The final organ work composed by Olivier Messiaen is a collection of 18 pieces titled Le Livre du Saint-Sacrement (The Book of the Holy Sacrament; 1984). Lasting from two to 15 minutes each, the pieces depict various stages during the ritual of communion, and as a whole also sum up various musical techniques that were associated with Messiaen throughout his career: his modes of limited transposition; transcribing bird songs; and what is now called “communicable language” (or using specific motives to symbolize various parts of language or letters of the alphabet and constructing sentences and words with them).
Messiaen also suffered from a medically verified condition of synesthesia, which in his case involved seeing colors when he heard musical tones and vice versa. Utilizing this as a compositional technique created often very dense harmonies attached to anomalous rhythms, such as experienced in the 15th of these pieces, “La joie de la grâce” (The Joy of Grace). This almost whimsical array of broken chords produces some rhythmic activity, but mostly remains consistently dissonant and without metric stability.
“Prière après la communion” (Prayer after Communion) is the 16th piece. Its extremely soft prayer is formed with a declamatory melody played over a drone and ending with an extended cadence formed by tone clusters.
Gregg Wager is a composer and critic. He is author of Symbolism as a Compositional Method in the Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen. He has a PhD in musicology from the Free University Berlin and a JD from McGeorge School of Law.