Olivier Messiaen: Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine
Joseph Haydn: Heilig Mass in B-flat
By Thomas May
Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine
Although the premiere of Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine (Three small liturgies of the Divine Presence) in April 1945 occasioned a famous scandal, it’s interesting to note that the situation was the reverse of what you might expect. The work was a success with the public—it remains one of Messiaen’s most popular compositions—but drew fierce attacks from the critical establishment. The composer pressed a lot of buttons: the avant-garde found his use of tonality “vulgar” and were uncomfortable with the piece’s unapologetically theological message, while religious conservatives objected to its strange sonorities and introduction of mystical ideas to the concert hall.
In short, Messiaen generated discomfort among the intelligentsia precisely because he cannot easily fit into the prevailing paradigms of “modern music” but is a genuine original. He forged an innovative language of arresting harmonic and timbral colors, translated bird song, and complex rhythms—all in the service of hinting at the inexpressible beauty of the creation and divine love. Messiaen’s powerful dissonances convey none of the clichés of modernist angst but shimmer and dazzle with the sense of mysteries being revealed—to the composer as well as his listeners.
After he was released from the German prisoner-of-war camp (in which he had written his landmark Quartet for the End of Time), Messiaen returned to Paris and composed the Liturgies in the winter of 1943-44. He fashioned his own texts, drawing inspiration from biblical references (such as the Song of Songs, Psalms, Gospels, and Revelation). As for his musical language, Messiaen the devout Catholic is at one with the catholic Messiaen, discovering an ecumenical, omnivorous array of inspiring sources in classical Greek meter and Hindu rhythms, plainsong chant, Balinese gamelan, and ornithology. His unusual scoring for the Liturgies calls for women’s chorus, string orchestra, piano solo, celesta, percussion, and the signature eerie/ethereal sound of the ondes Martenot (an electronic-keyboard instrument from the pioneering 1920s, named for its inventor). The absence of winds and brass adds to the score’s overall brightness.
“Color” is a frequent metaphor for describing secondary or “surface” aspects of a piece of music, but for Messiaen—both in general and in the Liturgies in particular—color isn’t merely decorative but is the soul of the piece. The composer himself characterizes it as “the music of color”—colors which move and dazzle to suggest the mystical truths being sung. Messiaen was famously prone to an Oliver Sacks-worthy tendency to perceive particular sounds as actual colors: not simple, primary colors, but complex, orchid-like combinations from the layering of harmonies. The piano solo’s role (as prominent as in a concerto) he likens to “studding the texture with diamonds,” and indeed the resulting aura of all these colors is brilliant and jeweled.
Messiaen divides his meditation on the presence of God into three movements. The first (“Anthem of the interior Conversation”) corresponds to “God who is present within us.” The contrasting middle section of its simple ABA form features a hypnotically recurring chant-like phrase and magical accompanying figurations from the ensemble. In the outer sections, Messiaen introduces the translations of numerous birdcalls (the nightingale and skylark among them) which are an integral part of the score. Nature’s music is for him a glorious reflection of the divine, and he revels in the natural world’s free, asymmetrical patterns.
The second movement (“Sequence of the Word, Divine Canticle”), the briefest, refers to the presence of “God in Himself” through Jesus. This is a prime example of Messiaen’s ability to convey ecstatic joy—paradoxically, through a palpably physical array of shifting meters that burst with the energy of dance, underlined by cheerful swooping from the ondes Martenot.
“Psalmody of the Ubiquity of love” is the final and longest movement. It depicts the idea of “God present in all things” and, fittingly, follows a variation pattern (which is also folded into an overall ABA form). The first section employs a vehement rhythmic chant, followed each time by a lush refrain. As the chorus praises God’s presence, spanning the universe like a rainbow, it reaches an ecstatic affirmation on D Major.
What follows, after a resounding silence, is the still, calm, time-defying center of the Liturgies, with its message of “You who keep silent in us, And maintain your silence in your Love.” The rushing momentum of the first part returns before a coda concludes the work with the serenity of that glimpse of eternity. Although we are caught “halfway between the microcosm and the macrocosm,” Messiaen’s music conjures a realm beyond our limited, ordinary perception of reality.
As with Messiaen, Haydn’s lifelong faith was an integral component of his personality. Musical inspiration validated his fundamental optimism and sense of order in the universe. In turn, Haydn used his music to express his love of a created world. There was, for Haydn, a seamless continuity between the sacred and the secular in his compositions. Consider the habit he developed of inscribing his scores—no matter the genre—with the mottos “In nomine Domini” (“In the name of the Lord”) at the top and, upon completion, “Laus Deo” (“Praise to God”).
