Tanglewood Program Notes: Messiaen, Et Exspecto Resurrectionem Mortuourum

I’m going to start posting some of the program notes I write for Tanglewood here.

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“This composition is destined for vast spaces; churches, cathedrals, and even the open air on high mountains…” Olivier Messiaen instructs in the score to Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum, which was commissioned by French Minister of Cultural Affairs André Malraux as a memorial to the French dead of the two world wars. The minister requested something “simple, solemn, and very loud,” and it’s easy to imagine how another composer would have taken that assignment and created something nationalistic and digestible. Messiaen had, in fact, spent a year in a Nazi prisoner- of- war camp after being captured while serving in the French army.  However, rather than incorporating explicit references to the horror of war or bathetic elegies for the fallen, he strived
to embrace all with this contemplation of the Nicene Creed’s promised resurrection of the dead.

The composer’s Catholic faith held deep meaning for him, and his musical perspectives on God, Christ, heaven, and angels are like nothing else in sacred music. Messiaen’s God is a wild God, present in consonance and dissonance alike, with a voice audible in the roar of waves and the song of birds. While composing this piece in the heights of the Alps, Messiaen surrounded himself with “strong and simple” images, such as Egyptian temples, Mayan pyramids, and Gothic and Romanesque cathedrals, and read St. Thomas Aquinas’ texts on the Resurrection.

The first movement’s title translates to “Out of the depths of the abyss, I cry to you, Lord: Lord, hear my voice.” The lower end of the ensemble moves in quiet, tense unison, and the shifting time signature gives the melody a chant-like spaciousness. The clouds burst with a suddenly deafening chord, with the ensemble’s most strident voices (flutes, trumpets, oboes) at full power, and gongs and tam-tams booming as if to split the earth.

While the first movement begins in the deep, the second, “Christ risen from the dead,” begins in the sky with a quick flurry of winds. That immediately turns into a passage of slow, meditative exchanges among the oboe, clarinet, English horn, and flute, underscored by soft tam-tam tones. This mood alternates with lively jubilation, propelled forward by a cowbell in the 13th century Indian rhythm “Simhavikrama,” “power of the lion.” This references both Jesus as the ‘Lion of Judah’ and the Hindu god Shiva, who represents the death of death and end of the eternal cycle of life. The third movement, the most dramatic, illustrates the moment when the dead hear the fiery, terrifying voice of God, made of the song of an Amazonian wren, echoing bells, thunderous waves of gong and tam-tam, and the horns of the apocalypse sounding from the heights and depths alike.

The fourth movement is all joy, a mélange of visions of resurrection. The bells and trumpets ring out
plainchant for the the day after Easter, interspersed with the song of the Calandra Lark in the woodwinds. The final movement, “And I heard the voice of an immense crowd,” is a massive and reverential chorale that turns like a colossal prayer wheel, with gongs beating steady time all the way to the end. “Simple, solemn, and very loud” indeed.

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