Appreciating Messiaen’s Livre du Saint Sacrement: Culmination of Techniques and Methods of Expression

By Diane Luchese

Since my adolescence, I have been captivated by Messiaen’s music. Inevitably my professional endeavors both as a music theorist and an organist have gravitated toward his music. While my analytical work certainly includes an exploration of his compositional techniques and structures, what especially intrigues me are matters of sonic atmosphere and expression. For over two decades I have pondered how Messiaen uses an intangible temporal art form to express invisible and incomprehensible spiritual mysteries. The subject of this essay is his final organ composition, Livre du Saint Sacrement, which I believe is his greatest achievement for the organ. At the time of its composition, Messiaen’s craft reached the pinnacle of its development. His late works compositionally return the spirit of his earlier works, incorporate and refine the experimental and complex features associated with his middle period, and present new colors from an expanded tonal/harmonic palette, crafted with refinement and maturity. Now thirty years since its premiere, organists are including several movements of the Livre in competitions and on recitals, although it seems that his earlier works (up to the Messe de la Pentecôte) are still mostly what organists perform. I hope this essay will inspire further interest in this great work.    BackgroundThe Livre du Saint Sacrement was one of four American commissions Messiaen received over his lifetime. Ray Ferguson and the Detroit Chapter of the AGO commissioned the Livre for a National AGO Conference. Almut Rössler premiered it on a five manual, 121-rank Möller at Metropolitan United Methodist Church in Detroit on July 1, 1986. Despite the unfortunate dry room acoustic, a conspicuous cipher, and oppressive summer heat, reviews in both the Diapason and the American Organist magazines reported a joyful ovation for both Rössler and Messiaen, who was in attendance.The most important thing one must know about Olivier Messiaen is that his compositional intent was always to express the spiritual truths of his faith. All of his signature techniques were conceived to convey the spirit of the intangible and ineffable mysteries of the Roman Catholic faith. Most of his music is concerned with religious topics; the only non religious topics he dealt with are love (keeping in mind he saw human love as a reflection of Divine love), birds and natural elements (keeping mind that natural beauty was created by God), rhythmic ideas (which are connected with philosophical notions of time), and color (keeping in mind colors provide dazzlement leading us to a higher truth).Livre du Saint Sacrement, or “The Book of the Blessed Sacrament” deals with the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, a topic he first dealt with in his early (1928) composition, Le Banquet celeste. The Livre was his next composition after completing his one and only opera, the massive Saint Francois d’Assise, which took him eight years to complete (1975-1983). The opera manuscript, which was 2,500 pages and weighed 25 pounds, left Messiaen so depleted that he told everyone that he was finished composing. His wife, pianist Yvonne Loriod, recalled that he was in a deep depression, exhausted and unable to even eat or exercise. But he eventually began working on the commission a year later and completed it rather quickly. Begun at his composing cottage in February 1984, already by April 22, 1985 the Livre was submitted to Alphonse Leduc for publication! Perhaps the compositional process went quickly because some ideas for this work were brewing in the back of his mind and plus he developed material from his improvisations at Trinité into thematic material for this cycle.The initial version of the cycle that Messiaen first completed in June 1984 had fifteen movements. After further thought and contemplating a better sense of plan, he added additional movements to balance and complete it. His final and published version shows a carefully ordered arrangement of eighteen movements. Messiaen articulates his plan for the Livre quite clearly in the score “Introduction.” The first four movements are “acts of adoration before Christ, who, though invisible, is truly present in the Blessed Sacrament.” The next seven movements are concerned with the mysteries of Christ, in a chronological order. These movements deal with the birth, Jesus in the desert, Jesus’s promise of eternal life, the institution of the Eucharist, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene. The final seven movements are prayers to Christ through the Blessed Sacrament. Scholar Christopher Dingle observes that the superstructure of the complete cycle broadly mirrors the structure of the Mass. The opening acts of adoration would be analogous to the opening prayers of the Mass. The mysteries of Christ tell the stories from the Scriptures, so are analogous to the Liturgy of the Word. Regarding the meditations on the mysteries of the Eucharist: the “Transubstantiation” is the consecration of the elements and “Two Walls of Water” becomes a metaphor for the breaking of the host into two parts, corresponding to the Agnus Dei/Fraction Rite.  