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When we think of Messiaen and the keyboard, it is the organ with which he is most closely identified. He was organist at La Trinité in Paris for over 60 years, after all, and most of the major works on which his early fame was built are for the organ.

Messiaen was a multifaceted prodigy, however, as his five first prizes at the Paris Conservatoire (which he entered at the age of 15) attest. His first published piece, La banquet céleste, was for the organ (1928), but his second – 1929, the year he won the first prize for composition at the Conservatoire – was a set of eight Préludes for the piano. These were very much inspired and influenced by Debussy, whose own preludes were less than ten years old at the time.

But Messiaen was already well launched on his own path, basing this music on what he called “modes of limited transposition,” artificial scales that began with Debussy’s beloved whole-tone scale and evolved into six other symmetrical divisions of the octave. These provide not just melodic direction, but the harmonic color – together with Messiaen’s “added resonance” techniques – that made Messiaen’s music unique even while he was still a student. As Pierre-Laurent Aimard wrote about the Préludes in the notes for his recording of them, “what is most impressive about them is the world of color they inhabit, a world both highly personal and already strongly defined. Each piece involves detailed associations between sound and color. According to the composer, the fifth Prelude (“Les sons impalpables de rêve…,” The Intangible Sounds of the Dream) is ‘polymodal, superimposing an orange-blue ostinato on chordal cascades in a violet-purple mode that is invested with the timbre of a brass instrument’.”

Love and loss generated the emotional range of this clearly structured music, which was composed after the early death of Messiaen’s mother (in 1927) and was dedicated to the young pianist Henriette Roget, whom Messiaen was in love with at the time. The solemnly fluttering “La colombe” (The Dove) was Messiaen’s mother, the poet Cécile Sauvage. “Cloches d’angoisse et larmes d’adieu” (Bells of Anguish and Tears of Farewell), much the longest of the Preludes, is a stunning evocation of emotional as well as musical resonance, a tolling elegy heartfelt and sophisticated.

Sorrow, loss, and mortality are found in many of the Preludes, but there is light as well, as there almost always was for Messiaen. “Chant d’extase dans un paysage triste” (Song of Ecstasy in a Sad Landscape) encapsulates this, like bright and vivacious dancing on a grey stage. “Le nombre léger” (The Light Number) is a brief athletic moto perpetuo, and there is joy as well as anger in the stormy and enlivening “Un reflet dans le vent…” (A Reflection in the Wind…).

— John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.