A concert record: 9 hours of uninterrupted Messiaen

A concert record: 9 hours of uninterrupted Messiaen


norman lebrecht

September 03, 2018

The town of Stavanger in Norway is putting on the complete organ works of Olivier Messiaen in a single day.

Nine organists will play in relay.

For those of limited patience, there will be a second space where they can hear the music while walking around. The concert takes place in two rooms simultaneously. The music is played live on the organ in Fartein Valen (orchestra hall), where the audience will sit down as in a normal concert. The sound will be transferred to Zetlitz (black box hall) with different lounge areas, where you can move around, sit or lay down. This way you can customize your own experience of the music. Video projection and light design will colour the event in both venues, inspired by Messiaen’s strong relationship to visual impulses.

The organists are Jennifer Bate (UK), Thomas Ospital (Fr), Lidia Książkiewicz (Pl/Fr), Kåre Nordstoga (No), Thomas Lacôte (Fr) Nils Henrik Asheim (No), James McVinnie (UK), Colin Mark Andrews (UK/USA).

We thought some of you might like to go.



  • Mike Schachter says:

    Is this meant to be a punishment?

  • Steve says:

    Nice sense of humour Norman to start the week…

  • Dr Presume says:

    Hasn’t Kevin Bowyer done this on his own in a single day before now?

    • Alistair Hinton says:

      He has indeed; years ago. He also gave marathons of the complete organ symphonies of Widor and also of Vierne. But then he’s no stranger to such things, having recorded the complete organ works of Bach and performed Sorabji’s first two organ symphonies, of which the latter plays for little short of nine hours (and Messiaen’s complete organ music doesn’t take that long to perform).

      • MWnyc says:

        Paul Jacobs has done it as well.

        • Zachariah Jones says:

          Not only did Paul Jacobs do it but he did it all from memory in one sitting the year after having played the complete works of J.S. Bach from memory in one sitting. I believe he was still a student at Curtis at the time though he may have already been at Yale by then. It was the musical feat that catapulted him to stardom with his appointment to the Chair of the Organ department at Juilliard following soon after, being the youngest to ever hold the position.

  • John Borstlap says:

    The idea stems from Messiaen’s own experience: wandering through the woods he discovered that all those birds were concertizing all the time non-stop, they even appeared to have the idea of placing the performers at different spots and different angles vi-a-vis possible listeners, an idea which was only appropriated in the fifties and sixties of the last century. Also he discovered that the birds, with great insight, ignored organized audience attendance altogether, which was a strong stimulus to Messiaen which he enthusiastically shared with his pupils (incl. Boulez and Stockhausen).

  • Caravaggio says:

    Punishment is right. Other than his fabulous Turangalîla Symphony (and maybe, just maybe, his Quartet for the End of Time), never quite understood the attraction some feel for this composer’s music.

    • RW2013 says:

      That’s more your deficiency than his.
      Study, study, study…it’s worth it.

    • Meal says:

      His “Apparition de l’église éternelle” and “L’Ascension” (for organ solo) belong to the most moving organ works (for me). Although those pieces work better in a church or cathedral I just link the following performance by Olivier Latry at the Proms a couple of years ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L1Qxixombe0.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Messiaen wrote a number of truly great works – one could argue which they would be, since he also wrote works which obviously went terribly wrong. But even only the early organ works place him on the level of the best composers – creating an entirely personal musical world infused with the light of stained glass windows.

        • RW2013 says:

          The works that went “terribly wrong” in your humble opinion are?

          • John Borstlap says:

            After careful and modest consideration, and typing with fingers trembling with anxious anticipation of quillotinesque condemnation, I would say: the middle movement of ‘Les Offrandes Oubliés’ which destroys the wonderful effectiveness of the 1st and 3rd mvt; the entire Turangulila thing which offered me the only and exclusive occasion to fully agree with Boulez that it is ‘brothel music’ (especially the downwards scale tutti figure which pops-up all the many times when the music sags), the ‘Quatre Etudes de Rhythme’ for piano which kicked-off serialism in the brains of Stock and Boul, the entire ‘Chromochromie’ with the crazy volière ‘fugue’, and all those longwinded but totally static repetetive chamber works deformed by silly bird chirping. I think the apotheosis of ineffective monstruosity is his ‘opera’ St Franciscus’, which sounds as if produced by an algorhythm fed to a computer with the order to produce ‘Messiaenic Greatness’ (I sat out the whole thing so I know where I’m talking about.) But who would complain if we have the prewar organ works, and indeed the flabbergasting ‘Visions de l’Eglise Eternelle’, the Harawi piece, the end of the world quartet? What I especially admire in Messiaen is his very strong individuality and originality: you hear immediately that it’s him (again).

