The Organ

Olivier Latry and Loïc Mallié :L’Oeuvre d’Orgue d’Olivier Messiaen – Oeuvres d’avant Guerre

Olivier Latry and Loïc Mallié :L’Oeuvre d’Orgue d’Olivier Messiaen – Oeuvres d’avant Guerre
ISBN: 978-3-89948-106-8 (3-89948-106-2)

In a centenary year generating renewed and intense interest in the performance of his works, surprisingly few books have been published on Olivier Messiaen. Rarer still are books written by concert organists and conservatoire professors intended as a guide for the performing organist. Olivier Latry and Loïc Mallié released L’Oeuvre d’Orgue d’Olivier Messiaen: Oeuvres d’avant Guerre in the summer. Their approach is different from that of major authors on Messiaen to date, notably Peter Hill/Nigel Simeone and Claude Samuel. The book is not biographical or a retrospective, but takes the reader on an analytical tour of each organ work, mainly from the standpoint of rhythm and harmonic language, with practical doses of advice on interpretation and registration.The co-authors are eminently qualified to undertake such a task: « Olivier Latry et Loïc Mallié ont bien connu Olivier Messiaen : l’un pour avoir travaillé avec lui ses oeuvres d’orgue, l’autre pour avoir été son élève au Conservatoire de Paris », prefaces the publisher Carus-Verlag. Equally the performances of Olivier Latry of the complete works of Olivier Messiaen need no introduction.

The book was soft-launched by Olivier Latry at the Haarlem Organ Festival in July/August 2008, where he taught a series of masterclasses on the complete organ works, also delivering a lecture and concert performances. When asked how long it took him and Loic Mallié to write this book (a 250 page work), he replied ‘absolutely ages – the turning point was when I broke my arm falling down a flight of stairs, which meant I could not play the organ for several weeks. That meant that I was able finally to complete the book’.

The overriding purpose of the book, as the authors explain in the preface, is to provide a comprehensive summary of all the hints and instructions left behind by Messiaen on the performance of his own works. The authors lament that all too often, in the execution of Messiaen’s works on organs all over the world, unfortunate ‘misinterpretations’ occur. The composer himself wrote down with great care, each time he played on an instrument of different style and/or in a different country, his registrations, tempo and rubato indications, fingering and so on. This valuable legacy enables modern day organists to comprehend the ‘spirit’, rather than attempt a slavish adherence to the ‘letter’ of Messiaen’s written scores.

The first part of the book sets the scene before each work is analysed in detail in the second part. The ‘scene setting’, unsurprisingly, contains a synopsis of the essentials of the two ‘pillars’ of Messiaen’s compositions: his langage harmonique and rhythm. Messiaen himself wrote a great deal about these two elements in his magnum opuses Technique de mon langage musical and Traité de rythme, de couleur et d’ornithologie. The key principles of Messiaen’s harmonic language are described: first and foremost, the infamous modes à transpositions limitées, then other more esoteric concepts such as the accords de la résonance, accords à résonance contractée, accord du total chromatique, accords tournants, and so forth, amply illustrated by quotations from Messaien’s works. These are intellectually quite challenging for the ordinary mortal. However, one is reminded that these techniques were as essential as the fundamental colours of an artist’s palette. And we are told also that the composer was aiming at ‘stained glass colours’ or ‘swivelling colours’ and that the colour changes between different modes are as important as the inherent colour of each mode. The authors also link some aspects of Messiaen’s harmonic language to the writing of Debussy and Schumann, citing examples of the use of suspensions and passing notes which remain unresolved, becoming chord tones in their own right in the following chord.

