Tuesday, April 15, 2008

That We May Ourselves Also in Mind Dwell Amid Heavenly Things: Messiaen's L'Ascension

Believe it or not, the Feast of the Ascension is a mere two weeks away--May 1. Since, as has been mentioned here before, 2008 is the centenary of Olivier Messiaen's birth, it is only fitting that we should take a few minutes to consider his Ascension Suite.

Originally written for orchestra, this piece (which can be heard here) was comprised of four movements:
--Majestie du Christ demandant sa gloire a son Pere (The Majesty of Christ demanding its Glory of the Father)
--Alleluias sereins d'une ame qui desire le ciel (Serene Alleluias of a Soul Desiring Heaven)
--Alleluia sur la trompette, Alleluia sur la cymbale (Alleluia on the Trumpet, Alleluia on the Cymbal)
--Priere du Christ montant vers son Pere (Prayer of Christ Ascending towards His Father)

Perhaps the most "accessible" movement of this suite is the second, the Serene Alleluias. The subtitle of this section quotes St. Paul in a line that is used in the collect for the day: "Grant we beseech you, almighty God, that we who believe Your Only-begotten Son, our Redeemer, to have this day ascended into heaven, may ourselves also in mind dwell amid heavenly things." And this movement is indeed heavenly, perhaps more so in its original orchestral score, where undulating strings create new musical worlds unlike the work of any other composer.

Eventually Messiaen arranged this piece for organ, replacing the third movement with Transports de joie d'une ame devant la gloire du Christ qui est la sienne (Ecstasies of a soul before the glory of Christ, which is its own glory), a video of which is below. The title of this new third movement seems to show forth Messiaen's interest in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas ("...the glory of Christ, which is its own glory.") The dance-like qualities, for lack of a better term, of this movement paint in one's mind a picture of the souls in heaven, no longer weighed down by bodies, dashing about "like sparks through stubble," as the Book of Wisdom has it.

Now, when you listen to this piece, do not simply scream "dissonance!" after the first three chords. Listen patiently, and even repeatedly if necessary. Notice the first two short motives of the piece. There are three quick, high-pitched chords in the manuals, followed by a bass solo in the pedal. Notice in particular the rhythm of each of these ideas. These two cells establish the material from which Messiaen creates the entire movement. Listen to how these two themes interact with each other, and even how they are combined at times.

Messiaen also dazzles us in Transports de joie with some interesting chord progressions, many of which move by the tri-tone, or by the third. So, for instance, one might find a series of chords oscillating amongst B-flat major, E Major, G Major, etc. These kinds of progressions create a magnificent kaleidescopic effect.

And now, Transports de joie, as played by the English organist Christopher Herrick:

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