Olivier Messiaen and the Art of Organ registration

The art of registration has been an important part of organ development since the beginning of organ building. We can trace organ building back to ancient Greece. Though in its raw form the ancient organ did posses different stops. Basically they had flute and later added reeds to their stop lists. These stops (sounds) had certain meanings, an early use of symbolism or tone painting. Just as the organ is one of the oldest instruments the art of registration is also very ancient. Composers throughout the ages have influenced the development and conception of different stops and combinations of stops. This leads up to perhaps the pinnacle of colorful registration composers, Olivier Messiaen. This innovative composer took the most basic approach to organ registration as well as composition. He drew upon the elements of nature and the world around him and the ever-important ideas of religion. Like many composers before him Messiaen sees musical sounds (registration), as actual colors such as a painter would work with. No other example can illustrate this fact better than what Messiaen had to say about this very phenomenon.

The phenomenon of natural resonance is analogous to that of complementary colors in the sense that one acts on our ears and the other on our eyes. When I hear music, I see in my mind complexes of colors corresponding to complexes of sound, so it’s understandable that color interests me as well as sound.

One of the most influential components of Messiaen’s colorful organ registration is the organ at La Sainte Trinite in Paris, France. Though it wasn’t one of the largest instruments in that great city, the colorful organ of La Sainte Trinite was the catalyst for the creations of Messiaen. His deeply religious convictions also contributed to his ideas about symbolism in organ registration. Dieu Parmi Nous was written in 1935 and was influenced by the impressionistic composers Messiaen was working with in France. Messiaen’s music was very much different than what was being composed at that time. I would surmise that these early works were met with very much success and were studied by Messiaen’s students at the Paris conservatory.

Olivier Messiaen developed his own musical language, language of mystical love. This was an all-encompassing theory for it contained ideas on harmony, rhythm and registration and color. One of the most important ideas in this theory is religion. Messiaen composed every piece of music with the ideals of the Roman Catholic faith and the teachings of the bible. It is absolutely amazing to see and study how every little detail relates back to the catholic faith. Messiaen’s Language of Mystical Love is a well-written book explaining every technique of his theory. Jean Marie Wu has written the Mystical Symbols of Faith chapter in this book. Ms. Wu starts with a quote by Messiaen, which explains his beautiful theory of symbolism.

One point will attract our attention at the outset: theharm of impossibilities. It is a glistening music we seek, giving to the aural sense voluptuously refined pleasures. At the same time, this music should be able to express some noble sentiments (and especiallythe most noble of all, the religious sentiments exalted theology and the truths of by the our Catholic faith). This charm, at once voluptuous and contemplative, resides particularly in certain mathematical impossibilities of the modal and rhythmic domains.

This passage certainly illustrates Messiaen’s deep religious belief and its tie to his music. The organ works always have a religious quote at the beginning of the work. It is clear that Messiaen had a symbolic sense about each musical composition and made it visual for the performer. Messiaen had very innovative ideas about religious symbolism as it applies to organ music. Being a devote catholic he set the world ablaze with his wonderful ageless language of mystical love.

The organ is perhaps the only instrument that can represent a symphonic orchestra. It posses the dynamic capabilities and true tonal colors of orchestral instruments and Messiaen used that fact to his advantage. He uses the organ like an orchestra employing all of the colors of instruments. The Quartet for the end of Time is a perfect example of organstration. Though written at two very different times in Messiaen’s life, we can surly see their similarities. Anthony Pople has written extensively on this subject and makes very interesting points to this effect.

The prefaces to the published scores of both the quartet and the organ work La Nativite du Seigneur (1935) introduces important concepts that were to be discussed at fuller length in Technique. Whereas the preface to the quartet deals in the main with matters of rhythm, including non-retrogradable rhythms……………..the preface to La Nativite gives the first introduction to Messiaen’s most notable conceptual innovation in the sphere of musical pitch: the "modes of limited transpositation". Messiaen developed the idea of modal composition from his familiarity with the church modes, from the music of Maurice Emmanuel and probably also from the Russians.

Messiaen uses the same compositional techniques in La Nativite as in the quartet. We find the rhythm structures and harmonic vocabulary that are similar through out both pieces. The modes of limited transposition are prevalent in each composition, an idea originating in La Nativite. Through out his compositional career Messiaen uses orchestral techniques in his organ works and organ techniques in orchestral works. One other interesting fact is Messiaen’s use of bird calls in his music. He was fascinated with all different types of birds. This was also influential in the organ and orchestral music, especially in La Nativite. We will see the specific use of these and other techniques in the section on Dieu Parmi Nous.

