Footprints of Messiaen

I have always loved French music. Perhaps it traces back to the branch of my ancestry that was French. But hearing Debussy and Ravel always makes me smile. Naturally those were the first composers I heard and frankly, became obsessed with… still to this day. This past year was the first time I played an all French program: Debussy and Ravel (of course) paired with Fauré and Messiaen. I know there are lots of opinions about programming, have variety, blah, blah. And of course, I agree but this one was for me. You may be thinking: what does this have to do with the title of this essay? Well read on!

Olivier Messiaen is not generally a household name in terms of composers, even among professional musicians. My first experience with this composer came from hearing the Da Capo Chamber Players play the famous Quartet for the End of Time and I got a bird’s eye view turning pages. I was literally transfixed, in fact I probably was giving the pianist a fright by jumping up for last minute page turns! But in truth, I had not heard this type of sonority before. Now the pianist for the group was to become one of my teachers, Lisa Moore. She was a Paris student of Yvonne Loriod, Messiaen’s pianistic muse and second wife. And working with Lisa, I was exposed to a lot of the trick fingerings that Loriod had shown her and the incredible volume of finger exercises. These exercises transformed my technique, flexibility, and creativity in finding solutions. I continue to pass these on to my students and it still amazes me to see the results.

But the experience of the Quartet led me to start looking at the piano music. Of course most of what I started listening to seemed impossible like Vingt Regards. But I eventually stumbled on the Preludes and 4 Etudes. I checked them out of the library and learned a few of them. Years passed. But it was not until the first time I played the Quartet for the End of Time myself that it hit me. I had to devote some significant time to this composer. I started programming large chunks of his music on my solo programs including many of the Vingt Regards (though now less scary!) and the complete Preludes. Now after several years of co-existing with these pieces, I finally was working on my all-French program and had two Contemplations on that set list. At the same time I was awarded a large grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board to record the pieces and release a CD on Albany Records of Messiaen’s Piano music. Well you can imagine what this means to me personally.

In preparation for my recording, I had read almost everything that scholars had written about the composer. And I felt so connected to his life that I needed to go and see the city that he called home. I was able to take my first trip to Paris and fell in love with the city: the pace of life, the food, and of course, the music. My explorations took me to Sainte Trinité where he served as organist for 60+ years. During my visit, the parish office clerk uttered the words “Ah, Monsieur Messiaen” and raised both head and hands to the heavens. His impact still being felt many years after his death. My walking/bus tours took me along his daily walking paths, his street of residence and by the many venues that would premiere his early works. I could feel a connection to the composer quite viscerally as I wondered Paris. It may seem like an Artist’s cliché, I know but there it is. As I work on the finishing touches of this recording project and continue to program his music. I can feel the Meesiaen Footprint on me…both his music and his wife’s technical insights that Lisa gave me. I know, of course, that the pianists (although few) who play Messiaen’s music regularly, may not have had these same experiences and some have had more direct connections but each artist must find whatever path will lead them to the most authentic performance possible. I think I found mine.

***UPDATE Albany Records releases “Contemplations: Music of Olivier Messiaen on January 1, 2015.  Order here ***

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