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17.7.08

Messiaen en plein air

The 11th Festival Messiaen au pays de la Meije has marked the Messiaen year in a big way. It has realized a dream expressed by the composer, to have his 1964 work Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum performed outdoors, in front of the Meije glacier. He told Claude Samuel about the idea, recorded in Permanences d'Olivier Messiaen, dialogues et commentaires (my translation): "I conceived [the piece] to be played in a church, imagining the resonance, the aura, and even the reflections of sound that can be obtained in such a place. [...] I even wanted it to be performed outdoors on the high mountains, at La Grave, facing the Meije glacier [see image at right], in those powerful and solemn landscapes that are my real fatherland." Renaud Machart was there -- on Bastille Day, actually at Villar-d'Arêne rather than La Grave -- to review the concert (Olivier Messiaen devant son glacier, July 17) for Le Monde (my translation):

Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (I await the resurrection of the dead) is about twenty minutes long, an extraordinary piece made of mineral harmonies, inspired vibrating rhythms, and as often in Messiaen's work, bird songs, the fracas of gongs and tam-tams, airy solos that echo like shepherd songs, recalling the "Scène aux champs" of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique. [...]

Messiaen, who dreamed of the "sun playing over the whiteness of the ice" when thinking about the piece, perhaps had not imagined performing the work at sunset, when the musicians (and the audience) would be frozen, even in summer. At least they avoided the worst, as happened two days earlier, at the concert of the Orchestre philharmonique de Radio France, canceled because of bad weather. Hikers and the locals hedged their bets and wore polar fleece; the musicians, in light concert dress, looked frozen in place and shivering, confirmed by the their very deficient intonation. Open air, humidity, cold (but also heat) pose major problems for instruments when a work demands real tuning finesse.
The author André Malraux commissioned Et exspecto in 1963, when he was Minister of Culture, to commemorate the veterans of World Wars I and II. General de Gaulle attended the premiere, in 1965.

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