Certainly, Haydn was eager to take advantage of all the techniques he had mastered through his instrumental writing when, in the twilight phase of his career, he once again turned his attention to sacred music. The fact that he had focused so much creative energy in previous decades on symphonic and chamber composition owed at least something to the tastes of Prince Nikolaus, the second of the four Esterházy patrons Haydn served and a particular aficionado of instrumental music. Nikolaus’s musically disinclined son Anton disbanded the court orchestra but gave Haydn a pension out of respect for his long service, which freed the composer up for his two epoch-making tours to London in the early 1790s.
After Anton’s short reign, Prince Nikolaus II revived something of his grandfather’s musical passion. This time, however, it was directed toward sacred music. Nikolaus II was especially devoted to his wife, Princess Marie. Each year he observed her name day (September 8, the feast of the Virgin Mary’s birth) by commissioning a musical setting of the Mass as the centerpiece to celebrate the occasion, which included more worldly festivities as well, such as theatrical performances and fireworks. Thus the young Nikolaus was the patron who instigated the great series of six Masses that marked Haydn’s final decade of activity (we also have the Prince to thank for the first of Beethoven’s two Masses).
In the meantime, the composer who had once held the status of a liveried servant on the Esterházy estate was now an international star, comfortably set up as an independent artist in Vienna. In the summer of 1796, having returned from London, he undertook the first of these commissions in honor of Princess Maria, the “Heilig” Mass. (For a long time, the “Mass in Time of War”—also written in this year—was thought to have inaugurated the series, but many scholars now believe it was the “Heilig” Mass which served that purpose in 1796.)
Officially, this Mass is known as the Missa Sancti Bernardi von Offida on account of its dedication to a recently beatified Capuchin monk, Bernardo of Offida. The nickname “Heilig” (German for “holy”) came a little later and refers to a notation Haydn made in the margin of the score. This occurs in the Sanctus, next to the alto and tenor lines, where he incorporates a German vernacular hymn tune by that name—one that perhaps had special personal significance—for these inner voices.
A period of fourteen years had elapsed since Haydn’s previous setting of the Mass. Now in his sixties, he must have found the return to the genre a rejuvenating opportunity to take stock of his career—especially in 1796, in light of the recent affirmation of his genius the London triumphs had conferred. And Haydn had also been inspired by his experience of grandiose Handel performances abroad (particularly Israel in Egypt). Shortly after the “Heilig” Mass he would begin work on The Creation. It should therefore not be surprising that one of the most immediately notable characteristics of this Mass is the prominence of choral textures. Passages given to the soloists are relatively rare, and Haydn at times even doubles some of the solo voices.
He also establishes a new paradigm with the ambitiously symphonic scope laid out here—one that will prove highly influential for later 19th-century settings of the Mass, from Beethoven onward. Haydn uses all his compositional ingenuity to develop a modest, economical set of ideas into a substantial structure that resonates with energy and color. The Kyrie, for example, is akin to the first movement of a symphony, complete with a slow introduction and coda. Yet, even at its most resplendent, Haydn’s polyphonic interweaving of the voices remains rooted in a graceful melodiousness—another remarkable trait of this work, which foreshadows the sacred music of Schubert.
Much of the appeal here is that Haydn never relies on rote solutions to the challenges posed by setting what were to him hyperfamiliar texts. (You might see a parallel in his approach to the minuet form in his symphonies and quartets, where the fecundity of Haydn’s invention in developing new turns on this simple pattern is astonishing.) Notice how the contrasts (and telling pauses) after the triumphant phrases of the Gloria open up a sense of space to avoid the problem of anticlimax after the necessarily exuberant opening of this section.
The Credo—almost a miniature Passion in its emotive range—is particularly rich in innovations that amplify the dramatic and spiritual significance of the words. After the community of the opening, Haydn presents an extraordinary sequence of orchestrations, from the pastoral serenity of “Et incarnatus” (with pizzicato strings and clarinets) to the sudden shift to low voices and the minor for the “Crucifixus.” Interestingly, Haydn also sets the “Resurrexit” in the minor, as he does in two more of the last six Masses. Pauses are again used to great effect for the mystery of the Sanctus, followed by a flowing tempo for the “Pleni sunt coeli.”
Haydn unfolds the serene melody of the Benedictus at leisure, while the Agnus Dei sets its address to the divinity as a minor-key lament. The upbeat return to the Mass’s home key of B-flat for the onrush of “Dona nobis pacem” is dramatic in itself, but Haydn encloses another dramatic contrast with a few deft pizzicati to temper the unbridled demand for peace. Only toward the end does a brief harmonic shadow suggest the contemporary threat to peace that Haydn would directly confront in his later Mass settings.
Thomas May is the author of Decoding Wagner and editor of The John Adams Reader. He writes frequently about music and theater.