Musical Triumph of the Nativity 

Roger Sainsbury reviews a recent concert from our Saturdays at Six series

The Saturdays at Six programme was continued on 13 December with a performance by Paul Dean, Music Director, of Olivier Messiaen’s La Nativité du Seigneur.  It was an occasion of great musical and spiritual intensity.
The Nine Meditations for Organ, as Messiaen subtitled it, were paired with nine poetic meditations written some years ago by Roland Riem, Vice Dean and Canon Chancellor of Winchester Cathedral, to accompany an artistic display in the Cathedral by his wife, artist Sophie Hacker. On this occasion the poems were printed in the programme as a subscript to the Messiaen, to enable the music to be played without a break.

The musical/poetic journey of nine stages takes us to: The Virgin and Child, The Shepherds, Eternal Purposes, The Word, The Children of God, The Angels, Jesus’s acceptance of Suffering, The Wise Men, and finally, God With Us.
As one was able to glance at the brief words of each section while listening to the music, the two merged into one experience, the music reflecting not the words but the thoughts within the words. Messiaen is a master at delivering different tonal effects from the organ, as was evident throughout this work, written when he was only 26.

The opening portrait of Virgin and Child was painted in notes of a bell-like clarity; the Shepherds are returning to their flocks, having seen the Christ Child, but seem not to be hurrying. The Eternal Purposes are portrayed in slow, calm, contemplative measure but The Word speaks out in power and might, testing some of the lowest pedal notes. Gentler are the sounds of the Children of God, who seem to be at lively play, not asleep. The Angels are a highlight of the piece, and indeed their music is both high and light – as birds fluttering through the sky. The Suffering of Christ is appropriately sombre until the final overpowering major chord.  And then we come to the Wise Men. They are not self-important, but submissive, making, calmly, a journey imposed upon them from above.

When we reach God With Us, the mood changes. Much of the earlier music has been in minor keys, coloured by dissonances characteristic of this composer. Now, in a major key, the work reaches its toccata climax in a triumphant blaze of sound. Thrilling.

Particularly impressive was the way the whole piece was held together through the numerous and complex changes of rhythm. Paul studied this work in Paris under one of Messiaen’s pupils and we were privileged to hear it played with such a depth of understanding and feeling for the underlying architecture. We are fortunate also to have an organ worthy of such music.