Reaching for Messiaen’s Dream: Et Exspecto on La Meije – Nigel Simeone

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Nigel Simeone is an independent writer and musicologist, a regular broadcaster guest lecturer, and teacher. He is co-editor of Messiaen: Music, Art and Literature and co-author of Olivier Messiaen: Oiseaux exotiques (both published by Ashgate). Nigel is also the co-author (with Peter Hill) of an acclaimed biography of Messiaen, the French edition of which was awarded the Prix René Dumesnil by the Académie française in 2008. Since 2005, Nigel has been invited annually to lecture (in French) at the Festival Messiaen au Pays de la Meije, held in the village of La Grave (Hautes-Alpes). This post is an account of his most recent visit.

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In 1963, André Malraux gave Messiaen a commission from the French government for a work to commemorate the dead of the two World Wars. According to a note the composer made after their meeting, Malraux asked for ‘a work that was simple and solemn’ (‘une œuvre simple, solenelle’), with powerful sonorities. After initially contemplating a piece with large chorus, Messiaen finally settled on an unusual formation of woodwind, brass and metallic percussion. The result was Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (‘And I await the resurrection of the dead’), first performed for an invited audience at the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris on 7 May 1965, and given on 20 June 1965 in Chartres Cathedral with General de Gaulle in attendance.

In the preface to the published score (Leduc, 1967), Messiaen wrote that he conceived the work for performance ‘in vast spaces: churches, cathedrals and even in the open air and on mountain tops’, adding that he had composed Et exspecto ‘in the Hautes-Alpes, in front of the solemn and powerful landscapes which are my true home.’ When Jacques Longchampt reviewed the Chartres performance of Et exspecto for Le Monde (24 June 1965), he was more specific, revealing that ‘Messiaen hoped that it could be heard in front of the mountain of La Meije, in the Alps’; the composer repeated the same wish in conversation with Claude Samuel, declaring that his wanted to hear it ‘at La Grave, facing the glacier of La Meije’.

La Meije, overlooking the village of La Grave in the Hautes-Alpes, stands at 3,983 metres (over 13,000 feet), and its most prominent feature is the magnificent glacier mentioned by Messiaen. He visited La Grave on many occasions, including a trip on 2 August 1964, while he was hard at work on Et exspecto. Since 1998, this village has been home to the annual Festival Messiaen au Pays de la Meije, the brainchild of Gaëtan Puaud, planned by him each year with vision and daring to focus on different facets of Messiaen’s music. I’m very fortunate to have been back every year since 2005, invited by Gaëtan to talk about an aspect of Messiaen’s life and work that reflected the festival programme.

01 Arrival at glacier2015 is the 50th anniversary of Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum; in January, Gaëtan Puaud asked if I’d be willing to give a talk on its genesis and early performance history. I was delighted to accept, particularly as he told me that he planned an open-air performance of Et exspecto on the large plateau at the téléphérique station situated at 2,400 metres, with the glacier as a stupendous backdrop: a vast and savage space. It was a bold and grandiose celebration of the half-century of Et exspecto. The performers were the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg, Les Percussions de Strasbourg (whose original members had played in the 1965 première), and the Slovenian conductor Marko Letonja, the orchestra’s Music Director since 2012.

The morning of 18 July 2015 was overcast but pleasant in La Grave, and by the time I started my pre-concert talk on Et exspecto at 11 a.m. in the village’s Salle des fêtes, the sun was starting to break through. Afterwards, I sat outside the Hotel Castillan (which faces the glacier), talking to French and Belgian friends, and the mood was one of the keenest anticipation for what was to come later in the day: even the most jaded concert-goer could hardly fail to be excited by the prospect of hearing one of Messiaen’s greatest works performed in such a fabulous setting. Our lunch was also enlivened by the unusual spectacle of very large instrument flight cases being airlifted up to the venue by helicopter. Except for experienced mountain walkers, the only realistic way to the glacier is by téléphérique, and the small cabins of the cable cars are not up to moving the vast array of percussion – including three very large tam-tams, a whole family of gongs and three large sets of cencerros (cowbells), all of which play an essential part in Et exspecto. The orchestral players made their way up the mountain soon afterwards to rehearse, and to film a complete cover performance of Et exspecto for Arte TV, which was there to record the concert for later broadcast.

