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Musical *technique and symbolism in "Noel" from Olivier Messiaen's "Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jesus": A defense of Messiaen's words and music

Jennifer Donelson, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Between April 1945 and September 1946, Olivier Messiaen was at the center of a controversy among music critics in Parisian journals and newspapers, an affair which came to be known as "Le 'Cas' Messiaen." At stake were a number of issues about Messiaen's work in general, one of which was his insistence on reading commentary before performances which explained both the musical and extra-musical content of his compositions. Messiaen's persistent desire, even in the face of caustic criticism, to explain both the theological and musical content in the Vingt Regards is evidence that his writings are important in understanding the cycle. ^ This document examines a piece in the cycle that has received little or no attention, the thirteenth < Regard of the cycle entitled Noël. Noël stands at an important structural apex in the entire cycle and it was specifically singled out for praise because of its moving content by Marc Pincherle who reviewed the premiere of the cycle, thus providing a direct link between this particular piece and the commentary that Messiaen provided for the piece at its premiere. ^ The comprehensive analysis of this single piece is based on Messiaen's preface to the Durand edition of the Vingt Regards ("Note de l'Auteur"), a 1954 analysis of the piece included in the second volume of the Traité de rythme, and Messiaen's own program notes for the 1970 Michel Béroff recording of the cycle. Taking Messiaen's own words about his music as the starting point, the analysis shows how Messiaen's commentary in all three sources can profoundly contribute to our understanding of his compositional style and the symbolism of the work. Exhaustive analysis also grants the opportunity to discover the enormous amount of depth and symbolic potential in every compositional element in Messiaen's work, a depth which is left unexplored in more comprehensive analyses of the cycle as a whole. A case is made that Messiaen persevered with his commentary because it is so crucial in understanding his work. ^

Subject Area

Religion, General|Music|Theology

Recommended Citation

Donelson, Jennifer, "Musical *technique and symbolism in "Noel" from Olivier Messiaen's "Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jesus": A defense of Messiaen's words and music" (2008). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3297755.