brief commentaries which were subsequently much expanded. Here is the original printed text as it appeared in the March 1945 programme:

Olivier Messiaen: Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus for piano
Contemplation of the Child-God of the manger and Gazes cast upon him: from the inexpressible Gaze of God the Father to the multiple Gaze of the Church of Love, passing through the incredible Gaze of the Spirit of Joy, the most tender Gaze of the Virgin, then those of the Angels, of the Magi, and of immaterial or symbolic creatures (Time, the Heights, Silence, the Star, the Cross).

The work uses several new [musical] languages. Each piece is thus different from its neighbours in terms of style, but the same themes run from one end to the other of the Vingt Regards. It was written between 23 March and 8 September 1944.

I: Regard du Père (Gaze of the Father): And God said: ‘This is my beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased …’
II: Regard de l’Étoile (Gaze of the Star): The fall of Grace: the Star shines innocently, surmounted by a Cross …
III: L’échange (The Exchange): Descending in a spray, rising in a spiral; the terrible trade between humans and God. God made man to make us gods …
IV: Regard de la Vierge (Gaze of the Virgin): Innocence and tenderness … The woman of purity, the woman of the Magnificat, the Virgin gazes upon her child …
V: Regard du Fils sur le Fils (Gaze of the Son upon the Son): Mystery, rays of light in the night – refraction of joy, the birds of silence – the person of the Word made flesh – union of the human and divine natures in Jesus Christ …
VI: Par Lui tout a été fait (By Him was Everything Made): Abundance of space and time; galaxies, photons, contrary spirals, inverted lightning: by Him (The Word) was Everything made … in an instant, creation reveals to us the luminous shadow of His Voice …
VII: Regard de la Croix (Gaze of the Cross): The Cross said to Him: You will be a priest in my arms …
VIII: Regard des hauteurs (Gaze of the Heights): Glory in the Heights … the Heights descend to the manger like the song of a lark …
IX: Regard du Temps (Gaze of Time): The mystery of the infinity of Time; Time sees born in itself the One who is Eternal …
X: Regard de l’Esprit de joie (Gaze of the Spirit of Joy): Violent dance, joyous sound of horns, rapture of the Holy Spirit … the joyous love of Blessed God in the Soul of Jesus Christ …
XI: Première communion de la Vierge (The First Communion of the Virgin): After the Annunciation, Mary adores Jesus within her … My God, my Son, my Magnificat! – my love without the sound of words …
XII: La parole toute puissante (The All-Powerful Word): This Child is the Word who sustains all things through the power of His voice …
XIII: Noël (Christmas): The Christmas bells say with us the sweet names of Jesus, Mary, Joseph …
XIV: Regard des Anges (Gaze of the Angels): Sparkling, beating; a powerful blast from immense trombones; Your servants are flames of fire – then the song of birds who feast upon blue – and the amazement of the angels grows – for it is not to them but to the human race that God is united …
XV: Le baiser de l’Enfant-Jésus (The Kiss of the Infant Jesus): At each Communion, the Infant Jesus sleeps with us, close to the gate; then he opens it onto the garden and comes forth in a blaze of light to embrace us …
XVI: Regard des prophètes, des bergers et des Mages (Gaze of the Prophets, the Shepherds and the Magi): Tamtams and oboes, a vast, buzzing chorus …
XVII: Regard du Silence (Gaze of Silence): Silence in the hand, an upside-down rainbow … each silence of the Manger reveals music and colours which are the mysteries of Jesus Christ …
XVIII: Regard de l’Onction terrible (Gaze of the Terrible Unction): The Word assumes a definite human form; the choice of the flesh of Jesus by the awesome Majesty of God …
XIX: Je dors, mais mon cœur veille (I Sleep, but my Heart keeps Watch): It is not the bow of an angel which smiles, it is the sleeping Jesus who loves us on his Holy Day and who give us forgetfulness …
XX: Regard de l’Église d’amour (Gaze of the Church of Love): Grace made us love God as God loves us; after the shower of night, the spirals of anguish, here are bells, glory and the kiss of love … All the passion of our arms around the Invisible One …

Messiaen’s spoken introduction was later transformed into the preface to the first edition, but at least one passage was considerably rewritten and expanded. The hitherto unpublished early version – almost certainly the text read by Messiaen at the première – has an extraordinary immediacy, with remarks directed specifically at a live audience and a heartfelt tribute to his interpreter:

The work uses a great many new procedures which vary with each piece. Three main themes run through the Vingt Regards: the ‘Theme of God’, which you will hear almost all the time, and right from the first page; the ‘Theme of the Star and of the Cross’; and finally a ‘Theme of Chords’ which is intended to return fragmented or concentrated in a rainbow.
Much love, joy, suffering and meditation are at the origin of this work; much reading as well, notably Le Christ dans ses Mystères by Dom Columba Marmion and the Douze Regards by Maurice Toesca. Finally, it contains a number of special pianistic characteristics and effects – a little revolution in piano writing – which I could certainly never have realised if I had not heard the first concerts of Yvonne Loriod, and had the good fortune to be a pianist myself.

