Durham Cathedral Choir Association

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Messiaen's Organ Cycles: La Nativité du Seigneur and L’Ascension played on the Organ of Durham Cathedral by James Lancelot.

La Nativité du Seigneur

Neuf Méditations pour orgue

Like the Wise Men at Bethlehem, Olivier Messiaen offered to Christ gifts most rare.

The first truly great composer since Johann Sebastian Bach to conceive much of his greatest work in terms of the organ, Messiaen shared with the earlier master deep faith and a penetrating theological insight which illuminated and gave and added dimension to his work. Growing up in but rebelling against a Parisian organ tradition which had been enormously influential but whose greatest days were arguably over. Messiaen explored radically new sonorities and tonalities; only Jehan Alain, whose life was tragically cut short in 1940, displayed comparable vision and originality.

Messiaen’s centenary will fall in 2008. He needs no anniversaries for us to be re-minded of his statue, for that is unquestioned. But is has not always been thus, and many organists of my generation have had to persist in the face of prejudice and of the accusation that Messiaen’s music is merely discordant noise. In fact - as in all music -  concord and discord are to some extent relative, and Messiaen used the former to resolve the tension of the latter just an any other composer, though the language is sometimes more complex.

It was Messiaen’s express desire that his organ cycles should be ‘at the service of Catholic theology’. His achievement was to deepen the listener’s understanding of the concepts they illustrate: the Incarnation, the Ascension, the Holy trinity, the Saint in glory, the Holy Sacrament. La Nativité du Seigneur (The birth of the Saviour) probes deeply into meaning of God-made-man, setting the events of the first Christmas in the contexts both of time and of eternity. In most beautiful tableaux, it illustrates the Virgin and Child, the shepherds, the angels, and (most memorably) the Wise Men - bringing, like Messiaen himself, gold of obedience and incense of lowliness: the music, like the gifts themselves, tinged with Oriental associations through the use of Eastern modes and exotic tone-colour.

One could write at length about those modes and tone-colours, as well as about the many other technical devices Messiaen employs, for example augmentation of note-values, augmentation and diminution of intervals, or dominant pedal-points. One could mention his use of plainsong - a varied form of Veni Creator Spiritus, for example, in the pedal line of Les Mages. His evocation of physical colour - the colours sometimes specified by him in his writings - would lead to a fascinating treatise on neurologists’ diagnosis of Messiaen as having the condition called synaesthesia - the association or joining-up between the different senses, so that a person with the condition can as it were ‘hear colour or ‘touch sound’. One could argue too that it is not necessary to be a practising believer to appreciate Messiaen’s music. I would not dissent from that, but I would counter that it is only when seen in its spiritual context that his music is revealed in its full dimensions. Nevertheless, as is always the case with great art, it can be appreciated from a multitude of different standpoints and at many different levels; and it will surely continue to reveal more and more insights to our successors as time goes by.

Meanwhile, it is salutary to find a composer so inspired by both the theology and the poetry of the Christmas story. At a time when it seems fashionable to treat so much of the Christian tradition with scepticism, indifference or even mockery, it is profoundly rewarding to find Messiaen engaging so deeply and intelligently with demanding theological concepts such as Incarnation, predestination, the cost of our redemption, and God-with-us. Messiaen spoke of the “three births” - the eternal birth of the Word, the temporal birth of Christ, and our own spiritual birth as Christians. But he also treats seriously and illustrates beautifully the aspects of the Nativity which give it such a particular poetry - the shepherds, the angels, the Wise Men.

So, like those shepherds, Let us now go unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass.


Quatre Méditations Symphonique pour orgue

If the concept of the Nativity causes us to grapple with complex theological issues, it is relieved by a well-loved story and by the familiar concept of a baby’s birth. Christ’s Ascension, on the other hand, has no such homely aspect in which to take refuge; it is an event without any apparent parallel. For the disciples, as yet uncomforted by the coming of the Holy Spirit, it was an unnerving occurrence, a parting of the ways; for all Christ’s promises to them, a finis. Messiaen, however, refuses to see it in such terms; for him - and surely for us all - it is the culmination of Christ’s redemptive work of love, the making-perfect of his offering for all mankind, the assumption of the kingship that was his from before the beginning of time and that shall be for evermore.

