OLIVIER MESSIAEN, THE IMPROVISER

 

 

From the very begining of his career as an organist Messiaen’s favourite office was Vespers, for that was where he could improvise the most and adapt his playing to the liturgical texts however it was here as well that the worshippers showed quite a violent reaction to some of his improvisations. Some organists would have been taken aback, perhaps even intimidated by such a reaction but for Messiaen it constituted a challenge, an impetus to take things even further than he would otherwise be inclined to do. Therefore it was precisely from this moment on that he thought seriously about writing for the organ.

What unusual stop combination ! His aim was to push back still further the limits of tone perception, for example, in joining the lowest range of the instrument and the various high overtones, without fundamental, the whole wrapped in a complex of sounds to which he held the secret. Here and there the Pedal gave up its sole bass function as he played the postlude to a Mass fff, on full organ with a phrase in the middle or high range of the Pedal.

During the Offices he would use the Pedal coupled only to the manual with one or two high-pitched stops or even a cymbale alone. Among the sound complexes put together from extraordinary stops, one of his exclusive hallmarks, he wouldn’t hesitate to draw a combination such as Positif Clarinette, Quinataton 16’, Nazard, the whole thing super and sub-octave couplers. The clusters of dissonant chords then took on a special dimension and a marvellous colour through crescendo and using the Swell box. The priority for him was always the colour obtained from the stops. Messiaen considered himself a ‘colourist’ just as Widor was.

As other moments, his combinations of timbre could sound stranger still especially when he played with the reverberation in the building. He knew how particular the acoustic were to the place – this aspect it as important as the instrument itself – and each effect, each cadence, each bird call needed to be painstakingly measured out. Clearly, this was an orchestrator speaking. Now and then we were sent into a brooding atmosphere, sound groups in the low pedal region, deep legato lines in the Positif, ultra sparks in the Swell, followed by a lone cymbale in the Pedal while an isolated Montre 16’ played in mid-compass. I particulary remember an exceptional improvisation during 1989 concert which I was abble to capture with my video camera. Messiaen used his Cavaillé-Coll in anything but a conventional way, in calm and soft strains, in opposition to the customary expectation of hearing a symphonic Grand Orgue, grandiose and powerful to the point of monotony. In his improvised postlude he opted readily for serene hues, particulary in the middle or closing sections.

(since this 1989 concert, a japanese from NHK would like to buy this video tape for the extravagant expense of $3 million dollars).

While remaining in intimate contact with the service in progress, Messiaen the improviser nonetheless maintenained a preoccupation with the thythms on which he had worked all his life. He treated his rhythms as characters in a drama, actors on a stage. Once the registrations had been chosen there came a succession of chords, melodic ostinatos, blustering toccatas, bird songs culled from the four corners of the earth and flute solos of infinite mysticism. To improvise means to create spontaneously, but Messiaen thought out his contribution to the liturgy ahead of times. On certain occasions, like Easter or Christmas, or for a concert, he brought along in his briefcase big sheets covered with bird songs and rhythms. His registrations were then prepared on the combination action. Messiaen certainly didn’t look upon improvisation as something to be done flippantly, but as an art of erudition, to be conceived of in terms of an unending search for perfection. Playing for the sake of playing, improvising for the sake of improvising without knowing what one has to say , does not amount to much or carry any real significance.

AN OMINOUS RECOLLECTION

 

June 1990. We left the organ loft following the two Masses and were going down the stairwell when suddently Messiaen asked me to return with him to the organ loft. I immediatly assumed he must have left something there. Reaching the console with short, hasty steps he laid a caressing hand on the timber :


Poor organ, I won’t be here for three months. Please, take good care of it ; it is like a son to me. I’m reaching the end of my 60th year with this organ and I am very fond of it, so protect it, take care of it, bring all your loving attention to it. It is your organ as much as it is mine.

When I saw Olivier Messiaen for the last time at hospital, only one wish remained for me – for him to hear, without delay the new timbres he was hoping for.

My friend was dead.

Windows magnify light, one of the things created bu God : but the organ provides the church with something else, akin to light and yet surpasing it : a music of the invisible which is an opening on the hereafter.

                                                                                                                                                    Olivier Messiaen

THE ORGANIST AT HIS TRIBUNE

 

The clim up to the organ loft at Sainte-Trinité is via a staircase beneath the instrument but when feeling a bit unwell. Messiaen would go p at the far end of the church where he could rely on a handrail (press accounts not with standing, there has never been a lift). Then, he needed to walk only the lenght of the nave along the triforium. Having reached the organ loft he would carefully open the two reinforced doors and set his things down. His wife, Yvonne Loriod, would go to the study to fetch his Mass book, the portable radiator if it was winter, eau de cologne to refresh his hands and a small cloth for the keyboard and console lid. Messiaen didn’t like dust, especially when he thought of the effect it has on the sonority of pipes. Hence, he was impatiently looking forward, day by day, to the cleanning and the restoration of the organ that was to follow the restoration work in the church. The master would most carefully gather his things and place them at one end of the console. If there were scores to be used, he would put them in place with gestures of utmost precision. Then he would take his place before the keyboard and turn on the bellows. He loved his instrument and manifested this attachment by boundless gentleness.