‘Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus’ and ‘Le cas Messiaen’
The critical reaction to the new work was lively, and sharply divided. Though critics had already expressed reservations about Messiaen’s commentaries on his works, the review of the first performance of the Vingt Regards by ‘Clarendon’ (Bernard Gavoty) in Le Figaro can lay claim to be the first shot in ‘Le cas Messiaen’, a war of words which was to rumble on in the French musical press for the next couple of years, much to the composer’s dismay. Two principal issues were at stake in this curious debate (in which the composer himself took no part). First, questions were raised about the literary quality and relevance of Messiaen’s commentaries: with their heady mixture of theology and musical theory, some found them an unwelcome distraction from the music itself; second, and perhaps more fundamental, concerns were voiced about aspects of Messiaen’s music, specifically whether the sound-world of his compositions was appropriate for ‘religious’ music; and whether his much-discussed system was a vital component of his originality, or a theoretical yoke which hampered true creativity. Clarendon’s own part in this affair was an ambivalent one, since he changed sides after hearing the Trois petites Liturgies; but the sentiments expressed in his review of the Vingt Regards are uncompromisingly hostile: ridiculing Messiaen’s commentaries and dismissing the music as well:

I want this ‘regard’ to be lucid and free of facile mockery. The abysmal commentaries by Messiaen are more than enough, and one might mistake a transcription of them for a parody. […] Let’s stick to the music: it’s hardly any more charitable to do so.
What do we find there? An ambitious plan: to express the inexpressible. Critical sense abandoned. An erudite composer who is a prisoner of his own system, attempting to translate the sublime utterances of the Apocalypse through the double means of muddled literature and music which smells of the hair-shirt, in which it is impossible to detect either usefulness or pleasure. There is a persistent contradiction here: like a lunatic curator of a vanished museum, the composer promises marvels when he speaks, but which the piano immediately refutes. There’s not a hint of tenderness in this suite of gazes upon the Infant-God. To evoke the eternity of the stars, a great gaggle of chords, immobile to the point of nausea, which then rear up in sudden convulsions. Is this heaven? No, it’s purgatory.

Such sentiments were echoed by some – and repudiated by many others – in several other reviews of the première. Fred Goldbeck, another detractor, declared his hand in an article entitled ‘Périls de l’ingéniosité’ [The Perils of Ingenuity] (in Le Temps Présent). He criticised the rhythmic aspects of Messiaen’s system, as exemplified in the Vingt Regards:

The distortion of metre is done according to a rigorously algebraic method, by adding or subtracting fragments of note values. According to the composer this ‘makes the rhythm limp along delightfully’. In reality, it throttles the life out of any rhythmic vitality: rhythm is impetus and energy, and one dances badly with a limp, however delightful it may be.

Goldbeck then moves on to attack Messiaen’s technique of the ‘prisme déformant’ [distorting prism] effect of his musical language, described in Technique de mon langage musical, and he makes a ponderous attempt to poke fun at the composer by drawing a specious parallel with architecture:

Imagine, for a moment, such a system applied to architecture: a cathedral façade with its arches ‘passed through a distorting prism’, next to corkscrew-shaped doric columns; flying buttresses made of nickel chromium tubes; an asymmetrical pagoda in place of a steeple; and here and there, in the alcoves, some traditional religious statues. But while this would be completely unsuitable for a church, it could work very effectively, and even in good taste, as the set for a Surrealist ballet.

Messiaen was inevitably hurt by critical assaults of this kind: they sought not only to undermine the theoretical foundations of his music, but even to cast doubt on the genuineness – the ‘sincérité’ – of his music. It is unsurprising that he never felt quite the same about the musical press again, even though many critics were firmly on his side. Roland-Manuel – a pupil and later a good friend of Maurice Ravel – reviewed the work in Combat (3 April); he was clearly more sympathetic than some of his colleagues to Messiaen’s unique vision in the Vingt Regards:

Olivier Messiaen has gathered under this title a series of piano pieces of a dazzling and magnificent diversity of style and expression, the cohesion of the whole being assured by three important themes which serve to unify this vast meditation on the childhood of Christ at just the right moments. It is what used to be called a ‘cyclic’ work in the good old days of the Schola Cantorum.
However, it seems to me that there is no better way to characterise Messiaen’s art than to place it at the extreme opposite to the spirit of the Schola. This musician’s entire output proclaims the supremacy of things spiritual. It is as far away as possible from the sentimental austerity of the Franckists, and closest to the sensual delights of sound, as if the most concentrated musical material, the richest, and the finest, is – in his eyes – the best way to translate the ineffable splendours of the spiritual world. […] Everything which an impressionist sensuality uses to express earthly delights, Olivier Messiaen devotes to the praise of the divine. […] A music critic hesitates to comment of the spiritual content of the message, or on the value of a system which is very much this composer’s own. He thought it a good idea to explain this point or that in the commentaries which he read between each piece. […] It is enough for today for us to pay homage to a very great musician who proclaims himself dazzlingly in the Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus, as well as his magnificent interpreter, Mlle Yvonne Loriod, who plays this astoundingly complex music as if it was born spontaneously under her fingers.

