Wednesday, May 11, 2016

A Year's Music: Messiaen's "Livre du Saint-Sacrement"

Every once in a while I like to bring out the 6-CD set of Olivier Messiaen's organ music and listen to the long piece (his last organ work, in fact), entitled "The Book of the Holy Sacrament."

The All Music writer describes the piece: "The work is inspired by the Communion sacrament and is essentially a programmatic reflection on the sacrament itself and on episodes from the life of Christ, indicated in biblical or philosophical quotations in the score. The music makes use of the unusual scales (known as modes of limited transposition) of Messiaen's later music, of his penchant for birdsong-like music, of his 'communicable language' technique (whereby musical notes spell out words, in this case 'resurrection'), of tone clusters, of quotations of chant, and generally of the composer's familiarity with the capabilities of the organ. These details may reveal themselves to a greater or lesser degree, but the work's scope, religious fervor, and sheer power will be evident to any listener. It's a colorful work in the extreme, and its long passages in the organ's lowest register will rattle anything in the vicinity that can be rattled."

I also found an article from the Journal of Religion by James D. Herbert, "The Eucharist in and beyond Messiaen’s Book of the Holy Sacrament," which discusses the musical and theological aspects of the work: The whole article is worth reading for a notion of Messiaen's faith and music.

The sections of "Livre" are:

1. Adoro te (I Adore Thee)
2. La Source de Vie (The Fountain of Life)
3. Le Dieu caché (The Hidden God)
4. Acte de Foi (Act of Faith)
5. Puer natus est nobis (Unto Us a Child is Born)
6. La manne et le Pain de Vie (The Manna and Bread of Life)
7. Les ressuscités et la lumière de Vie (The Risen and the Light of Life)
8. Institution de l'Eucharistie (Institution of the Eucharist)
9. Les ténèbres (The Darkness)
10. La Résurrection du Christ (The Resurrection of Christ)
11. L'apparition du Christ ressescité à Marie-Madeleine (The Appearance of the Risen Christ to Mary)
12. La Transsusbstantiation (The Transubstantiation)
13. Les deux murailles d'eau (The Two Walls of Water)
14. Prière avant la communion (Prayer before Communion)
15. La joie de la grâce (The Joy of Grace)
16. Prière après la communion (Prayer after Communion)
17. La Présence multipliée (The Multiplied Presence)
18. Offrande et Alléluia final (Offering and Final Alleluia)

Here is section 12, which portrays musically the miracle of substantial change in the elements. Links to other sections of the piece are there, as well:

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