Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus (1944), first half
One of the landmark pieces. Approximately two hours of solo piano music, much of it quite difficult.
I had been spending some time listening to this piece prior to buying the box set, so much of the music has remained fresh in my mind. While not an early-stage work, the composer was about 36 when this was composed. It's clear he had a fully-formed vision of the sound of his music by this time. Everything is here, except for his orchestration ability in larger ensemble works: birdsong, his use of modes and harmonies, identifiable thematic material vs. discontinuity, his use of regular vs. irregular rhythms. Oh, and his Catholicism. Twenty views/regards/contemplations on the infant Jesus.
What do I make of Messiaen's Catholicism, being irreligious myself? One thing I've said is, if more church music sounded like Messiaen, I might actually attend once in a while.
If he had simple titled this Twenty Studies and numbered each movement, I'd find the work no less engaging. But, especially listening to this first half again, what really comes through is Messiaen as a post-Romantic composer at heart. This is music you're intended to feel, to respond emotionally, and the Catholic subtext to each movement does give the composition a programmatic quality. It's not to the extent of Berlioz representing in sound the walk to the gallows in Symphonie Fantastique. Certainly though, titling the first movement "Contemplation of the Father",which is stately, beautiful, even dare I say "heavenly", it's clear the Catholic inspirations are in some way important to the composition.
All of which is to say, his Catholicism doesn't really mean much to me personally, but it means something to him. It helps drive his work, and I love the work. I even think, at a time when his fellow composers and students are often secular humanists and socialists, it's interesting that he stayed so steadfastly with his faith.
At least, I think he did. I can't say what he truly felt. But I'll accept that he maintained his faith during his lifetime.
It's difficult to summarize the music (as it often is with much music). Even the first hour covers a lot of ground, the music often being mercurial and changing direction swiftly. Three (or four?) particular themes appear multiple times through the work, giving the composition overall a strong sense of unity even when it moves swiftly through ideas.
As I listen to the piece though, I still wonder what he was thinking at times. I'm not complaining nor criticizing. The fourth movement, "Contemplation of the Virgin", starts with one of the most lyrical passages in the entire work, but quickly jumps to a series of broader and more active passages. How does that relate to the topic, I wonder?
How do we even get inside the mind of a composer, or other creative person? There are those works, more "classical" in nature, which can be studied and analyzed fairly effectively. It doesn't necessarily explain the inspiration, but you can trace the composer's methods. And while Messiaen is a methodical composer (having written volumes of books on the subject), he's intuitive and free-flowing enough that I can't always predict what he will, or what he was thinking.
I might listen to the second half later today, or maybe save it for tomorrow.