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Le Dieu caché; La Présence Multipliée; Prière après la Communion from Livre du Saint Sacrement

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Olivier Messiaen
Program note originally written for the following performance:
Organ Recital: Paul Jacobs, organ: presented by the National Symphony Orchestra Wed., Feb. 5, 2014, 8:00 PM
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Olivier Messiaen, one of towering figures of modern French music, was born in 1908 in the ancient southern town of Avignon to Pierre Messiaen, a professor of literature noted for his translations of Shakespeare, and the poetess Cécile Sauvage. Olivier entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of eleven to study with composer Paul Dukas, organist Marcel Dupré and other of that school's distinguished faculty, winning several prizes for harmony, organ, improvisation and composition before graduating in 1930. The following year he was named chief organist at the Trinité in Paris. Messiaen was appointed to the faculties of the Schola Cantorum and the École-Normale that same year. Called up for military service at the outbreak of hostilities in 1939, he was captured the following summer and imprisoned at Stalag VIII-A in Görlitz, Silesia. There he wrote his Quartet for the End of Time for the musical instruments available among his fellow musician- prisoners (clarinet, violin, cello and piano); the work's extraordinary premiere was given at the camp in 1941. He was repatriated later that year, resuming his position at the Trinité and joining the staff of the Conservatoire as professor of harmony, where his students came to include such important musicians as Boulez, Stockhausen and Xenakis. In addition to his teaching duties in Paris, Messiaen gave special classes in Budapest, Darmstadt, Saarbruck and Tanglewood. He was a member of the French Institute, Academy of Beaux Arts de Baviere of Berlin, Santa Cecilia Academy of Rome, and American Academy of Arts and Letters. He died in Paris in 1992.

Almost like a musical monk from a Medieval time, Messiaen's life, works and religion are indivisible. "The foremost idea I wanted to express in music, the one that's the most important because it stands above everything else," he wrote, "is the existence of the truths of the Catholic faith." Few of his compositions, however, are specifically liturgical, Messiaen having chosen rather to address the widest possible audience in the concert hall in the most varied and colorful style devised by any 20th-century composer. Messiaen explained: "God being present in all things, music dealing with theological subjects can and must be extremely varied.... I have therefore ... tried to produce a music that touches all things without ceasing to touch God."

When the Herculean eight-year labor of composing Saint François d'Assise (the finished manuscript weighed 25 pounds) finally came to an end with the opera's premiere in November 1983, Messiaen returned the following year to writing for his own beloved instrument, the organ, with Livre du Saint Sacrement. The immediate catalyst for the Livre, his largest and last composition for organ, was a commission from Ray Ferguson, Detroit Symphony organist and long-time Wayne State University professor, for the 1986 convention of the American Guild of Organists in Detroit, but Messiaen had been considering a work inspired by the sacrament of Holy Communion since at least 1980. He recalled the moment of the Livre's musical conception in a 1992 interview: "My post as a liturgical organist requires me to improvise. My wife records my playing, and I listen to these improvisations again with a very critical ear. Something happened: it was the evening of Holy Thursday [1984], when the Church commemorates the Institution of the Eucharist by Christ. I had three minutes to fill by playing, and it was then that I had a stroke of inspiration. I played a piece which, at first, seemed to be nothing: a very simple short-long rhythm, an ordinary first-inversion harmony ... but suddenly I was aware, in re-listening, that that music was not like the others. I believe that I was inspired by the moment, touched by this service, which was very beautiful. I rewrote this piece, named it L'Institution de l'Eucharistie [which became movement VIII] and began to write the Livre du Saint Sacrement: eighteen pieces for organ, two hours and a half in total length." The premiere of the Livre du Saint Sacrement was given at Metropolitan Methodist Church in Detroit on July 1, 1986 by German organist Almut Rössler, a long-time champion of Messiaen's works.

Messiaen headed each movement of the Livre du Saint Sacrement with a motto from a Biblical or religious source and arranged them into three thematic groups: Movements 1-4 suggest acts of adoration before the Communion; 5-11 depict events in the life of Christ; and 12-18 reflect on aspects the Communion sacrament itself.

III. Le Dieu caché ("The Hidden God"). "My eyes cannot bear the splendor of Thy glory. Allowing for my weakness, Thou hidest beneath the veils of the Sacrament." (Anon., Imitation of Jesus Christ, Book IV, Chapter XI). "On the Cross, His divinity alone was hidden; now, moreover, His humanity is also invisible. Nevertheless, proclaiming and believing both, I make the same request as the repentant thief." (St. Thomas Aquinas, Adoro Te)

American organist Jon Gillock, a student of Messiaen and an authority and acclaimed performer of his works internationally who gave the New York premiere of the Livre du Saint Sacrement, in 1987, from the manuscript, wrote with special insight of the musical character and theological significance of each movement. Of Le Dieu caché Gillock said, "The mystery, delicateness and intimacy of this piece are very touching and moving. Its colors are very subtle, one color gently blending into another, and they are somewhat faint. We cannot completely see them because of the ‘veils of the Sacrament.' The movement is in strophic form: it consists of two stanzas in which we hear several different elements stated and then repeated with amplification: a plainsong Alleluia; a haunting flute solo; the startling birdsong of a Tristram's Grackle; and the distant, sweet Music of Adoration. The last is the most important: it is the mystery of receiving Christ's hidden body and blood during the Eucharist, it is the mystery of the hidden God being sacrificed for us on the cross. The song of the Olivaceous Warbler brings us out of contemplation briefly. Then, a slow cascade of harmonies in complete repose ends the piece."

XVII. La Présence multipliée ("The Presence Multiplied"). "One alone receives Him-a thousand receive Him, the one receives as much as all those: all receive Him without consuming Him." (Sequence, Lauda Sion)

Gillock: "There are two complementary textures (themes) in this movement, both representing the growing presence of the faithful. The first is a series of rising or falling tritones [i.e., the tonally ambiguous interval of an augmented fourth] in three-part canon [i.e., exact repetition]. The second, a reaction and response to the first, is composed of phrases of full, majestic chords. The idea here is simple and direct: it is the irrepressible power of the presence of God in his faithful people. All ends on mighty Csharp octaves. This movement corresponds to the ‘Dismissal' of the Mass by the priest: ‘Let us go forth in world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.'"

XVI. Prière après la Communion ("Prayer After Communion"). "My fragrance and my gentleness, my peace and my sweetness ..." (St. Bonaventure)

Gillock: "This is a simple and sweet movement. It is the calm and peacefulness of universal harmony, a delicate fragrance wafting through the celestial atmospheres. It is giving thanks to God for all He has given us, especially for the peace and beauty of spiritual life. This movement corresponds to the ‘Prayer of Thanksgiving' of the Mass."