Organ music: Apparition de l'Église éternelle (1932)/La Nativité du Seigneur (1935)
In the narrative of the 32-CD box set, we've moved from the solo piano music to the organ works.
Messiaen was an organist. Which meant he played some piano, but devoted himself to that church-oriented instrument.
There's a purity to the sound of the organ. The debate over the centuries about Pythagorean tunings vs. equal temperament, had largely to do with the pure sound of the organ in churches. Equal temperament won out, and not necessarily for the worst.
As for the music:
Apparition de l'Énglise éternelle (Vision of the Eternal Church) is...how can I put this...one of the most emotionally stirring pieces that I know.
It's a series of slowly played chords. That's all. Yes, there's a small element of rhythm, but it has to do with lengths of tensions more than a pushing forward of time. But if you speak of the piece being rhythmic? Not really.
The chords, the tensions, the resolutions: it's amazing. Vision of the eternal church. The piece begins very quietly, builds, builds more, feels like the heavens are opened up, then backs away slowly. The church in the past, present, and future. At least, how I interpret the piece.
There's a short film of people listening to this work, without being told in advance what it is. The reactions, as you might expect, are varied. Among the most interesting yet disappointing was John Cameron Mitchell, director of Shortbus and co-creator of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. He started taking a knife to the headphones, stabbing one side. I saw a production of Hedwig, and it didn't make me want to stab my ear with a knife, but I found it to be utterly boring.
I love this work. I feel it. I marvel at its tensions and releases. If Messiaen had written nothing else, he would have proven himself a master of harmonic tension and release with this piece alone. I don't care a bout the programmatic subtext.
As for La Nativité du Seigneur, well it has it moments. I think it would be wonderful to see performed, but otherwise it seems very church-y. There are some powerful moments to be sure, but I'm only mid-way through listening to this piece, and I want to move on.
But, I am dedicated to listening to all 32 CDs on this set. They all can't be Turangalîla. And I don't hate the organ works, but I'm just not devoted to them.
Note: the seventh movement of La Nativité du Seigneur, at times recalls the grandeur of the earlier work, and even presages Turangalîla. Fragments to be sure, but I hear them.
What was happening in organ music in the 1930s? I have to take that into account. I don't think many composers were writing new, and new conception, pieces for the instrument.
The final movement hits deep. I have to wonder about seeing this work performed in its native element. I have a cinematic reference, but I think I'll leave that until my next posting.