Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt Regards Sur L’Enfant-Jésus, Essay Example

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Essay

Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus (1944) is one of his most signature works: a brilliant, joyful, towering work, replete with the incredible chromatics that defined so much of his work (Woodstra, Brennan, and Schrott 842). And yet, it was composed near the end of a terrible war, and the Nazi occupation of Messiaen’s homeland of France (842). But then, Messiaen was a remarkable talent: like Mozart a born prodigy, he entered the Paris Conservatoire at 11, seized with the desire to become a composer (Morin 585). He played organ and taught harmony at the Conservatoire, marrying in 1936 (Johnson 10, Morin 585). He joined the war effort in 1939; taken prisoner in 1940, he used his two years in Stalag VIII at Görlitz to continue the pursuit of his craft (Johnson 11). His Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps (“Quartet for the End of Time”) premiered in the camp (11).

By the time that Messiaen composed Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus (1944), the war was near its end; it premiered the next year, in the context of a newly-liberated France (Woodstra, Brennan, and Schrott 842). With its deep religious themes, “virtuosic fast movements” and Messiaen’s own signature brilliant chromatics, the work was well-received (842). Messiaen’s religious views are integral to any understanding of this deeply religious work, and his own reasons for writing it: the work “contemplates virtually all the figures associated with the story of the Nativity, and… many of the theological implications of the same event” (842). To the degree that he wrote the piece for anyone, Messiaen wrote it for his beloved wife Yvonne Loriod, a masterfully-talented musician (Odell 55, Woodstra, Brennan, and Schrott 842). Indeed, Messiaen himself explained that his confidence in his wife’s abilities guided the writing process: “’I could thus allow myself the greatest eccentricities, because everything is possible to her’” (55). Thus, Vingt Regards is quite innovative and original, as is so much of Messiaen’s work: in a time of changing styles, Messiaen was a key player (Morin 585).

Messiaen incorporated a host of different influences into his work, including Vingt Regards. Debussy was a major influence: Messiaen loved Debussy’s work from the age of 10 (Morin 585). However, Messiaen also incorporated other influences into his work, notably Vingt Regards, and some of these sources of influence were quite unusual: “complex Hindu and Greek rhythmic patterns, plainchant, bird songs” (585). Thus, it is actually somewhat difficult to relate Vingt Regards to earlier predecessors, particularly since Messiaen was such a seminal and original influence on a musical period characterized by radically changing styles (585). The influences of both Debussy and of Maurice Ravel were strongest during his earlier career (International Piano 25; Staines 339-340). On the whole, Vingt Regards displays a great deal of originality, in the character of Messiaen’s unique style (Morin 585).

If Messiaen was relatively original, his work, notably Vingt Regards, had an enormous impact on the next generation of composers. As Woodstra, Brennan, and Schrott explain, Vingt Regards has become “perhaps the quintessential twentieth century Christmas suite for piano” (842). The work itself is considered the apogee of “Messiaen’s so-called early period”, which ended with his far more famous (but also far more atypical) Turangalîla-symphonie (1946-1948) (842). In the wake of World War II, Messiaen gained the status of guru to “a generation of revolutionaries and free-thinkers led by Boulez, Xenakis and Stockhausen” (Lebrecht 223). As Morin explains, these pupils played a key role in making Messiaen’s reputation: their own works became very famous, greatly adding to the acclaim and recognition enjoyed by Messiaen (585). One critic said it best: Virgil Thomson characterized Vingt Regards and other works by Messiaen as music designed “’to open up the heavens and to bring down the house’”, but also praised Messiaen for possessing “’a musical technique of great complexity and considerable originality’”, favorably comparing Messiaen’s works with those of contemporaries (585).

Vingt Regards is an incredibly complex body of work. Deeply rhythmic and ritualistic, the work draws on diverse and varied devotional themes, from a variety of paintings and tapestries which inspired specific movements, to overall influences from theological writers such as “St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John of the Cross… the Gospels,” and many more (Johnson 71). This devotional context is essential for understanding the cyclic themes that permeate the work, chief among them the thème de Dieu or “God-theme” (72). The God theme is intended to evoke the Scriptural passage in which God the Father explicitly acclaims Christ as His Son—and Messiaen uses a slow tempo and a theme of changelessness to evoke “the eternity of God” (72). There is a particularly interesting movement, “Regard du Fils sur le Fils” (“The Gaze of the Son Upon the Son”) in which Christ “contemplates God made man”: in this part, Messiaen superimposes “a two-part rhythmic canon of chords” on the theme, and at the end of each phrase the canon melts away to be replaced by birdsong (72).

The work is replete with numerical symbolism: a three-fold texture, evoking the Trinity; two-part canon evokes Christ’s twin natures, God and man, and the recurrence of the second cyclic theme, ‘the theme of the star and the cross’, in the second and seventh pieces (Johnson 72-73). The sixth piece, ‘Par Lui tout a été fait’, is particularly notable: it uses a subject and a countersubject, and subjects them to a considerable number of permutations or transformations, through a variety of canonic forms (73). Transformation defines it: from the initial statement, it undergoes rhythmic change, compressing in “agrandissement asymétrique” (73). It has been described in terms of “an electrifying fugal outburst” (Woodstra, Brennan, and Schrott 842). Overall, Vingt Regards is very chromatic, in accordance with so much of Messiaen’s work: brilliantly original, blazing, bold, and unforgettable, Vingt Regards is a true testament to Messiaen’s genius as a composer, which has left a seminal impact (842).

 Works Cited

International Piano. “Spectrum of Sound.” International Piano, 55 (2008): 22-25. EBSCOhost. Web. 11 July 2012.

Johnson, Robert S. Messiaen. 2nd ed. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1989. Print.

Lebrecht, Norman. The Companion to 20th-century Music. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1996. Print.

Morin, Alexander J. Classical Music: The Listener’s Companion. San Francisco, CA: Backbeat Books, 2002. Print.

Odell, Matthew. “Messiaen’s Muse.” International Piano, 3 (2010): 54-58. EBSCOhost. Web. 11 July 2012.

Woodstra, Chris, Gerald Brennan, and Allen Schrott. All Music Guide to Classical Music: The Definitive Guide to Classical Music. Ann Arbor, MI: All Media Guide, LLC., 2005. Print

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