Christmas Music: Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant Jesus

For some people the soundtrack to Christmas consists of the great American festive songs, for others it’s the joyous choral music, and for me it’s Messiaen.

Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant Jesus, or Twenty Gazes upon the Infant Jesus, was written in 1944. He completed the work shortly after the liberation of France, and was one his longest to date, a two hour set of pieces for solo piano.

Theme de Dieu (‘Theme of God’)

There are several musical themes running through the piece, including the Theme of God, the Theme of the Virgin, the Theme of the Star, among others. The God theme is the most prominent (or at least the most obvious). The first Gaze (‘Gaze of the Father’) is a soft, almost-minimalist piece that firmly establishes this theme. It is a sort of announcement, or perhaps a blessing: ‘And God said: “This is my beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased…”‘ And it’s no wonder the God theme is in F# major, which Messiaen reserved for his most joyous and transcendent music.

Of course you have to remember about Messiaen that he had synaesthesia, which meant when he heard sounds he quite literally saw colours, and would sometimes describe these colours in his scores to help guide the performer. While we all may have similar ‘superstitions’ about keys, he had a much clearer insight into the colour of different music.

Reviews of Vingt Regards were split, some complaining about lack of tenderness, or the suitability of his new musical language for spiritual works (‘a vital component of his originality or a theoretical yoke which hampered true creativity’, one reviewer asked not unpredictably). Others were simply mesmerised by the grandeur of the work. If there’s one thing Messiaen consistently does, it’s to leave you awestruck.

I’d recommend the 1970s recording by Yvonne Loriod, a spectacular performance though a slightly muddy recording. If you want a crisper recording the Steven Osborne one is excellent. I keep reading good things about the Pierre-Laurent Aimard recording, and there’s a lot to recommend about it, but some of it sounds a bit too rushed to me. Regardless of which you choose, this will actually lift your spirits unlike the gaudy crap pumped into supermarkets.

And despite the above recommendations I thought I better attach a video for those who want a sample. Here’s a fine performance by Roger Muraro of the twentieth Gaze, Regard de L’Eglise d’amour (Gaze of the Church of Love). Merry Christmas!