How breath-taking it would be to give the infant Jesus a kiss! He who came to save us would doubtless have been a captivating little creature, as all little ones are. No doubt his parents could bestow many kisses upon him and the infant would have appreciated them too: the family’s affection must have been quite intense.
To portray this in a form of music requires, at the very least, a fine art. Our composer today had all the elements to ensure that the recreation of such an intimate act could reach a safe harbour.
If we draw up a list of the most influential composers of the past twentieth century, Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), the French composer and organist who was born in Avignon and died in Clichy, should figure among them. We should also add to a list of this great man’s hobbies that of ornithologist. His passion for birds and their song was not only a hobby but something he had to embody in his music, as the song of these celestial creatures is present in all of his works, which feature some of the most faithful transcriptions not only of birdsong in France but from all over the world.
We can actually describe his life and work in terms of three elements: synaesthesia, Catholicism and ornithology. Let’s consider them one by one.
He began to play the piano at seven years of age and at eleven he graduated from the conservatory in Paris, somewhat exceptionally. He gradually went on to win all the first-place prizes, distinguishing himself particularly in the classes of composition (with Paul Dukas) and organ (Marcel Dupré). From a young age he was also drawn to Greek verse and its metrics as well as ancient modes, especially Hindu ones. The organ offered him almost everything he wanted to achieve and was a perfect fit for him as a practising Catholic. No sooner did he complete his studies at the conservatory, in 1931 he was appointed organist of the Trinity church in Paris, a position he filled for over sixty years and by means of which he wrote the most grandiose works for organ.
A crucial (if, clearly, sorrowful) event in his life was that in 1940 he became a prisoner and was sent to the concentration camp Stalag III A in Görlitz. There, a year later, surrounded by a chillingly silent audience and using defective instruments, he premiered his most iconic piece and one of the most important works of the twentieth century: the Quartet for the End of Time, with those birds and faith in Jesus which bring us the joy, hope and immortality that course through the work from beginning to end.
Like other composers (such as Scriabin or Rimsky-Korsakov for instance), Messiaen was synaesthete. In his words: “I see colours when I listen to sounds but I do not see colours with my eyes so much as intellectually, in my head.” These pieces appear to be a difficult puzzle to complete, but Messiaen, being an extraordinary composer, was able to perform the magic of completing the puzzle in the form of a perfect circle. He composed, for example, a monumental piece entitled Des Canyons aux étoiles… In this he uses birds, landscape and colours from the State of Utah in the United States, and compares its peaks to the Celestial City. To thank him, the government of the State renamed a mountain range with the name of Mount Messiaen.
In 1944 he composed another major work for piano entitled Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus. This consists of twenty meditations (contemplations) on different aspects of Christ’s childhood. It was composed by his second wife, Yvonne Loriod, a consummate pianist who premiered a great many of his compositions (which she played from memory). In this magnum opus, full of his deepest faith, we encounter the whole essence of the Frenchman’s spirituality.
An essential element of the composition is silence, which “sounds” from the piano’s powerful sonority, at times with special resonances. These silences allow breathing space and deliberate contemplation. Birdsong also courses through the whole work. Messiaen even uses block chords by way of flashes, like remnants of God’s totality, only comprehensible to us by means of these fragments.
The fifteenth piece is called Le baiser de l’Enfant-Jésus, that is, “The Infant Jesus’s Kiss.” For many this is one of the most exquisite slow movements that Messiaen has ever composed. He owned a painting in which the Infant Jesus appeared, abandoning Mary’s arms to give a Kiss to (the Norman Carmelite) Sister Thérèse. For the composer this is a whole symbol of Communion, of the divine love which is offered us. We can thereby deduce that the music that describes the scene has to be as gentle as the heart of the sky.
Technically he uses the so-called limited transposition mode 2. With all its theoretical and theological weight, the piece opens with an incredible lullaby in which Messiaen relates different themes that appeared in former parts of the whole composition. Little by little, the lullaby rhythm goes on unfolding and winding around various tonal axes.
The composer, who composed with colours in his mind, was always drawn to stained-glass and thus develops his own, with intense colours that describe the Eucharist, the Kiss of the infant Jesus as a baby and the true Love of God. He was firmly convinced that when the colours and sounds merge in an appropriate way, everything shines just like the stained-glass in the Sainte Chapelle in Paris. This way the sounds create a brilliance that is a reflection of eternity and which anticipates the sky’s perpetual radiance, which he saw as “an eternal music of colours, an eternal colour of music.”
[Image: The Virgin and Child, Saint Teresa of Jesus and other Saints, by Francisco Camilo. Source: Museo del Prado]