Today is the 100th anniversary of  the birth of Olivier Messiaen. Three days ago at Saint James Cathedral in Seattle WA I witnessed a performance  of his La Nativité du Seigneur .  Saint James Cathedral, n conjunction with Saint Marks Cathedral, staged a complete cycle of Messianen’s Organ work and last night, mere days before the composers birthday, was the final night. La Nativité du Seigneur was not Messiaen’s final composition for organ, but considering the subject matter and the time of year, perhaps appropriate to place it this time of year.  

Organ at St. James
The Rosales Organ at Saint James        

Saint James has two main organs(1) one at each end of the primary hall, each beautifully set into the space provided at each end of the cathedral. Tonight’s concert took place upon the Rosales Organ whose 48 pipes are set between magnificent stained glass in the east apse. Though it incorporates the pipes of the original 1926 organ this is a modern instrument with a console that can store stops electronically and change them a the touch of a button. It also allows control of the 1906 Hutchings-Votey organ in the west gallery, which was certainly used in this performance. The sound in the cathedral was very good; excellent depth and reverberation but not as echoy or as sharp as smaller halls can be, nor dry and clean as a too large a space. In essence you can tell the the cathedral was designed with an organ in mind and it as a sounding chamber for the organ it is quite successful.     


Messiaen was a church organist himself and the organ that he performed on throughout his life was constructed in 1869 but extensively remodeled, adding additional stops and new technology multiple times.  By the end of his career the organ was not too far from what this organ was – it had pneumatic bellows, modern windchests and electronic keys and stop action. Like this organ Messiaen had insisted that the key facets of the original organ remain thus giving it the sound of the original yet the benefit of current technology for the performer(2).

The consoleThe Cathedral Organst at St. James, Joseph Adam(3) was the organist for tonight’s recital and I have to say he played the piece impeccably. He certainly is an accomplished organist having received numerous prizes and accolades from the organ establishment and having been the Cathedral organist for 15 years. He often performs abroad and locally and apparently regularly on the Watjen Concert Organ Seattle Symphony’s Benaroya Hall. Having failed to experience the Watjen so far I’m going to keep my eyes open for his next appearance there. I only have one recording of this piece, but it is by Messiaen himself and hence is in my mind definitive. Adam’s reading was a little slower I think, but perhaps it was simply the pauses he added in between the nine movements, which I’m sure Messiaen would also incorporate in performance, but could be edited out of a recording.  Also with the limitations of recording in 1956 he may have altered aspects of the piece to fit, but there is no mention of this in the liner notes so, just speculation. But this is my benchmark and how I judged this performance.

La Nativité du Seigneur apparently is the most frequently performed of Messiaen’s organ works which is interesting in that it is both highly modern (for 1935 when it was composed) utilizing numerous techniques of 20th Century composition, but also following in the romantic tradition of trying to paint pictures with music, to directly illustrate the story of the birth of christ.  It is explained in the program thus:

La Nativité du Seigneur was the first of Messiaen’s great organ cycles to combine the various compositional techniques the composer had been developing — almost all are present, including the use of modes of limited transposition, Hindu rhythms, the inspiration of plain-chant and birdsong, added rhythmic values, and the representation of the suspension of time; the only principal means of expression missing are monody and serial techniques. In addition, the cycle is Messiaen at his most picturesque, utilizing musical means to illustrate not only theology, but the momentous events and scenes of the birth of Christ” – Joesph Adams (3)

The piece is in nine parts and there is quite a bit of difference between the parts. At times I felt I could map some of the sections to the traditional story of the nativity but other parts seemed highly abstract with traces of dissonance and parts that seemed darker then you’d expect (not that there aren’t dark parts surrounding the birth christ mythos). Once one considers that for some of the nine meditations he is illustrating theological ideas musically this is a lot more clear. The excellent program notes go through each of these and explain what Messiaens goal in each was.  I hadn’t read this pior to the concert but they have certainly helped with my later understanding. This piece would have these odd little melodies which would be repeated and subtly undercut but pedal work or contrasted against on a different manual. There were  movements with closely arrayed tones that’d clash and beat against each other in a way that would make your inner ear vibrate.  Certain parts were very pastoral, trying to paint the traditional imagery of the nativity in your mind, others were huge cataclysmic wrath of God level, dark brooding abstractions.  One great section used high and mid-range pipes from the other organ in the far end of the cathedral in the most amazing “surround sound” experience.  The nine movements kept it interesting, always shifting and constantly changing. Over the course of a bit more then an hour each meditation is able to develop and explore its idea but never becomes stale or overwrought.

A closer view of some of the pipes 

I try to catch a couple of organ concerts every year, (always the annual All-Bach at Saint Marks) and this would be the first concert of 20th Century music I’ve heard. The church organ hasn’t really been of much interest to modern composers, many of whom have little interest in the church. A life long catholic and church organist himself Messiaen was an exception to this but he also was exceptional in that he avoided the dogmatism of many modern composers.  He constantly utilized and invented new techniques but always integrating them into his style. He never gave himself over entirely to a single system ala the serialists, but would mix serialism in with the transposition of modes, or transcribed birdsong or what have you.  This gives his music quite a different flavor and while I don’t like all of his compositions there is plenty in his ouevre of interest. So while his music doesn’t have the exploratory or experimental nature of my favorite 20th Century works, Messiaen is a unique figure and one whose music I find well worth exploring. The organ works, even with the heavy religious components, are probably my favorite of his and I was impressed to see the two churches putting on this complete transversal of these pieces.  Alas this was the only one that I was able to attend, but I hope that the series was popular (this one sure was) enough for the church to play his compositions more regularly.

1) Saint James Cathedral Organ webpages (St. James Cathedral, 2008)
2) Messian Å’uvres pour Orgue liner notes (EMI, 1957/1992)
3) La Nativité du Seigneur concert program (St. James Cathedral, 2008)