Amen de la création [6'31]
Amen de l'agonie de Jésus [8'11]
Amen du désir [11'18]
Amen du jugement [2'53]
Amen de la consommation [6'20]
Fantaisie burlesque [6'57]
Steven Osborne has already made his name as an outstanding interpreter of Messiaen with his ecstatic recording of the Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus (Hyperion, CDA67351/2), which was described by Gramophone as ‘one of Hyperion’s finest piano recordings—quite an achievement in a catalogue of outstanding piano discs’. Here he is joined by Martin Roscoe in an equally revelatory account of Messiaen’s other great religious piano cycle, this time for two pianos, the Visions de l’Amen, composed a year before Vingt Regards in 1943. Their combination of emotional power, religious austerity, keyboard colour and dazzling pyrotechnics makes for an overwhelming and physically exhilarating experience. The listener is given an insight to what it must have been like to have heard the premiere of this work, played by Messiaen with his future wife, the immensly gifted 19-year-old Yvonne Loriod, to a strictly invited audience in Occupied Paris.
Steven Osborne plays three solo pieces to complete the disc. The Rondeau was composed at the same time as Visions de l’Amen, but is much less musically (although no less technically) ambitious. The other two pieces were composed in the 1930s, one in a more light-hearted vein, the other a contribution to a memorial volume for Paul Dukas, who died in 1935.
Other recommended albums
One of the most significant first performances given in Paris during the German Occupation was at the Concerts de la Pléiade on 10 May 1943: Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen. During the autumn of 1942, the organizer of these concerts, Denise Tual, went into the Trinité church one evening, and was overwhelmed by the music coming from the organ. She met Messiaen shortly afterwards:
I was expecting to meet a very young trendy type (‘zazou’). I was still imagining the prewar generation of musicians, the elegance of a Désormière or the eccentricity of a Varèse. I found myself in front of an ageless man of the church […] He asked me to sit beside him on the organ bench. Our conversation was in hushed tones and he seemed visibly frightened. His face lit up when I told him the purpose of my visit. A commission? He beamed.
Messiaen confirmed the details of the commission in a letter to Tual on 26 December 1942, though as yet the work had no title:
I will write for you a work for two pianos; you will put it on at your third concert. I will be paid 10,000 francs for it – and I have already received your cheque for 4,000 francs on account […] I am leaving Paris for eight days. I will not forget to take our work with me. On the contrary, I am taking my sketches to have a think about them.
The first two months of 1943 were spent working on Visions de l’Amen. Messiaen needed access to a good piano (the ancient pédalier he had at home was inadequate), and much of his work on Visions was done in the apartment of André Dubois, an extraordinary man with a passion for new music. Dubois became a director of police in 1940, before being relieved of his duties by the Vichy government. In 1954 he was appointed préfet de police and was subsequently résident général, then ambassador, to Morocco. He later became general administrator of Paris-Match and Marie-Claire and, in 1971, vice-president of Le Figaro. Dubois’s interest in the arts was all-embracing: he was a regular visitor to Picasso during the Occupation, and was on friendly terms with the playwright (and sometime prison inmate) Jean Genêt.
Progress on Visions de l’Amen was swift. On 17 March 1943 Messiaen announced the completion of the work to Tual:
My work is finished […] In 15 days I will have done a first fair copy which I will give to Mlle Loriod so that we can start rehearsing together as soon as possible […] The work is of considerable proportions: it lasts a total of 40 minutes, almost 45! […] Thank you for giving me the opportunity to undertake this huge project, and to complete it.
The Piano I part of Visions de l’Amen was written for the nineteen-year-old Yvonne Loriod. Her part shows us what first caused Messiaen to be dazzled by her playing: sparkling passagework, complex rhythmic canons, and cascades of chords. Loriod was in Messiaen’s first class at the Conservatoire, in June 1941, and the teacher-pupil relationship is clear in a quite different way in Visions de l’Amen: in the opening ‘Amen de la création’, the high-register chords of Piano I are given life by the recurring ‘creation’ theme rising from the depths of Piano II – Messiaen’s part – which controls the pacing of the music.
The middle section of No 5 (‘Amen des anges, des saints, du chant des oiseaux’) is a rare instance of Piano I having the main thematic line: birdsong, accompanied by dancing rhythms on Piano II. A dance of a different kind occupies the centre of No 2 (the ‘Amen des étoiles, de la planète à l’anneau’), with the pianos working in tandem in an extraordinary depiction of orbiting planets. In the ‘Amen du désir’ (No 4), after a slow opening, there is a fast solo for Messiaen himself (Piano II); this is repeated, with brilliant interjections on Piano I.
