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Olivier Messiaen was born in 1908 in Avignon, the son of Cécile Sauvage, the poetess, and Pierre Messiaen, known for his translations of Shakespeare. By the age of eight his piano studies had begun and he had produced his first compositions; when only eleven he entered the Paris Conservatoire as a pupil of Dukas and Dupré, where he carried off a host of first prizes and to which he returned in 1942 as professor. Regarded by many as the most significant composer of his generation, Messiaen was organist at La Sainte-Trinité, Paris, from 1931 until his death. The bulk of his writing is concerned with instruments other than the organ, but all of his music is unified by his personal philosophy: “Emotion and sincerity above all – at the service of Catholic theology.... expressed by melodic and harmonic means.” On account of these closely argued techniques, his music is instantly recognizable, and the pieces in La Nativité du Seigneur (1935) are a perfect consummation of his musical ideals.
“Les anges” (The Angels): “a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying Glory to God in the Highest!” The music explodes into a kind of ecstatic dance, as the angels exult and the sun flashes on their jewel-studded wings, beating jubilantly. They swoop lower and lower over the crib, and for an instant are still; then soar into the sky again, circling ever higher until, in a cascade of trills, they are lost to view.
“Dieu parmi nous” (God among us): “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. My soul doth magnify the Lord.” This final reflection, the last of the suite’s nine meditations, gathers everything together into a triumphant close. First comes the descent of God to earth; then a few serene bars telling of the “sweetness of union.” The music becomes increasingly impassioned (“the exulting of the soul”) until a dazzling toccata signals the Incarnation.
Program notes © 2009, Dame Gillian Weir