If you like Olivier Messiaen, you missed out on a phenomenal performance of his epic organ work Livre de Saint Sacrement on Tuesday night in New York.  The performance was by Paul Jacobs, and took place in The Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, just off Times Square.  It was an impressive performance of a Messiaen’s very personal late-life (1984) magnum opus, and the cathedral was an ideal space for it.

Of course if, like me, you don’t like Messaien, you can be glad you stayed home and organized your sock drawer or whatever you did, because that piece is frickin’ interminable.  It’s about an hour and a half of pointless, pedantic noodling intercut with loud for the sake of loud, with no meaningful or satisfying dramatic structure.  There’s about a minute worth of actual good material spread through the piece, but of course it’s immediately abandoned in favor of more noodling.  And then there are the sections which sound like nothing so much as Mario collecting those gold coins.  By the time it finally ended I was ready to confess to where I hid the WMD.

41 Responses to “My, Olivier, What a Long Organ (Piece) You Have”
  1. Tim Risher says:

    If he was, he didn’t want to suffer alone! 😀

  2. david toub says:

    Maybe OM was a member of Opus Dei?

  3. Tim Risher says:

    The review of the Messiaen in the New York Times this morning is what I would say “damns with faint praise. The opening of the review started:

    “Olivier Messiaen’s final organ work, the 18-movement “Livre du Saint Sacrement” (1984), runs a bit over 90 minutes and makes heavy demands on an organist’s imagination and musculature.”

    And ended with:

    “Still, there is a touch of the hair shirt in this turbulent meditation, and it took a toll. The church was full at the start and, mostly, at the end as well. But well before the midpoint and steadily thereafter, listeners who had heard enough quietly defected.”

    Most of the article is full of heavy language – “dense, changable texures”, “faith for him was not about comfort”, etc.

  4. david toub says:

    Zeno, not trying to be domineering, just humorous.

    I don’t have a lot of time on my hands, actually—I wrote one comment this morning on my blackberry while stopped at a traffic light, and that’s how I cram in all this stuff despite work. But I actually work for a medical education company and am not in practice anymore—gave it up in 1998 due to the ridiculous health care situation in SE Pennsylvania, which is just a microcosm of the nonsense that is going on elsewhere in this country since our politicians (and many of my colleagues) don’t accept the imperative for universal health care.

    So you’ve peaked my interest—I assumed it wasn’t the physicist anyway, but who was Hertz Hall named after? A wealthy donor perhaps?

  5. zeno says:

    “Zeno: Shostakovich is better” (dt)

    Contrary to David Toub’s domineering opinion, this statement does not, in fact, sum up my complex — and partially private –opinions about Shostakovich, Messiaen, Ives and 20th c. music.

    And yes, David does, in fact, seem to have alot of time on his hands for a practicing physician — even one who aspires to be the William Carlos Williams of music.



    I became a composer (yes, Jerry) after hearing Olivier Messiaen speak about his Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité (“Meditations on the mystery of the Holy Trinity”), for organ (1969), at Hertz Hall, U.C. Berkeley in the Fall of 1971; and then subsequently meeting Mssr Messiaen backstage at the then-new Kennedy Center in Washington follwing the performance, at Easter-time 1972, of his oratorio La Transfiguration de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ (“The Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ”), for large 10-part chorus, piano solo, cello solo, flute solo, clarinet solo, xylorimba solo, vibraphone solo, large orchestra (1965-69). The performance was led by the conductor-composer Antal Dorati, who also recorded the performances for Decca Head. [Last month, for the first time in over 35 years I found and looked at my Olivier Messiaen signed program from that important concert.]



    Hertz Hall, at the University of California, Berkeley, was not named after the great German physicist Heinrich Rudolf Hertz.

  6. david toub says:

    Actually, the blog obsesses over music. The medical stuff is pretty much far and few between.

    I dunno—a lot of us have a pretty good sense of humor. We just take new music really seriously. It would be a boring forum if we didn’t have some good-natured disagreements every now and then.

  7. marvin says:

    It was obviously a joke. Galen is a historical physician’s name and David Toub ‘who posts way too much’ was a physician, evidently (from reading his gynecologically-obsessed blog).

    It’s bad to explain jokes, but so many people here have even less of a sense of humor than Monsieur Messiaen!

  8. david toub says:

    Corey, thanks for the support, but I think Jerry was kidding. I absolutely took it that way (just as I was kidding with my retort, Galen. Namaste)

    Glad you like the Vingt Regards—I also think they’re one of the best piano works out there.

    Like I said, OM is an acquired taste. And I take his mystical bombast with a grain of salt for the most part. I think it got in the way of Turangalila—it had promise, and some parts of it are ok. But I think it’s one of the most over the top, excessive, bombastic and pretentious pieces of music on my iPod, and I still wonder what it’s doing on my iPod. Same with the Trois Petites Liturgies.