When the Mass was about to begin, he would read a few lines for a moment, then say a prayer before starting to play. When the right time came, he would place his hands on the Swell keyboard and begin to improvise a prelude. His look was often grave as he concentrated greatly, with attention on the keys only, sometimes with a trumpet on the Pedal. The Entrée was not a performance of music but a veritable entry into the spirit of the Eucharist to be celebrated. Messiaen spoke little during the service, he has deeply engrossed in prayer.

Shortly before the Offertory, he would check through the combination he has prepared in advance and then commence sounding a multitude of bird song. I noted that he often used his favorite stop on the organ : the Quintaton 16’ on the Positif, which he would combine with a clear and singing stop (to cite only one example, the combination of Quintaton and Nazard is ideal at La Trinité). In other instances, he would take the fantastic Flute octaviante 4’, Nazard and Doublette on the Great division.

For repertoire, everything was written in pencil at the top of thepage, keyboard by keyboard. Each stop to be drawn was noted and the division underlined with a thick line. An example is his score of the Bridal March from ‘Lohengrin’, which I saw one day. Each manual was assigned a specific role : harmonies to the Swell, broken chords to the Positif, the melodic line to the Great. Each division was meant to have a colour of its own.

After the last service, a veritable ceremony would ensue, with Messiaen closing his score and changing his glasses, then putting each book return briefly to the bench to make sure that the wind was off, drawing a stop or two and placing a hand on a keyboard to see if any sound would come out. Only then would he close the console.

At times between two Masses, either of us might bring up the most diverses topics, Olivier Messiaen showing a great sense of humour. While rare, it did happen that we broke out into hearty laughter. One day at this very point in the morning it was with Yvonne Loriod that the banter had turned to rather humorous matters upon which Messiaen, returning silently to the organ loft said : " the joke’s over, here comes the supervisor. Pipes down everybody ! ". And there we were, all three of us having a good laugh.

CONCERNING NEW INSTRUMENTS, MESSIAEN SAYS:

Preference is given to instruments that are inexpressive to build, with tiny Larigots, little Gedackts, small reeds devoid of any character, thin little mixtures, but then what comes of evolution, progress for today’s music ? You can’t play anything on them, aside from, perhaps Bach’s contemporaries. The organist is forced to play on heavy actions that are not supple and smooth enough.

There are instruments which have achieved perfection but others leave something to be desired.

The organ is an instrument of light and it is precisely light that is lacking in these instruments. Mind you, this is by no means limited to mixtures and other unision stops, for luminisoty and colour exist in the most diverse forms. We know lots of very beautiful organs appropriate for playing the music of past centuries. We must think of tomorrow’s music and not force the organist to take on only a small repertoire. If I hadn’t had a goodly number of stop added to my Cavaillé-Coll it would be impossible for me to play all the pieces that are henceforth possible. I needed some luminous stops.. We need to encourage organbuilders to create and not purely and simply to make unhappy copies.

I don’t agree when it is claimedthat organ stopped evolving in the 18th century. Just think of the disaster if that had been the case ! We probably wouldn’t have had the magnificents in our cathedrals. The organ has always evolved and it ought to continue that evolution. If that same claim were for the piano, we would still be playing the vast piano repertoire on old Pleyel… ? ! I do not want to think of that… ! ! We need to encourage the creation of new instruments, following a new model and with new design concepts.

We need to refuse stagnation or a return to the past, we know the past already, so let us turn toward tomorrow.

Most new organs all over the world are alike without any interest, they have all the same stops, the same specifications, ,othing is new. Do you really think that I could compose some works for baroque organs with small cromornes and small larigots without interest ? Certainly not ! Most organists over the world don’t have enough pluck to order a new style of organ with a really new specification. I regret this. They prefer the comfort of stagnation, but for how long ? When I am dead, you, Olivier, will have to explain this to lots of musicians and organists.

Let me speak briefly about mixtures.

For this, I bring into the picture my own corpus for piano. Its prime hallmark is the use of clusters of notes which might derive from the way that mixtures are used. Mixtures are stops that comprise several pipes per note and emit not only the pitch played but also its harmonics, the octave, fifth and sometimes, tierces. The drawback of these artificial harmonics, which proceed as of in rank and file along with the note played, is their symmetry, since they necessarily give out the same resonances ; that is the same fifth, the same tierces. In my piano textures, the chord clusters might be expected to yield the same result, but instead, the chords are different ; this means there is no symmetry. I’ve had many a conversation with you, Olivier, on this very subject and have given you some impetus in your research. Don’t share with frenchs !

In my writing for organ, I have created all sorts of intervals to make up for this lack due to the identical harmonics in mixtures, for up until now, I’ve not had the opportunity to benefit from innovation in the realm of mixture stops. These directives given to you are included in a project you submitted to me and which I have studied at lenght to elaborate a fundamentally new organ .

Rev 4/9/2000 by Timothy Patterson