Turning to rhythmic language, Latry and Mallié explain Messiaen’s vision of rhythmic colour – the idea that one can play with time and duration in a manner similar to playing with pitch. By varying and re-combining note values (inversion, augmentation, diminution etc) Messiaen creates irregularity and diversity, which for him were the very essence of rhythm, beats and meter being almost the antithesis of rhythm. In the chapter on rhythm, there is a very valuable reproduction of the composer’s annotations of the opening pages of the Messe de la Pentecôte, indicating the underlying Greek rhythmic units. Another chapter provides instruction on organ technique and articulation. Despite his innovative departure (triggered by Charles Tournemire) from the path set by Widor and Franck, Messiaen was still a great romantic, and as regards the treatment of legato absolu, tied notes (to repeat or not to repeat – it depends) or thumbing, the rules set by the reigning authority of French early 20th century organ music, Marcel Dupré, definitely apply. The reader is given precise rules on the length of notes marked variously ‘staccato’ (half the note value), louré (3/4 of the note value), as well as Messiaen’s signature staccato goutte d’eau (substantially shorter than ‘staccato’). The recounting of rubato in Messiaen’s own playing is quite enlightening. In particular, we are told that Messiaen took great liberties, and in very slow movements, large variations in tempo were necessary in order to ‘fill’ the slowness.

Another great gem which concludes the first part of the book is a reproduction of a letter from young Messiaen, addressing the objections of the parish priest of the Église de la Trinité against his candidacy for the post of titular organist. Therein he argues quite forcefully against objections such as the fact that his military service obligations were not yet fulfilled (he was only 22), and he almost apologises for his ‘anarchistic’ and ‘dissonant’ music, which he admits could upset the piety of the faithful. ‘Do not think I am incapable of producing other than dissonances’, he pleads to Monsieur le Curé; je peux aussi être sage et classique. (Messaien obtains the coveted post that same year, 1931).

The second part of the book discusses in considerable detail each of Messiaen’s pre-war works : Le Banquet Céleste, Offrande au Saint Sacrement, Prélude, Diptyque, Apparition de l’Eglise Eternelle, L’Ascension, La Nativité du Seigneur, and Les Corps Glorieux. The general format is an analysis of the harmonic and rhythmic elements of the work, ending with a very practical section on interpretation – how to adapt registrations for various dispositions of stops and keyboards, 61 note versus 56 note pedal compasses, how to execute a particular crescendo or diminuendo, and so forth. The authors identify the various modes used in the works – although this takes some intellectual gymnastics on the part of the reader, it is an extremely helpful exercise first and foremost in learning the notes (there is a handy pullout table of the seven modes and their transpositions!) and then clearly in allowing the performer to heighten the dramatic impact of changes in mode.

We thus have a veritable ‘performance manual’ for these works: as an illustration, in La Nativité, the authors identify common threads running throughout the hour-long cycle, so that one can tie together the nine meditations and communicate the unity of the work. Several valuable performance tips are given – how to execute the humorous, even cheeky, double trill at the end of Les Anges, how to manage the rubato (with the composer’s own annotated version) at the end of Dieu Parmi Nous, and more. In Les Bergers, the reader is reminded that dynamics take precedence over colour in Messiaen’s works, and particular attention must be paid to maintaining the composer’s indications of balance in dynamics between different keyboards. The reader is presented with suggestions for stop mixing, a bit like in a cookery recipe where, if one doesn’t have a particular ingredient, one can easily substitute it with another. Thus Clarinette + Nazard = Cromorne, and so on. Latry and Mallié warn that certain written registrations were specific to the Trinité organ (eg Basson 16’ in the Positif) and, as such, must be adapted to the characteristics of each organ. Registrations used by Messiaen (often different from the printed score) are provided throughout: notably for the organs of Brussels INR, Trinité, Chaillot, Schola Cantorum and others. Stop lists are given for all these organs in the Annex. We have for example a blow by blow (dare one say, stop by stop) account of how to achieve the diminuendo at the end of Les Corps Glorieux on three different organ specifications used by Messiaen. Additionally, the book lists editions (highlighting any errors) and annotated manuscript versions.

The book is currently available only in French (complete with a few stray grammatical and typing errors). It is difficult to opine as to how accessible it may be for the ‘average’ British reader. Be prepared for some rather erudite terms that one may need to look up (‘la désinence’ is certainly eye-popping even for a French reader). For the serious Messiaen player, it is without doubt an invaluable companion. The dense text is at least punctuated by reproductions of historic concert posters featuring Messiaen. Another fascinating document is a personal letter from the composer addressed to Olivier Latry, providing detailed performance notes for La Nativité. This is only the first volume, of course: a second book is in progress, covering the post-war works (Messe de la Pentecôte, Livre d’Orgue, Verset pour la Fête de la Dédicace, Monodie, Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité and Livre du Saint Sacrement).