Perambulating the Bounds

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Vingt Regards Sur L’Enfant Jesus

My lovely wife got me Aimard’s recording of Messaien’s monumental piano suite for my birthday. I’ve been wanting to get to know this piece for some time but have always put off buying a copy. So over the last two weeks I’ve been going through it for the first time. On purpose I didn’t read liner notes at all, not even the movement titles, just listened.

You expect a big piece like this to cover a lot of moods, still, it went places I didn’t expect. There was the tenderness one associates with traditional depictions of the Christ child, but some movements were aggressive and angular. Nearly the attacks of Beethoven. From a purely musical perspective this makes sense as a strategy to sustain almost 2 hours of music, but from a theological or devotional perspective it is more interesting. The music acknowledges a tremendous range in Christ, an infinitude, present even in the child. So much devotional music and poetry, whether hymns to Siva or Rumi’s contemplation of Allah, expresses the multiplicity of the divine by naming the God or describing it in as many ways as the artist can imagine. It’s a common trope. Even within that sort of approach, Messiaen seems to have more range, a willingness to include tones that are messy and harsh, bitter flavors as well as sweet. I thought of Pasolini’s portrait of Jesus in the Gospel According to St. Matthew.

Of course, Messiaen’s piece is also about the viewers, not just intrinsic and essential characteristics of God. The effect of the incarnation was to take God, who had been mostly ineffable except for isolated occasions of revelation, and provide a human form that anyone could look at—gaze upon. God became something/someone to be regarded in human space and time. The incarnation gave a new interface between divine and human—in the Christian scheme. Obviously, in other traditions like Hinduism, ancient Greece, Egypt, gods made themselves present in the world all along, available for viewing. Messiaen’s piece can also be seen as a portrait of multiple perspectives on a singular focal point which is not expressed directly.

I was surprised to see this was a relatively early piece (1944). On this first listen it had much to do with the late Saint-Francois. Some sections seemed to be built from one false resolution after another, extending out into the infinite. At times the musical language borders on cloying, but always redeemed by a shift or the revelation of false resolution. I’ve also been listening to Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande lately, and there is a strong continuity between the two. Some of it is certainly the role of whole tone scales for both composers. And a particular sweetness that comes naturally to both/

I wanted to take a leap and toss off these initial impressions of the piece. Maybe I’ll write more when I know the piece better.

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