Nevertheless, Messiaen’s setting of the first and last movements within the context of Christ’s high-priestly prayer from St John chapter 17 reminds us that the process of Ascension began with the climbing of the hill of Golgotha and the soldiers’ raising Christ on the Cross (And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men into me). Using relatively straightforward organ colours, Messiaen achieves majesty and sublimity in the opening movement through slow speed and brightly-coloured harmonies. Sublime, too, is the tranquility and poise of the final movement, extrêmement lent, ému et solennel, its gentle, slow ascent through two octaves wreathed in glowing string colours.

It is in the second movement, Alléluias sereins, that we hear the most exotic tone-colours. This beautiful piece takes the form of a set of variations on two themes, presented A-B-A-B-A. Theme A is stated unaccompanied on all the open flutes of the organ (of 8-, 4- and 2-foot pitch), followed by theme B, floated in the left hand on the clarinet above a dominant pedal-point and echoed by right-hand embellishments on the fluté harmonique. Theme A is then repeated in the left hand while the right hand evokes a halo of light by means of triplet triads. It is in the next variation, though, that the laws of time and space seem to be temporarily suspended, and the music to pierce the veil and rise heavenwards. The right hand carries an extended theme B, its successive prolongations heard on gradually more intense combinations of 8-foot stops as the left-hand semiquaver ostinato gives way to ascending and descending wreaths of modal triads; meanwhile the feet quit their dominant pedal-point and climb into the midst of the texture with a repeated dominant-seventh arpeggio on the 4-foot flute. It is as if we are freed briefly from the laws of gravity, to be let gently down again after the vision as the variation returns to its original texture. Finally, theme A is played on a piquant and high-pitched pedal stops against trilling left-hand triads, the right hand punctuating the texture with excited, spangled semiquaver groups.

Messiaen originally composed L’Ascension for orchestra in 1933; his familiar organ arrangement of the suite, heard here, dates from 1934 (La Nativité du Seigneur was composed in the following year, 1935). But in revising the work for organ, Messiaen entirely replaced the third movement (Alléluia sure la trompette, alléluia sur la cymbale) with an original organ work, Transports de joie. This flamboyant toccata, set in the most colourful of all keys (F sharp major, the key most remote from C major), uses volume, impact, silence, repetition, echo, anticipation, and (finally) torrential cascades of notes to portray the cataclysmic joy of a soul redeemed, resurrected and made to be numbered with thy saints in glory everlasting.

© James Lancelot, 2005

Below you can find some reviews of this CD:


Olivier Messiaen - La Nativité du Seigneur & L’Ascension


£ 5.-

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La Nativité du Seigneur

Neuf Méditations pour orgue

La Vierge et l’Enfant

Les Bergers

Desseins éternels

Le Verbe

Les Enfants de Dieu

Les Anges

Jésus accepte la souffrance

Les Mages

Dieu parmi nous


Quatre Méditations Symphonique pour orgue

Majesté du Christ demandant sa gloire à son Père

Alléluias sreins d’une âme qui désire le ciel

Transports de joie d’une âme devant la gloire du Christ

qui est las sienne

Prière du Christ montant vers son Père

This is an outstanding combination of the music of Messiaen, the magnificent Harrison & Harrison instrument, and the stylish playing of James Lancelot.  In La Nativité, a suite of nine meditations on the birth of Christ, Messiaen is a master of sound colour: you can hear the flapping of angels’ wings in ‘Les Anges’ (the Angels), and a mystical hint of the east in ‘Les Mages’ (The Wise Men), culminating in an energetic performance of ‘Dieu Parmi Nous’ (God among us).  In both this suite and the four movements of L’Ascension, Lancelot uses the full range of sonorities available to him at the flick of a piston.  The Durham instrument is not easy to record, given that the sections of the organ are spread out, and include a prominent Bombarde section thoughtfully placed (as the Dean will well know) behind the Dean’s stall.  This is a splendid recording; my only quibble is that a little more reverberation could have been added from the nave in places.  After all, as Dame Gillian Weir once put it, ‘Messiaen wrote music for rests.’

Stuart Robinson


I bought this CD in the SPCK Cathedral bookshop in mid December 2005.

