A shining white alliance between old and new

The Saviour. © Charles Thibo

200 performers. No less. A mixed choir, seven instrumental soloists and a large orchestra. Was it the magnitude of the biblical event that inspired Olivier Messiaen to this extraordinary large-scale work? The Transfiguration of Christ is narrated by Luke: Jesus took his followers Peter, John and Jacob to the top of a mountain to pray. During their common prayer, Jesus garments turned into a shining white – he is being transfigured by a celestial light. Moses and Elijah appear and talk to Jesus while Jacob, John and Peter fall to the ground, terrified by this supernatural event.

Messiaen wrote this piece between 1965 and 1969, and I do not hesitate to call it a modern-day oratorio. It is divided in two sets of seven movements. In the 1940s, still under the impression of World War II and his captivity in a German POW camp, he started to think about Christ’s transfiguration as a subject and the creative process came to its conclusion at the premiere on June 7, 1969, in Lisbon.

Sound clusters and Latin chants

What I admire most is how Messiaen combined music clusters and loops, often performed by the percussions, with choral elements. Traditional singing in Latin with modern sound structures. Filigree, melodious, a very respectful approach to a religious subject. Very different of any sacred music I know. Unique… and yet somehow familiar. You will find many of the dramatic elements of an opera: tenderness, passion, tension, fear, surprise.

The work had been commissioned in 1965 by Maria Madalena de Azeredo Perdigao, Director of the Music Department of the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon. It was supposed to be performed in May or June 1966. Messiaen never met that deadline. On July 8, 1965 he wrote to Mrs. Perdigao: “I am away in the mountains for three months so that I can do my work for you in peace and quiet. The research for musical material will take me until 15 August, the date when I will start the music proper. I will therefore not be able to start the orchestration until 1 November. […] The best thing is that we have mutual confidence in each other…”

Missed dead-lines

Messiaen was encountering problems in completing the work within the agreed dead-line. He had identified several weaknesses in the structure.  At first he did not tell Mrs. Perdigao, instead, he wrote in March 1966: “Don’t worry any more. Everything will now go smoothly.” That was a lie. By March he had to admit he would not finish in time. He spoke of a deteriorating health… and continued to work hard. By December 1966, the work had grown to its final number of fourteen movements. Optimistically he wrote to Mrs. Perdigao, he would complete the orchestration by January 1968. He missed this last dead-line only by a few month. On 23 February 1969 he wrote “My work is completely finished.”

I am glad Messiaen took his time though I pity poor Mrs. Pedrigao who wrote more than one exasperated letter to the composer. This is a truly great work. And a truly great recording has been produced by Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under Myung Whun-Chung and the Choir of Radio France.

© Charles Thibo

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