Rehearsal on glacier

Rehearsal on glacier

The concert was due to start at 5:00 p.m., and at 3:45, I set off in one of the cable cars with my wife Jasmine, and three friends who were also in La Grave for the performance: Tom Owen and Jess Jevon from England, and Lucie Kayas from the Paris Conservatoire – the leading authority on the music of Jolivet and a treasured friend who made the French translation of the Messiaen biography I co-authored. By the time we reached the station at 2,400 metres, the sky was slate-grey, and the clouds were looking ominous. But what we saw and heard – with the audience finding places to sit on the grass, and the glacier as a breathtaking natural stage-set behind the orchestra – was both elemental and extremely moving. The orchestra was rehearsing the third movement, and it was a wonderful experience to hear Messiaen’s sets of giant cowbells played on a mountain in the Alps – an artistic, gamelan-inspired reimagining of something that has always been such an essential part of the Alpine soundscape. After the third movement, we heard a complete run-through of the fifth and final movement, inspired by a verse from the Apocalypse: ‘Et j’entendis la voix d’une foule immense…’ (‘And I heard the voice of a great multitude’). Messiaen’s scoring here is brilliantly effective for the outdoors: the incessant beats of the tuned gongs, punctuated by tubular bells and tam-tams, combined with the splendid austerity of the broad theme announced by bass saxhorn, tuba, trombones and horns. It was a mighty and imposing sound that became still more electrifying when the woodwind and trilling cencerros added their jubilant descants. The final, heaven-storming resolution seemed to mirror the sublime grandeur of the landscape itself.

Rained off

Rained off

All this was an enticing avant-goût of what should have followed. With about 15 minutes to go, the orchestra cleared the stage and all seemed set for a memorable occasion. But five minutes later a light drizzle began to fall; as a precaution, the librarian collected the orchestral parts off the stands, and the instruments still on the stage were covered. Before long, the drizzle turned into a sustained downpour, and by the scheduled start time of 5:00 p.m., thunder could be heard rumbling in the mountains, quickly followed by flashes of lightning. There was some uncertainty about what was going to happen, but by about 5:15 it was clear that the concert couldn’t take place (not least because there was no covering for the orchestra), so the players packed up their instruments, and the large audience (my ticket was No. 564) either headed straight for the téléphérique, or took refuge in a mountain barn. With heavy hearts, we finally joined the long queue to go back down the mountain once the concert had been definitively abandoned. 04 Helicopter transportWe reached the foot of the mountain at about 7:00 p.m., by which time the helicopter had already airlifted most the large instruments back down, their flight cases swaying at the end of a long cable. The weather is notoriously capricious in the Alps, with sudden and completely unpredictable changes, and nobody would have foreseen what happened next: within half and hour the sun was shining in La Grave and on the glacier, and it continued to do so for the rest of the evening. By then, players and audience could only watch the virtually cloudless sky with poignant regret for what might have been. But it was too late: the treacherous Alpine weather had won, and Messiaen’s dream remained unrealized, at least for the time being.

La Grave, 7.30pm

La Grave, 7.30pm

There had always been an alternative plan: to give the work indoors at the splendid Collégiale Notre-Dame-et-Saint-Nicolas in Briançon.

Ticket for the concert and téléphérique

Ticket for the concert and téléphérique

Had the weather been bad the day before (in fact it was perfect), or had there been a seriously threatening forecast, no doubt it would have been relocated there. But the concert could not be moved anywhere once the orchestra was already installed on the mountain. While that turned out to be a risky decision, nobody I spoke to at lunchtime thought there was a serious threat of rain: on the contrary, the consensus among experienced alpinistes was that the omens were good. The timing could not have been more unlucky: had the concert been scheduled for an hour earlier – or two hours later – it would have taken place. My fervent hope is that Arte’s film is sufficiently complete for them to be able to broadcast the performance recorded at the rehearsal earlier in the afternoon: it should be an unforgettable communion of Messiaen’s music with nature at its most majestic.

Nigel Simeone, 20 July 2015

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