Having attended two live performances of La Nativite in Durham Cathedral in recent years, there was no doubt in my mind that this CD would be good.

At the most recent live performance, James Lancelot's playing was accompanied by the sound of strong gales which rattled and shook the scaffolding and windows around the north eastern end of the cathedral. His playing was richly imbued with a sense of the spirituality implicit in the work and the very English Willis/Harrison organ was remarkably convincing in sounding French, owed in part to the quality of the workmanship, but mainly to Mr Lancelot's superb registrations and his thorough knowledge of the instrument and what it can do. The programme notes reflect Mr Lancelot's thorough theological understanding and the musical expression of the texts which preface each of the 9 movements of La Nativite. These notes, which are in part reproduced in the CD booklet, should be compulsory reading for all those involved in church music and also all students of theology. The CD booklet however, postulates that Messiaen may well have been a person with synaethesia - a condition where the person experiences a merging of the senses - hearing colours or touch sounds. Perhaps all of us to some degree experience things like a rich colour associated with a particular key (I do, D major is light green, D flat purple), but synaethesia is a much stronger and potent expression of this. This may account for some of Messiaen's music sounding impenetrable to some people. It may also account for its power of communicating great spirituality and proclaiming the timeless truths of Christianity, in this case the Incarnation of God and the subsequent Ascension.

This CD conveys all this and gives me a reminder of those January evenings in the Cathedral when James Lancelot has performed the work. At the last performance, applause sounded forth after the final meditation, which spoiled the effect for me, and as there is no applause on this CD and I can enjoy it as a meditation experiencing its power as Messiaen wanted it experienced and grateful for Mr Lancelot's masterful, sensitive and overwhelmingly musical interpretation.

L'Ascension is no less powerful. It is a more difficult theological concept to convey, because as Mr Lancelot so rightly says, it is not relieved by a well-loved story. Excellent notes are also to be found in the CD booklet. The performance is just as powerful and inspired as that of La Nativite. Both works would benefit from being listened to in a prayerful, reflective, and open frame of mind. Messiaen tries to tackle enormous theological concepts which defy even the greatest of theological minds and perhaps helped by his synaethesia, he comes close to a vision of the eternity; the omnipotent and all loving God who became incarnate in humanity and ascended to the right hand of the Father.

I cannot praise this CD highly enough. It ought to be heard very widely.

Stephen Mott


This CD proves a wonderful fusion of man, music and machine.

James Lancelot has played the mighty Durham Willis/Harrison & Harrison for more than twenty years; he is famed for registering it with an acutely perceptive ear, discovering colours undreamt of by others - perhaps even by Conrad Eden, to whose design the organ was imaginatively enlarged in 1970. Eden lived with the organ for no fewer than thirty-eight years; it is no surprise that his 1960s EMI Great Cathedral Organ Series LP became a true classics. In this new recording not only does Lancelot excel in finding wonderfully apposite colours on this instrument, but he brings to his performances some thirty years of living with Messiaen’s two most popular works. For Lancelot this means not simply the notes, but the theology, for he is one of the most spiritually profound and well-read members of his profession, a spirituality which has pervaded his life and work, and which ‘brings forth its fruits in due season’, as here.

One remembers the youthful brilliance of another King’s Cambridge organ scholar - Simon Preston - in his Messiaen LP recordings on the King’s Harrison. They impressed through precision, articulation, technique, tone colour and strength of character - the music was dynamically and rhythmically projected, almost burnt into the consciousness of the listener. Forty years on, Lancelot brings many of those qualities to his own Messiaen interpretations, and adds to them a serenity, an inwardness which comes from his own character and which, when fused with Messiaen’s spiritual sound-world and the perfect colours of the Durham organ, transports the listener in quite a different way to the Preston performances.

Niggles? Scarcely any. There are moments of less than perfect balance within the organ - though it must be hard to record this spread-out instrument, with its vast range of volume and occasionally overpowering 32ft Ophicleide. Otherwise all is a pure and profound joy, a real triumph for James Lancelot and the Durham Cathedral Choir Association. James provides luminous programme notes, though no organ stop-list is printed. Do buy this CD - you may wish to take it to your desert island.

Paul Hale