            Cesar Franck wrote much mediocre music but his handful of masterworks sealed his position of greatness, like the chamber music of Fauré which is so limited in many respects but superb in beauty and spirit and invention. The great achievements of those composers should not blind us for their humanity, which brings them closer to reality and liberate them from inappropriate pedestals. Bland conventional approval is the death of music as an art form, however commercially advantageous.

        • Michael Endres says:

          …”obviously went terribly wrong”…
          It’s tough out here on SD….and this ain’t looking good for Messiaen…

          • Michael Endres says:

            @ John Borstlap
            “…the chamber music of Fauré which is so limited in many respects… ”

            You want to elaborate a bit ? Please do, I need cheering up…

          • John Borstlap says:

            To Michael Endres:

            Regular, unvaried patterns over long stretches, quick modulations without expressive function (when combined with modality, clashes with chromaticism), flat dynamics, and in the chamber music: no interest in colour or interaction between the instruments; all this creates a strangely detached effect. Also, the fast music is slow music played fast and not really fast music, which makes the patterns rather stiff. But these things create a curious classicism which is brilliantly effective and especially the infinite fantasy of melodic invention gives everything else meaning, not only in the songs but everywhere. The surprising modulations stem from Wagner but are not used for some subjective expression as in the original, but for the sensual thrill of the effect; it demonstrates how French composers / musicians listened to Wagner (as explained by Robin Holloway in his ‘Debussy and Wagner’). Fauré’s overall nobility and lack of instrumental effects stands apart from the general romanticism of his times, and his introversion and moderation inspired Debussy and Ravel (who was his pupil). It is the spirit of classicism with the means of romanticism, quite curious and very very original. I regret he is not played more often – the piano music is stunning. Of course the masterful Requiem , a rather early work, is beautiful and his ‘limitations’ are there fully ‘functional’. If you compare him with, for instance, Saint-Saëns, who is much more brilliant and varied, then Fauré offers so much more expression and profundity, and humanism. But his expression is one in chique evening dress, and never romantically unbuttoned, and hidden behind a big moustache.

          • Michael Endres says:

            @John Borstlap
            ” But his expression is one in chique evening dress, and never romantically unbuttoned, and hidden behind a big moustache.”
            OK, you cheered me up.
            You seem to ignore his late period, with its very dissociated use of individual lines and voices, resulting in a relentless and searing intensity, often pushing the boundaries of tonality ( which remind me in many ways of late Liszt ).
            Here are some examples of the uncompromising and rather dark world of late Faure.
            No chique evening dress anywhere to be seen.


          • John Borstlap says:

            To Michael Endres:

            That is true, this is wonderful, gripping, impressive music, a kind of sub rosa expressionism – seems to foreshadow the 20C.

      • Sue says:

        I’ve heard this played in Nostre Dame, Paris. Wonderful work!!

    • Alex Davies says:

      As, perhaps, for many people, my introduction to Messiaen was having to sing his anthem O Sacrum Convivium! when I was probably 9 years old. (Listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0__tgrjTkc.) It was somewhat terrifying as I don’t think I had ever seen that many sharps (and double sharps) on a score before then. We used to sing it as an anthem during communion. Over the years I sang it many times and came to love it and, in time, the music of Messiaen. Around the same age I got into his organ music through the piece Le Banquet Céleste: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=juG9MaSyTxg.

  • Implied Unguent says:

    “Lidia Książkiewicz” Now this is a blog that shows real class by getting those diacritic marks correct.

  • msc says:

    I’ll join with the Messiaen supporters (and vehemently disagree with Borstlap on Turangalila; maybe he, Boulez, and I have vastly different experiences of brothels). Still, nine hours at a time is a bit much. I could probably manage six at the most.

  • Sue says:

    What a wonderful place is Stavanger in Norway; I was there in 2011 and was completely charmed by the place and Norway in general.