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Vingt regards sur l'enfant Jésus for piano

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Olivier Messiaen
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano Sat., Jan. 24, 2004, 8:00 PM
© Richard Freed
Apart from the element of birdsong, the bulk of Messiaen's music is dominated by a mysticism compounded of specifically Catholic subjects and a "mystical love” in which Eastern literary, musical and religious influences are drawn upon. These sources of inspiration have combined to give much of his music a uniquely ecstatic character—quite unlike the "ecstatic” qualities we associate with the music of Szymanowski or Scriabin, but aglow with its own sort of "spiritual voluptuousness.” The vast cycle of pieces called Vingt Regards sur l'enfant Jésus ("Twenty Contemplations of the Christ Child”), composed in the middle of 1944, was the first solo work Messiaen wrote for Yvonne Loriod, who had become his pupil after his release from a German prison camp in 1942, and for whom he composed the two-piano Visions de l'Amen (a work for them to perform together) in 1943.

The complete Vingt Regards requires about two full hours for performance, but the work is frequently represented by two or three of its twenty component sections, and the three which Pierre-Laurent Aimard performs this evening are the probably the most favored for such presentations. By way of introduction, the composer wrote,

Contemplation of the Infant-God in the cradle and the various ways in which He is considered, from the inexpressible contemplation of God the Father to the multiple contemplation of the Church of Love, also embracing the prodigious contemplation of the Spirit of Joy, the marvelously tender contemplation by the Virgin, and . . . the Angels, the Magi and unmaterialized or symbolic entities (Time, the Heavens, Silence, the Star, the Cross).

Those words are particularly apt in respect to the first of the excerpts M. Aimard has chosen. R EGARD DES PROPHETES, DES BERGERS ET DES MAGES (No. 16 of the cycle) is music fully describe in respect to its overall mood by its title, which is no more in need of elaboration than of translation.

PREMIERE C OMMUNION DE LA V IERGE (No. 11, "Virgin's First Communion”) represents the Virgin on her knees, worshipping the unborn Jesus within her. The "theme of God,” prominent in several sections of the work, is heard here, as is a theme representing the Virgin and Child from Messiaen's 1936 organ work La Nativité du Seigneur .

REGARD DE L' E SPRIT DE JOIE (No. 10, "Contemplation of the Spirit of Joy”) was described by Messiaen as "a vigorous dance, the intoxicating sound of horns, the ecstasy of the Holy Spirit . . . a joy which is for me an ecstasy, an intoxication in the most unleashed sense of the term."