The final piece in La Nativite is Dieu Parmi Nous (God Among Us). Ideas and motives that were introduced through out the preceeding eight movements. Here we see the true genius of Olivier Messiaen revealed. Messiaen sums up the deep beliefs of Christian theology in this great and final movement. The individual registrations in this piece have definite established symbolic meanings drawing on previous material. Before we discuss the complex ideas of individual registrations I would like to briefly explain the Sharngadeva rhythms which dominate Dieu Parmi Nous. Sharngadeva rhythms are rhythms the Messiaen discovered some 120 Indian "deci-talas" - that is rhythms of Indian provinces - listed by Sharngadeva in his treaties Samgita-ratnakara. Dr. Robert Johnson presents a very important point about this influential subject.

Some debt to Greek rhythms is present in his early works, but the more important indian influences did not appear in his music until La Nativite du Seigneur in 1935.

This is a very important idea when trying to understand and interpret this piece of music. Right from the opening measure of Dieu Parmi Nous we see the new use of Indian techniques. Messiaen begins this piece with the registration of full organ. The chord progression is one of descending chromatic chords without pedal. These few measures are the germ to which the whole composition is built. The opening introduction (mea. 1-3) represents the living God descending to his people. Messiaen’s writing/registration paints the picture of the "trumpets of the lord". The second section theme (mea.4-7) is also present throughout the piece. Here he calls upon the rich and creamy string stops. This section is sometimes called the love theme and invokes all of the angels descending with the lord. Again Dr. Johnson talks to both these symbolic representations.

PLAY AUDIO, Example No.1

The fall referred to here, however, is the glorious fall of the second person of the Holy Trinity into human nature. The second theme is strongly contrasted with the first and expresses the love of Christ for the communicant, the Virgin and the whole church.

Measures 8-14 ask for two very different organ registrations. This section reminds one of a conversation, between man and his God. Messiaen calls upon the mixtures of the great division and the reed of the swell division. Again the reeds are representing God with theme one. Section four (mea.16-30) is an important and often misunderstood section. Here Messiaen uses the positif division with a simple pleno registration. Simplicity is the key here. Messiaen is communicating how simple and important talking with the Lord is and how sometimes man is too busy to listen of realizes. The fourth section (mea.31-54) is perhaps the most mystical. The pop culture in organ performance call it the "busy street section", PLAY AUDIO, Example No.2 unfortunately they have it only half right. What is so important on interpreting this section? Is it the registration? Here is the answer. Foundations on the great and mixtures in the pedal create a wonderful sense of color and symbolist orchestration. The symbolic meaning is one of business, but the underling movement in the pedal registration is communicating that God is now in our life no matter if we are busy or choose to ignore. Section four begins the metamorphous between the living God and man. The pinnacle of this merger I believe starts at measure 55 and continues to the end of the work. Here we switch back to full organ with huge powerful chords just like the beginning but with double the number of notes symbolizing a strong bond. Now here is the real magic, the toccata (mea.59-83). The pedal holds the true power in this section. It is the opening theme representing God descending except this time the registration makes it the most important musical line. The toccata is a true French style toccata and is an extremely powerful climax at the end of this composition. Messiaen uses one last registration for the last four measures of Dieu Parmi Nous. This is perhaps the most unusual part of the composition. It is comprised of a series of chords, which are extremely dissonant but resolves to a magnificent closing chord with the first theme in the pedals. In Messiaen the musical mediator Dr. Hsu explains how important these early works are to the development of Messiaen’s orchestral works and others.

The problem of registration is one that has pledged organist for years. Yes, registration is subjective but as you can see it is full of hidden messages. If you try to perform the works of Messiaen on an organ of limited size you can surly make sense of the music by being most of all MUSICAL. What we have to remember is Messiaen’s devout Christian faith and communicate that in our performing. In conclusion I would like to end with a favorite quote by Marc Chagall which Messiaen was very fond of and symbolizes what we need attain to perform his works.

I want to see with the eyes of my soul. -Marc Chagall

Andrew R. Galuska, Graduate student, Moores School of Music: University of Houston