Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)
Offrandes Oubliées (1930)
When asserting that Messiaen was one of the most influential composer of the 20th century, there is very little danger of overstating the matter. There is simply no other composer that had such a profound influence over such a broad spectrum of artists. Stockhausen, Boulez, PÃ¤rt, Grisey, Takemitsu and others have all had their work enhanced by Messiaen’s ideas of synthesis and mysticism.
It impossible to get very far in a discussion of Messiaen without talking about his deeply held religious convictions. Messiaen’s brand of Catholicism was highly mystical, which resulted in works that are intensely spiritual even if they are not based on overtly religious themes. He was greatly influenced by the panentheistic view that God is in all things and as such valued birdsong and nature as highly as he did the Eucharist and other sacraments.
The rhythmic patterns of Greek verse, Hindu music and Western composers including Claude Le Jeune, Stravinsky and Debussy were enormous influences on Messiaen. Although not an enfant terrible in the style of Stockhausen or Boulez, Messiaen’s singular approach to subdivision and time signatures caused shock and alarm in the early days of his career. This was not his intent. He viewed his compositions as “shedding light on the theological truths of the Catholic faith.” It didn’t take long for his contemporaries and the public to recognize his brilliance and Messiaen quickly became a composer esteemed in France and abroad for his extraordinary vision.
Les Offrandes Oubliées (The Forgotten Offerings) was completed in 1930 in a version for two pianos and was first performed in its orchestral incarnation the following year. The piece is a single movement triptych with unevenly divided sections representing the Cross, the descent of Man into Sin and the Salvation offered through Eucharist.
A passage marked Presque lent, douloureux, profondément triste (Close to slow, sorrowful, profoundly sad) opens the piece and features a unison string melody over a pedal points in the brass. The melody is wandering and contemplative, tragically angular but also peacefully resigned to the necessity of Christ’s suffering.
The ferocious burst of sound that begins the section marked Vif, féroce, désespéré, haletant (Lively, fierce, desperate, gasping for breath) is a clear indication that Messiaen didn’t regard Man’s fall with the same sense of compassion. The short units of rhythm contrast dramatically with the elongated units of the first section and the scoring brings to mind the out-of-control violence of the Dance of the Witch’s Sabbath from Hector Berlioz’Symphonie Fantastique.
Bacchanalian excess is replaced with ethereal calm in the last section, marked Lent, avec une grande pitié et un grand amour (Slow, with great pity and great love). The melodic motif from the first section is heard again perhaps to emphasize the role of Christ’s suffering in Eucharistic redemption. One of Messiaen’s tricks with rhythm was to elongate it so much that it was impossible to keep track of the pulse, a technique he uses in this movement to great effect. When, after six minutes, this section finally floats away into the air, it seems impossible to remember if it had been going for three minutes or thirty.