What follows are the acts of receiving the Eucharist. Between the “Prayer Before Communion” and “Prayer After Communion” is a movement about the joy receiving at the sacred banquet. The penultimate movement reflects upon the growing presence of the faithful, and the liturgy ends with a joyous Alleluia.Techniques and Style TraitsThroughout Livre Messiaen used compositional techniques developed over his lifetime, now understood as idiosyncratic stylistic features. First are those he discussed in his early 1944 treatise, The Technique of My Musical Language, which include his symmetrical scales or modes of limited transposition, nonretrogradable (or palindromic) rhythmic structures, Greek rhythms and Hindi decitalas, the use of plainsong, and the use of melodic tritones. Characteristics that define Messiaen’s style in the 1950’s, such as extended serial techniques and rhythmic procedures, and also lengthy transcriptions of birdsongs, are employed as well. The “communicable language,” which he developed in the 1960’s for the Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité, is used in three of the Livre’s movements. This technique assigns to each letter of the linguistic alphabet a precise pitch, register and duration that enable Messiaen to spell out key words relating to theological concepts, generating thematic material.  And, as in his mature works, we find an increasingly complex coloristic harmonic language.  While many of Livre’s harmonies are modal and polymodal in origin, the composer creates an expanded expressive timbral palette and chords with greater resonance. The movements collectively display an enormous range of tempi, the extremes of which Messiaen has contributed to compositional practice at large. The mix of formal structures and textures used in the Livre include mosaic or chain forms (juxtaposed blocks); strophic forms; through-composed pieces; refrains alternating with episodes; canonic writing; trio texture; monody, ecstatic, brilliant toccata-like passages; incessant repetition; homophonic writing with a single melody accompanied by shimmering harmonies; tonality juxtaposed with atonality; and the effects of both static, nonprogressive music and dynamic, directed linear music. And despite his “post-opera depletion,” he even creates an entire dramatic scene and provides a complete program for the eleventh movement, “The Risen Christ Appears to Mary Magdalene,” which can be considered a tone poem for organ. Considering all these factors, the Livre serves as a wonderful summation of the compositional techniques and style traits explored throughout his lifetime, executed with polish and refinement.Musical Expression of the Mystery of the EucharistMessiaen’s display of craft using his large toolbox of techniques certainly brings us creative and fresh musical results, but the question still remains as to how he expresses the spiritual mysteries. As he once told Claude Samuel, “The first idea I wanted to express, the most important, is the existence of the truths of the Catholic faith.” Because Messiaen often stated his intent to express the spiritual, because his titles contain references to the spiritual, because we see spiritual quotations in his scores, because Messiaen scholarship emphasizes the spiritual component, and because the music somehow seems “spiritual” to many of us, probably most of us take his intentions for granted and never ponder the difficulty in expressing the mystery of the Eucharist through music. Roman Catholics believe in transubstantiation, meaning that during the consecration of the Mass, the elements of bread and wine are not merely symbols but actually become the body and blood of Christ. How can one express this inexpressible, incomprehensible mystery that defies representationalism by its very nature?  I suggest that Messiaen realizes his expressive intentions through several means he used throughout his career, which I can best explain through categorizing. First, not unlike Romantic composers of programmatic music, Messiaen tries to represent images of the physical world that tell his story in a sonically pictorial way, using acoustic mimicry or sonic resemblance.  This is easiest to execute in the second part of the Livre, which deals with the life of Christ in human form on earth.  I exemplify with some examples of this tone painting. In the sixth movement, “Manna and the Bread of Life,” where the scene is Jesus in the desert, the remoteness of the desert is conveyed right at the opening through an unfamiliar tone color: soft high-pitched chords are registered with a single mixture stop on the Swell with the box closed.  The registration is downright eerie, and in this way the emotional experience of being in the desert is also conjured. He depicts barrenness by softness, sparse monody, and interjected rests or silences. The desert wind is depicted via long crescendoing and decrescendoing trills.  We hear some desert birdsongs, with Messiaen utilizing dynamics to change the distance of the bird’s location.  In the ninth movement about the Crucifixion, (“Darkness”), tone clusters and thick, dissonant low sonorities represent pain and suffering as well as the physical darkness that covered the land. A passage of descending two-note figures seem to represent sighs, not unlike sigh motives composers have used for centuries. At the end of this movement is a slow, darkening, monophonic melodic descent followed by a silence that precedes the final chord. This final chord is a chilling depiction of darkness: a very ominous deep cluster encompassing the pitches of the complete chromatic collection.  