Claude Chamfray, writing in Arts (6 April), explicitly welcomed Messiaen’s commentaries, seeing in them a real value in explaining his music to the audience: ‘Olivier Messiaen presented this complex work himself, with words and phrases which, like his music, were full of feeling and poetry. He shows again here what has already been demonstrated beyond doubt, that in his music everything is symbolic and can be explained’. Marc Pincherle, in Les Nouvelles Littéraires (12 April) was more sceptical: ‘Its composer increasingly inhabits a phantasmagorical universe to which we do not have a key […] all [such] things are quite enigmatic for us, and he translates them into a highly individual musical language into which we must be initiated by his printed and spoken commentaries. We have to confess that they don’t sit well together’. Pincherle had more positive things to say towards the end of his article: ‘Here I am running out of space and I have only made negative criticisms: don’t conclude that there is nothing to admire. Uninitiated I may be, but in many places I was grabbed by flashes of brilliance or by moments of pervasive sweetness, by the sheer jubilation of Noël, by the explosion of L’Esprit de joie, where the horns and harps of Paradise try out some jazz … Nevertheless, I hope very much that Messiaen will come back down to our planet, and that he will soon give us a work to applaud which needs nothing except the music, seeking a path to the All-Powerful by its musical virtues alone. That was Bach’s way, a pretty good model after all’.

Jean Wiéner, a successful composer and pianist as well as a perceptive critic, wrote a brief review in Ce Soir (4 April). He was very enthusiastic about the work, raising one small doubt until the final sentence.

We have just heard a masterpiece by the composer Olivier Messiaen: Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus, a suite of pieces for piano, magnificently played by Yvonne Loriod. I can only draw attention here, once again, to the originality of the musical system, and to the musical aesthetic which are the basis of Messiaen’s art. Certain passages in this great work, making no concessions whatsoever, and without seeking to charm, are of the most overwhelming grandeur, and of the highest musical worth. Only one element of this piece puzzles me: the use of ‘transcendental’ piano style, in the manner of Liszt, serving as the clothes for a work which is so inward, so intimate, so spiritual.

Yves Baudrier’s review in Volontés (11 April) provided a perspective on the work from a fellow-member and co-founder with Messiaen of the group La Jeune France. His enthusiasm perhaps got the better of him with the suggestion that ‘we can already single out certain incomparable successes which should be on every piano tomorrow’ (referring to the Première communion de la Vierge and the Regard de l’Esprit de joie), but he made a telling point about Messiaen’s unusual position in the music of the time:

For those who expect to find passionate emotion in music, a new fervour, for those with open minds, the music of Messiaen is an unhoped-for source of nourishment in our age. For those who hope for an art of musical games, who only have a taste for the ingenuity of forms, Messiaen could well appear treacherous, such is the vehemence with which he proclaims – in a singularly effective way – the right of music to express violent emotions, the vehicle for a blazing inner life.

The controversy over Messiaen’s music erupted again less than a month later, with the first performance of the Trois petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine at the Concerts de la Pléiade, on 21 April 1945. According to Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen, the composer more or less stopped reading reviews after this. His self-confidence was sustained by faith, of course, but the violence of some attacks on his music, and even on his motivation for composing and his artistic sincerity, must have caused distress. To make matter worse, at exactly the same time, the suffering in his personal life was becoming acute: Claire Delbos, his first wife, was beginning to manifest worrying early signs of the dementia which was later to incapacitate her completely. It was almost a decade before Claire was moved into a nursing home, but in the meantime Messiaen was obliged to take on the running of the household and to perform chores such as getting his young son ready for school every day; meanwhile he could only look on helplessly as Claire, his beloved ‘Mi’, became ever more unpredictable and disturbed.

It was in this anguished context that Messiaen turned to a new source of inspiration – the love-death of Tristan and Yseult – for his next major compositions: Harawi, the Turangalîla-Symphonie and the Cinq Rechants. After the Vingt Regards, he was never again to write an explicitly Christian work for solo piano. Instead the piano was to become his ideal medium for several wholly original masterpieces inspired by birdsong, notably the Catalogue d’oiseaux. For Messiaen, birds were the great songsters of Creation, ‘the most outstanding musicians on our planet’. So the Vingt Regards is not only a work of overwhelming emotional power, but it is also unique in the composer’s output – in terms of solo piano music, it remains a glorious, once-in-a-lifetime contemplation of Divine love.

Nigel Simeone © 2002

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