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Category: Olivier Messiaen

on numbers

Rogier van der Weyden - "Polyptych with the Nativity"

Polyptych with the Nativity

Rogier van der Weyden


one is a lonely number

but let there be four – 11:11 – and the
angels are passing, a.m. or p.m.

two is the natural minimum from which
grows three, a pyramid, also a trinity,
or even a Trinity

then four, which is solid, foursquare,
even cubic, therefore a house

five, a pentagon, authority

many is a polyptych, representing a
multiplicity, metaphysically a polis, a
community, from the Greek for “many
folds”, or, extrapolating, manifold

twelve, a dozen, and so forth

numbers, in other words, talk, signify
within a context something specific to
that context that is not stated but
instinctively ever understood, animals
flee when confronted with uncomfortable

but countless they also shimmer, like
stars, a panoply, a myriad

also like works of art

therefore the polyptych above, do click,
for a magnificent reproduction, see it
bring together parts of a whole, in one
place, at one time, and transcending
imaginatively even earthly dimensions,
for our contemplation

therefore also Vingt regards sur l’Enfant
which I spoke of in my last posting,
my first to this, my second day of C…mas

you get art and music through the senses,
instinctively, unlike the murkier medium
of words, which can be cryptic

numbers speak louder, which is to say,
than ever words

read my lips


“Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus” – Olivier Messiaen‏

Giotto - "Nativity" (1311-1320)

Nativity (c. 1311)



just in time for C***mas, a sublime
piece on the Nativity of Christ as
profound, dare I say, as any High,
or even Midnight, Mass

Olivier Messiaen, one of, to my mind,
the greatest composers of the XXth
Century, was also a devout Catholic,
the organist at the Église de la Sainte
in Paris, his music is imbued
with Catholic sentiment, the idea of

he seems to me a reincarnation, nearly,
of the great organist at the Augustinian
monastery of Sankt Florian
in Upper
Austria, Anton Bruckner, no other
composers, after Bach, have been so
inspired specifically by their religious

Bruckner builds cathedrals with his
music, notably out of his eleven

Messiaen, a century later, performs,
instead, sacraments, attends to the
intricacies of their consecrations

Vingt regards sur l’Enfant Jésus is
a succession of twenty perspectives
upon the child Jesus, linked by their
intention rather than by a common
musical theme, as would be the case
in a set of variations, the only other
form that would contain so many

it is atonal, arhythmic, and does not
present the evident repetitions that
Classically would have given the
music a sense of structure, it seems
to me to be trying rather to describe
the iridescence of starlight, the
majesty of the enveloping night,
the gathering, and worshipful
confederation, of the host angels



the 20 movements –

1. Regard du Père (“Contemplation of the Father”)
2. Regard de l’étoile (“Contemplation of the star”)
3. L’échange (“The exchange”)
4. Regard de la Vierge (“Contemplation of the Virgin”)
5. Regard du Fils sur le Fils (“Contemplation of the Son upon the Son”)
6. Par Lui tout a été fait (“Through Him everything was made”)
7. Regard de la Croix (“Contemplation of the Cross”)
8. Regard des hauteurs (“Contemplation of the heights”)
9. Regard du temps (“Contemplation of time”)
10. Regard de l’Esprit de joie (“Contemplation of the joyful Spirit”)
11. Première communion de la Vierge (“The Virgin’s first communion”)
12. La parole toute-puissante (“The all-powerful word”)
13. Noël (“Christmas”)
14. Regard des Anges (“Contemplation of the Angels”)
15. Le baiser de l’Enfant-Jésus (“The kiss of the Infant Jesus”)
16. Regard des prophètes, des bergers et des Mages (“Contemplation of the prophets, the shepherds and the Magi”)
17. Regard du silence (“Contemplation of silence”)
18. Regard de l’Onction terrible (“Contemplation of the awesome Anointing”)
19. Je dors, mais mon cœur veille (“I sleep, but my heart keeps watch”)
20. Regard de l’Église d’amour (“Contemplation of the Church of love”)

“Le merle noir” – Olivier Messiaen‏

common blackbird (turdus merula)

common blackbird (turdus merula)


while we’re on the subject of birdsong,
it would be incorrect not to mention
Olivier Messiaen, the composer I think
to be the most representative of the
late XXth-Century, with the addition,
however, of George Crumb only lately,
whom I blush to say I’d never heard
of till then, a lacuna culturala, as
we say in Italian, of the very
greatest proportions

Le merle noir is Messiaen‘s earliest
work specifically devoted to birds,
his later Catalogue d’oiseaux lists
thirteen birds, and lasts nearly
three hours

listen to Le merle noir first, you’ll
even want to watch it for taking place
in the Église du Bon Secours in Paris,
June 7, 2012, flanked by dour,
though highly decorative, clergy

Yvonne Loriod, Messiaen’s wife, plays
the entire Catalogue…“, but behind a
detail from Bosch’s Garden of Earthly
which remains throughout
glumly static

if we think of this as music, which
indeed I do do, where are tempi,
where are tonalities, where even are
identifiable repetitions, how do we
define, then, music

this is not an easy proposition

think about it

good luck