Regarding birdsong used in eight movements of this work, most of the songs are those of birds from or near the Holy Land. Before Messiaen’s trips to Israel, he contacted field ornithologists. Even if these bird transcriptions do not sound like the birds themselves, Messiaen’s listeners are so accustomed to his bird stylization to the point where through this enculturation they immediately recognize such short musical gestures as birdsongs. A second category of programmatic expression is Messiaen’s use of musical metaphor. The success of this approach depends upon the tone painting that I just described, with Messiaen going a step further to indicate that the physical element depicted serves as a metaphor for a spiritual concept. For example, in the dramatic thirteenth movement, “The Two Walls of Water,” Messiaen programmatically depicts the breaking waves of the sea—or the two walls of water–via passages of four-note gestures separated by rests, moving in contrary motion in the two hands.  These ripples of sound help us imagine the parting of the Red Sea so the Israelites could walk and be saved. Then, the parting of the sea in the physical world is meant to serve as a metaphor for the breaking of the host into two parts, and through the partaking the Eucharist we are saved. In the linearly-directed tenth movement, “The Resurrection of Christ,” a long-range progression of dissonance moving toward consonance, timbral darkness moving towards brightness, and a goal-directed registral ascent all serve as metaphors for Christ’s rising from the dead. Here, Messiaen does not make the act of rising from the dead sound ‘easy;’ one can feel the effort, especially with all the stops and starts. The final luminous and resonant F# major triad strikes the listener as a clear and triumphant goal.  Another means Messiaen uses to communicate spiritual ideas is through transcriptions of Gregorian chants whose texts and original liturgical functions infuse meaning into this work (mmts. #3, 5, 12, 14).  The fifth movement about the birth of Christ, “For Unto Us a Child Is Born,” is not only titled after the Introit for Christmas Day, but also is musically based on this plainsong.  Some of the other chants used in Livre come appropriately from the Gregorian Mass for the Feast of Corpus Christi, or the Body and Blood of Christ, which is the general topic of this cycle.Symbolism is an important part of Messiaen’s expression of mysteries, although this is often difficult to perceive directly without external explanation or analysis. Messiaen’s unique signature techniques and elements enumerated earlier were not conceived merely as compositional novelties; many serve as symbols of specific theological concepts.  While the entire gamut of symbolic expression in this work is too extensive for me to give it the full treatment it deserves, I provide a few examples of the kinds of symbolism used.  First, his modes of limited transposition are comprised of pitches that can only be transposed a limited number of times before they yield the same pitches repeated. This idea of “one in the same” becomes a tonal symbol for the mystery of God’s omnipresence. Next, due to Messiaen’s rare affliction with synesthesia, his modes were conceived with color associations. Thus, musical pitches and sonorities become symbols of colors and light that comprise a scene in the composer’s mind. Messiaen goes as far as to associate certain tonal centers with certain expressive ideas. Robert Sherlaw Johnson has observed that Messiaen used F# major (mixed with the second mode of limited transposition) symbolically for ecstatic movements.  In the Livre, the big luminous chord and goal at the end of the Resurrection movement is F#.  Note that Messiaen’s early organ work on the Eucharist, Le Banquet celeste, mixed an F# tonal center with the second mode of limited transposition, and his choral work on the Eucharist “O Sacrum Convivium!” also has an F# tonal center. Johnson also observed that Messiaen used E major in pieces that imply an element of praise.  The Livre’s fourth movement, which ends the first part or the Acts of Praise, ends triumphantly on E. These are all examples of tonal symbolism. Rhythmic symbolism is also used, for example, in the eighth movement, “Institution of the Eucharist.” Here the important rhythmic motive (short-long-long) is a Greek rhythm, Bakcheios. Bacchus is the God of Wine. In this way Messiaen uses a rhythm to serve as a symbol for wine at the Last Supper. Also, non-retrogradable rhythms (rhythmic palindromes), where the “beginning and ending are identical,” serve as symbols of eternity.Textural symbolism especially conveys a spiritual mystery in the seventeenth movement, “The Presence Multiplied.” The theological mystery treated in this movement is that Jesus is equally present in all the consecrated hosts in the world at all times and places. Messiaen expresses this symbolically by writing a three-voice canon. An interlocking tritone melody is stated canonically at the time interval of one note apart. So the texture increases as each entering voice states the theme identically. The growing texture symbolizes the presence multiplying. This canonic theme occurs several times in the movement, and even in melodic inversion. But the inverted form traverses an identical range, symbolic of how the substance is identical for each recipient each time. And when that inverted form is transposed and extended, this symbolizes the presence multiplying further.Messiaen also employs number symbolism, not unlike Bach and others. For example, the number 7, which historically meant “complete” or “full” is used at the conclusion of this grand cycle: a powerful polychord is repeated seven times before the concluding gesture leads us to the final note, low C.  