My Favorite Easter Organ Work

April 10, 2012

Luca Signorelli, RESURRECTION OF THE BODY, Chapel of San Brizio, Duomo, Orvieto, 1499-1502

Oliver Messiaen’s “Joie et clarté des corps glorieux” (Joy and Light of the Glorious Bodies) is from his Les Corps glorieux: Sept Visions brèves de la vie des ressuscités (The Glorious Bodies: Seven Brief Visions of the Life of the Resurrected). He explained what the music portrays with a verse of scripture: “Then shall the righteous shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”

The entire suite was completed in August of 1939 and was his last composition before his imprisonment by the Nazis, which suffices to explain its delayed premiere. While Messiaen always spoke of the organ at La Trinité as his “laboratoire,” he gave the first public performance of this movement in a recital at Paris’s Palais de Chaillot at the end of December 1941, and the premiere of the complete suite did not take place until November of 1943, in the same hall.

Messiaen was ready with an answer to those who often bitterly criticized him for the apparently profane nature of his music. It was felt to be over-dramatic, too sensuous, impure. In a conversation with Antoine Goléa the composer defended himself vehemently:

Those people who reproach me do not know the dogma and know even less about the sacred books… They expect from me a charming, sweet music, vaguely mystical and above all soporific. As an organist I have been able to note the set texts for the liturgy… Do you think that psalms, for example, speak of sweet and sugary things? A psalm groans, howls, bellows, beseeches, exults, and rejoices in turn.

This performance, though on an instrument that is not at all of the same character as that of Messiaen, is a successful one:

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