"Combat de la Mort et de la Vie," from Les Corps Glorieux
Les Corps Glorieux, “seven short visions of the life of the resurrected ones,” was composed in 1939. “The life of the resurrected ones is free, luminously colored. The timbres of the organ reflect these characteristics.” In “Joie et clarté,” the sixth vision, Messiaen quotes, “Then shall the righteous shine as the sun in their Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 13:43). This is in a simple rondo shape, the ecstatic joy of the righteous being found in a jazzy trumpet solo, with prominent “blues” notes.
“Combat de la Mort et de la Vie”: “Death and Life have engaged in a stupendous battle; the Author of Life, having died, lives and reigns, and He says, My father, I am risen, I am again with Thee” (the Sequence and Introit for Easter Day). During the early years of his career, Messiaen was often bitterly criticized for the apparently profane nature of his music. It was felt to be overly dramatic, too sensuous, impure. In a conversation with Antoine Goléa the composer defended himself vehemently, passing as he said “to the attack”: “Those people who reproach me do not know the dogma and know even less about the sacred books.... They expect from me a charming, sweet music, vaguely mystical and above all soporific. As an organist I have been able to note the set texts for the office... Do you think that psalms, for example, speak of sweet and sugary things? A psalm groans, howls, bellows, beseeches, exults, and rejoices in turn.”
“The Battle between Life and Death” thunders and throbs with an apocalyptic energy. Death enters, snarling as he pursues his prey. Battle is at once joined. The death theme rises as Death forces Life back, who again fights desperately. Death grows ever more confident and the combat becomes frenetic. Life’s vital force is ebbing but he gathers himself together for one last, heroic sword-thrust. Silence follows: Death, it seems, has won – but then comes revelation. In a sublime meditation “in the sun-drenched peace of Divine Love” the death theme is seen to have been transformed into a major key and into a message for our understanding: Death is metamorphosed into Life.
Let John Donne have the last word: “Death be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadfull... One short sleepe past, we wake eternally, and death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die!”
Program notes © 2009, Dame Gillian Weir