The final ‘Amen de la consommation’ is a tour de force with Piano I (originally Loriod) storming the heavens with dazzling virtuosity. The music transforms the monumental ‘creation’ theme into a procession towards paradise and glory, decorated by joyous peals of bells.
The copying of Visions de l’Amen was done by mid-April, and Messiaen’s diary on 14 April noted in his diary to take ‘Amen’ to Mlle Loriod at her godmother’s house. Loriod’s godmother, Nelly Eminger-Sivade, did much to encourage her brilliant god-daughter, putting on recitals in her salon where the young Yvonne would play for guests: Honegger and Poulenc came to hear her play when she was eighteen, and she played works by Messiaen, Jolivet and others. Mme Sivade’s husband worked as an engineer for the Parisian water company and the couple lived in a handsome apartment, with a balcony, at 53 rue Blanche, on the west side of the street, a few hundred metres from the Trinité. The first rehearsal for Visions de l’Amen took place there on 16 April, after dinner. Messiaen then left Paris for a short break in the Aube: on 18 April 1943 he wrote to Tual from his aunt’s house at Fuligny:
You will find enclosed a list of 50 names and addresses. These are the people I would like you to invite to the Concert de la Pléiade on 10 May. I have only included those that are strictly necessary among the numerous pupils and friends who want to come to the first performance, and who have already spoken to me about it several times. Perhaps the hall is going to hold a larger audience than for the previous concerts as the layout is different. Since many of these people are friends of both of us, I hope you will be able to invite all of those on the list, and I thank you for doing that with all my heart.
I should also mention that my wife and son appear on the list – above all don’t forget them! It will also need to be remembered that the two pianists (Mlle Loriod and myself) and the two page turners (because we must have two page turners) will also require passes to get in. I thought of this because your front-of-house arrangements are draconian – and I congratulate you on that!
Forgive me for troubling you with these mundane questions! I gave my manuscript to Mlle Loriod five days ago (my own copy is just finished) and we have had a first rehearsal: she already plays magnificently!
The mention of ‘draconian’ front-of-house arrangements in this letter is the only reference in Messiaen’s correspondence with Tual to the controls which were necessary to ensure, presumably, that neither undesirable Germans nor known collaborators were admitted. The first performance was originally scheduled to form part of the third Concert de la Pléiade, at the Galerie Charpentier on 3 May 1943, but a small printed invitation (which managed to misspell both Messiaen as ‘Messian’ and Loriod as ‘Loriot’), announced the decision to perform the work on its own a week later, on 10 May at 5 p.m.
A private run-through took place at Mme Sivade’s the day before, on Sunday 9 May, as Messiaen noted in his diary: ‘14h. rehearsal at Mme Sivade. Those present were Mme Tual, Gallimard, Poulenc, Jolivet, Samazeuilh, Honegger, Mme Messiaen.’ Yvonne Loriod recalled that after this rehearsal, Messiaen took the guests down the rue Blanche to attend Vespers at the Trinité.
The premiere was attended by some distinguished figures in French cultural life: photographs show Marie-Blanche de Polignac, Christian Dior and Francis Poulenc among the audience; others present included Paul Valéry, François Mauriac and Jean Cocteau. The page turners were Serge Nigg and René Hanicot (not Pierre Boulez as Tual claimed – he first encountered Messiaen in 1944). Such was the lustre of the audiences at these concerts that they were written about not only as musical events, but as social occasions enlivening an otherwise sombre time, as can be seen from Marcelle Auclair’s column in Marie-Claire:
It is thrilling to comment on the Concerts de la Pléiade which take place at the Galerie Charpentier. During this time when we get butter from the butcher, meat from the hairdresser and sugar from the shoe repairer, these fashionable concerts take place in an art gallery. It is only possible to go to them by invitation and, of course, it’s a personal affront not to be invited! Madame Colette arrives on her bicycle, in her sports outfit, wearing sandals and a boater. She has cycled from the Palais Royal because it’s all on the flat, she confided to us.
In the eleven Concerts de la Pléiade given during the Occupation, premieres included not only Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen but also Poulenc’s Violin Sonata and Chansons villageoises, and Jolivet’s Poèmes intimes; there were also performances of Stravinsky and early French music (notably Rameau’s Platée). Arthur Honegger was among those at the premiere of Visions de l’Amen and his review appeared in Comoedia on 15 May 1943:
The glamorous ladies wearing hats like table-tops or multicoloured tennis racquets who provide the visual ornament at the Concerts de la Pléiade must have been rather surprised. The charming ear-ticklers of recent programmes were unexpectedly replaced by a work which is long, highly individual, and densely written, eschewing the variety of orchestral timbres by restraining itself to the black and white of two pianos. And what a serious subject: ‘Visions de l’Amen’, seven large musical frescoes with a duration of almost an hour. Nevertheless, the experience was a perfect success. I must say straight away that this work by Olivier Messiaen seems to me a remarkable one, of great musical richness and of true grandeur in its conception.
