Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Olivier Messiaen – La Nativité du Seigneur

As promised before, I’m bringing you a work by Messiaen appropriate to this time of the year. La Nativité du Seigneur, written in the year of 1935, is the first of Messiaen’s cycle-works for the organ, and one of the most well-known. Albeit an early work, it already possesses Messiaen’s distinctive style, both rhythmically and melodically. Non-retrogradable rhythms, his modes of limited transposition, bird songs, his personal Catholic faith, all is there. It consists of 9 pieces, each describing some moment, or vision, related to the birth of Jesus Christ. The cycle is of moderate playing difficulty (it’s certainly easier than his later cycles) and exhibits a profound knowledge of the organ and its possibilities. Indeed, Messiaen was, already at this time, organist at the Église de la Ste.-Trinité, position which he held to the end of his life.

The cycle opens with La Vierge et L’Enfant, a vision of the Virgin and the Child. This piece is structurally in ABA’ form, opening with a slow, meditative A section where a melody plays against a similarly registered accompaniment. The B section (at 2'50'') is more lively, faster and louder. Three separate textures are heard: a melody in a high register, a homorhythmic chordal accompaniment and another melody (a repetitive pattern) in the pedal. The registration is particularly compelling in this section, evoking some sort of angelic chant from the heights.
Then it proceeds to the A’ section (at 4'27''), which is a lighter and softer variant of the initial A section. As if the Child has gone back to sleep.

Les Bergers, the second piece in the cycle, describes the journey of the sheepherders to the Nativity. Its structure can be seen as ABCcC’c’. The initial section has two chordal melodies superimposed, in non-retrogradable rhythms. It’s a slow section, perhaps illustrating the sheepherders’ long walking journey. The B section (2'48'') is a short bird song.
Then the C section starts (3'26''). Initially, a melody is presented in the clarinet. Then (c: 4'27''), the same melody is repeated in the softer oboe. Then (5'28''), a variation of the melody in C returns to the clarinet, which I call C’. This variation is then (c’: 6'29'') repeated in the oboe. The variation is a rather mesmerizing melody.
Make sure to watch Marie Claire-Alain playing it on this video too:

Desseins Eternels follows. This piece has a single section, and it’s perhaps the slowest in the cycle, noted as Extrêmement lent et tendre. It’s therefore meant to be played extremely slow and contemplatively, highlighting this ethereal moment. I cannot get tired of this piece, of how calming the melody is, how it so graciously builds up to the highest note (2'15''), how it drops off to nothing at the end.

Le Verbe is very much unlike its predecessor. We are immediately awakened from the ethereal dream and presented with the full power and might of the Word, initially with a mixtures + reeds introduction in the keyboard, which soon halts in a 7 note diatonic cluster while a tutti pedal plays the theme. Two distinct sections follow: first a reed chordal dialog, and then an intricate rhythmic dialog of 10-to-9 semiquavers. After a final presentation of the initial theme, the final section begins (4'02''), in a completely different setting. A melody in the nazard, softly accompanied by flutes. This section lasts for very long, noted as Extrêmement lent et solennel, consisting of a number of variations on the same theme.

The fifth piece in the cycle is Les Enfants de Dieu. The initial section, restless and vibrant, builds up rhythmically and sonically to a climax at 0'40''. The final section (1'15'') is much calmer.

Les Anges follows. This was the first piece of Messiaen I ever played. It is composed of two independent melodies (no pedal), which proceed with distinct rhythms at (almost always) the same intensity in the first section. In the second, final section (2'21'') the melodies become homorhythmic, and also slightly louder and more hectic. It feels indeed as if the angels were dancing in the skies, exulting to the birth of the Child.

Jésus accepte la Souffrance is the only piece in this cycle in a darker style, appropriately representing how Jesus accepted the suffering destined to him by being born as a human. It ends, however, in a distinctively powerful and bright C# major chord.

Les Mages, the penultimate piece, describes another journey, this time that of the magi. The main melody (the star which the magi followed) is presented in the pedal with a nazard, accompanied by mostly descending chords in the main manual and a softer, calmer chordal accompaniment in the lower manual. The journey is long and meditative, and so is this piece. At the end, the magi reach the scene, and the three textures unite into a single one, in a final chord in F# major.

Dieu parmi nous is the final piece, and possibly the only one that can be presented separately from the others. It’s full of detail and a complete analysis is definitely outside the scope of this post, so I’ll just sketch the most important parts. Initially 3 different themes are presented in three different sections. The first one opens the piece, the second one, a much softer chordal theme, at 0'48'', and the third at 1'50''. These themes show up later in different parts of the piece. I particularly enjoy the complex section at 3'15'', where I find the pedal registration (with cymbal) amazingly compelling. The final section (5'41''), generally called a toccata, is of grand exultation to God amongst us. In my opinion, it serves as a great introduction to later works where this exultation is done in ever grander forms, such as the Sortie (Le vent de l'Esprit) from the Messe de la Pentecôte.

The recording on this post is Olivier Latry's. You can also hear an overview of many recordings of this work on an earlier BBC Radio 3 CD Review program. I'm sorry for not having had the time to post here also excerpts from the score.


  1. Thanks for posting this. The video of M-C A wonderful.

  2. Just been to hear Tim Ravalde play at Chichester Cathedral. these notes were so helpful in appreciating the flow of the music. Thanks.