In the tenth movement, “The Resurrection of Christ,” Messiaen employs the number “3” for generating his compositional design.  Since on the third day Christ rose from the dead, employing “3” in a movement about the resurrection is self-explanatory. In this movement the first melodic phrase takes three tries to fully complete itself. The important pitch in the pedal, C#, appears in three different registers, each time ascending. The high melodic F# apex is stated three times.  Musical sequences starting in measure 14 and in measure 17 are each iterated three times.  The sequences also ascend by thirds. Interrupting silences that occur are always notated as three rests. Finally, the climax, near the temporal Golden section, features impressively striking major chords in a mediant relationship. (Roll over, Beethoven! This rocks!) Messiaen’s communicable language is true cryptography used to communicate spiritual ideas. In the Livre, three movements make use of this technique, spelling words such as “Resurrection” in the seventh movement, “Your Father,” “Your Son,” “Your God,” and “Apocalypse” in the eleventh movement, and “Joy” in the final movement. Without being informed of this, of course it will be missed by the listener. But still these are important codes by which Messiaen is attempting to convey meaning. Lastly I suggest another means of expressing the ineffable for you to consider. Perhaps the composer additionally expresses mysteries by consciously and purposely pushing the perceptual envelope of his listeners. I am now addressing musical moments that are difficult spots for listeners, i.e., those moments when one feels like one just doesn’t get it. Rather than being drawn into the music, one feels distanced by the modernist quality effected by what seems to be cerebral and rigorous procedures, becoming acutely aware of one’s limits of comprehension. For example, the first part of the twelfth movement, “The Transubstantiation,” has as its subject the supreme mystery of the Eucharist: Transubstantiation. Must a piece based on this incomprehensible mystery have the sensual qualities, or the outbursts of joy, or the gentle meditative peace, or even the drama that is heard in other movements?  As our perceptual capacities are pushed, is it possible that the opening melodic material generated from a twelve tone series, the nonprogressive chain form impeding the perception of linear time, and the long interrupting silences together convey the incomprehensibility of the mystery by providing the listener that very experience of incomprehensibility?  To summarize, Messiaen compositionally expressed his spiritual ideas in the Livre du Saint Sacrement through tone painting or sonic resemblance of elements in the physical world; metaphor; chant quotations; compositional techniques and elements serving as symbols and codes; and by challenging the perceptual capabilities of his listeners.  He provides inspirational quotations and program notes to give us his narrative. His last work for organ uses many techniques developed in his life to create a work that is profound, inspired, perfectly crafted, and honestly expressive. I hope you might consider to play at least some of the movements of the Livre if you haven’t already done so. Be dazzled!  Be transported! BIBLIOGRAPHYBullat, G. Nicholas.  “Premiere of Olivier Messiaen’s Livre du Saint Sacrement.” Diapason 77 (Oct. 1986): 15.Dingle, Christopher.  The Life of Messiaen.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.Dingle, Christopher, and Nigel Simeone, ed.  Olivier Messiaen: Music, Art, and Literature.  Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007.Griffiths, Paul.  Olivier Messiaen and the Music of Time.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.Herbert, James D. “The Eucharist in and beyond Messiaen’s Book of the Holy Sacrament.”  The Journal of Religion 88, (July 2008): 331-364.Hill, Peter, ed.  The Messiaen Companion. Portland OR: Amadeus Press, 1994.Hill, Peter, and Nigel Simeone. Messiaen. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005.Johnson, Robert Sherlaw. Messiaen. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1975.Luchese, Diane.Olivier Messiaen’s Slow Music: Glimpses of Eternity in Time.”  Ph.D. diss., Northwestern University, 1998.Messiaen, Olivier.  The Technique of My Musical Language. Translated by John Satterfield.  Paris: Alphonse Leduc, 1956.Rössler, Almut.  Contributions to the Spiritual World of Olivier Messiaen. Translated by Barbara Dagg and Nancy Poland.  Duisberg: Gilles und Francke, 1986.Samuel, Claude.  Music and Color: Conversations with Claude Samuel. Translated by E. Thomas Glasow.  Portland: Amadeus Press, 1994.Shenk, Calvert Davies. Review of Messiaen — Livre du Saint Sacrement.  American Organist, Aug. 1986, 38.Shenton, Andrew.  Olivier Messiaen’s System of Signs. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2008.

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