Perhaps I might discuss some details. First, the fact that it is written for two pianos lends a certain austerity. In the first piece, the same chords (augmented fourths and perfect fourths) are used with a little too much persistence. There is a certain difficulty in discerning the principal musical lines resulting from the absence of different timbres. But what does this matter given the poetic power, the constantly exalted level of the musical discourse, and the quality of the musical invention which is affirmed so impressively? The rules which the composer has invented and imposed upon himself with rigorous discipline give to the whole work a noble style with no hint of dryness.
My personal preference is above all for the ‘Amen de l’agonie de Jésus’ and the ‘Amen du désir’. In the first there is an anguished theme which turns at length on the same three notes (C sharp, D, E flat) and is of extraordinary expressive intensity. In the second, a calm theme of exquisite tenderness is set, in variations, against a second motif, with a syncopated rhythm, which is ardent and passionate […] The composer himself performed the work with Mademoiselle Yvonne Loriod as his partner. Given the technical difficulty of the score I can hardly begin to do justice to the extraordinary command of this young arist, but I do so in all sincerity.
One personal wish. I would like this work to be heard, preceded by its commentaries, at the Jeunesses musicales. That would be infinitely more interesting and useful than the parade of works which is usually served up there. In this work there is something for the young to discuss and to admire.
Following the concert, Messiaen wrote to Denise Tual, thanking her not only for arranging the concert, but also for ‘the opportunity to write a long and serious piece’.
A few weeks later, Loriod took part in the annual concours at the Paris Conservatoire. In late February 1943, Messiaen had been asked by the Director Claude Delvincourt to write a test piece for that summer’s competition, and the result was the Rondeau. Though written at the same time as Visions de l’Amen, is it musically much less adventurous, and the demands here are largely technical; in other words, Messiaen produced the kind of piece that was expected of him. Among those to win premiers prix were Loriod herself and the composer-pianist Jean-Michel Damase.
The Fantaisie burlesque was composed in 1932 and first performed in a concert at the Ecole Normale on 8 February 1933 by one of the outstanding French pianists of the day, Robert Casadesus. In a later programme note Messiaen wrote about the piece with an ironic detachment which he found sadly lacking in the music, and revealed something of how he was seen by his friends and contemporaries in 1932:
The title is surprising. There exists very little truly comic music, and my music is not at all humorous. In 1932, my old classmates from Paul Dukas’s composition class found me too serious, too contemplative: they thought I didn’t know how to laugh. I wanted to prove them wrong … and failed to do so. In this unduly traditional ABA piece, the first and third parts are meant to be comical (without succeeding). The middle section is the best: there are many things there which foreshadow the colours of chords and the rhythms in my later works.
The contemporary press judged the work more generously. In Le Ménestrel (17 February) Marcel Belvianes wrote that ‘this Fantaisie has a clownish motif […] which appears at the start and comes back at the end. At the centre of the piece, a much more tender motif unfolds. M. Olivier Messiaen certainly has a sense of colour and lacks nothing in ideas, nor in amusing techniques to give them form. His success was all the greater since he had the great pianist Robert Casadesus as his interpreter.’
Paul Dukas died in 1935. Henry Prunières, the editor of La Revue musicale, asked a group of Dukas’s friends and former pupils to write short works to be published in a memorial volume. ‘Le tombeau de Paul Dukas’ was published as the musical supplement to La Revue musicale in May–June 1936; it included Messiaen’s striking homage to his teacher, entitled simply Pièce, along with works by eight other composers (among them Falla, Rodrigo and Florent Schmitt). Messiaen wrote his contribution for the ‘tombeau’ before returning to Paris for the start of the new academic year in October 1935. Many years later, he described its musical language:
My piece is quite simple: it uses mode 3 in its first transposition, whose orange, white and gold light perpetually falls onto a long dominant seventh. It is static, solemn and stark, like a huge block of stone.
The piece was first performed at the Ecole Normale on 25 April 1936, in a concert which included all nine contributions to ‘Le tombeau de Paul Dukas’. The pianist was another Dukas pupil, Joaquín Nin-Culmell (1908–2004); a few months later Messiaen played his own piece, as well as those by Rodrigo and Falla, at a concert in Lyon on 11 January 1937.
Nigel Simeone © 2004