    Sorry Kyle and Steve—I just don’t see it as a visionary symphonic work. If I stack Coptic Light up against Turangalila, there’s no comparison—CL is so much better. And I’ve known both the music and score of Turangalila since the late 70’s, so I suspect I’m not going to be changing my impression anytime soon.

    But I like the majority of his other works, and as I said, his music had a huge impact on me growing up. But like Corey, I also think much of his stuff is a bit stoic.

  9. Corey says:

    “Anyone who doesn’t realize that Turangalila is among the greatest, most visionary pieces ever composed in any century should probably be in another line of work–a physician maybe?”

    What a stupid, pig-headed comment. “If your experience isn’t the same as MINE, you shouldn’t be listening to music at all.”

    The fact is that Messiaen’s music is just too humorless and repetitive for many people, myself included.

    I will admit, however, that I think the Vingt Regards is one of the greatest piano cycles of the 20th Century.

  10. David Toub says:

    Anthony, I’ve only heard Poemes pour mi once m any many years ago so I can’t say much about it. I should have had the catalogue d’oiseaux on my list, however.

    I think anyone who doesnt think Messiaen was one of the most important composers of our time should work in, I dunno….development?

  11. Curiously, I spent the last day or so talking about Messiaen in my romp through the 20th Century (okay, the course is titled “Music in the 20th Century”, but in 14 weeks, it’s more like a sprint).

    I’ve got to agree with Kyle on this one: he’s a truly major figure. I’ll agree that some of his works are lacking in humor – but they were a reflection of the composer and his milieu. Wasn’t it Steve Martin who once said that you couldn’t use a Banjo in a song about “death, destruction, poverty, and war.” (I’m waiting for someone to pull out that old Civil War tune about some battle.)

    When you examine his music, in the context of when it was written, it’s quite amazing. He was one who forged his own path: not heading for atonality like Schoenberg, and yet not retreating to a modified tonality like the Neo-Classicists. And, at a time when Western culture was truly full of itself, he began to explore other musical traditions, certainly long before it was ‘in fashion’.

    David, I think you’ve mentioned all of OM’s significant output! Did I miss it, or did nobody mention “Poemes pour mi”? Certainly a beautiful set of songs.

    On my shelf are the 8 volumes of the “Traite de rythme”. If I only had to the time to read them….

  12. FYI, it’s “Livre _du_ Saint Sacrament”, not “de.”

  13. David Toub says:

    Galen, originally I was going to write “Galen: Messiaen sucks,” but thought that might have been too harsh.

  14. Jerry Bowles says:

    Anyone who doesn’t realize that Turangalila is among the greatest, most visionary pieces ever composed in any century should probably be in another line of work–a physician maybe?

  15. No no no! It’s not that it’s “too long,” it’s that it’s pointless and not very good. I gladly sit through an hour and a half of music that does worthwhile things.

    But I’ll make a point of checking out Turangalila.

    And while I don’t know all 8 of the Glass symphonies, Number 3 (for string orchestra) is extraordinary.

  16. David Toub says:

    This thread has a variety of opinions one could sum up as such:

    Galen: Messiaen’s music is too long

    Me: Messiaen is really good 95% of the time

    Kyle: not only is Messiaen great, but Turangalila is the best symphony of the 20th century

    Me: uh, not as good as Ives’ Fourth (or Branca, for that matter)

    Steve: turangalila was visionary

    Zeno: Shostakovich is better

    Me: love DS, but the Ives really rocks

    As an aside, I just realized that messiaen’s initials are OM. Maybe that has some significance to our current dilemma…


  17. zeno says:

    “Zeno, you’re comparing two works that are from very different times relevant to one another.” (dt)

    David, with Ives and Shostakovich you are equally comparing two composers who are from very different times and places relevant to one another.

    I give Shostakovich equal credit –- musically-speaking –for both his Symphony #4 and his Symphony #14.

  18. Dan says:

    Hmm..though I’d add my 2 cents to the Symphony discussion: Scriabin’s “Poem of Ecstasy” — which I’ve heard called a symphony more often than a tone poem is an incredible work.
    His music, far more than Messian, conjures up more feeling and images of, well..ecstasy than any composer for me. The ending of that piece is the most powerful music I have ever heard. Perhaps not as groundbreaking as some of the others–though Shostakovich — even in his later stuff — never strikes me as particularly groundbreaking–not that it matters.

  19. david toub says:

    Zeno, you’re comparing two works that are from very different times relevant to one another. But whatever. I think the Shostakovich and Ives are all great works. And it’s purely subjective as to whether one is “better’ than another.

    However, in terms of changing paradigms, the Ives is in a class apart for any of the Shostakovich symphonies, although I’ll give Dmitri Dmitrievich credit for #4, which was very innovative for the Soviet Union in 1936.

    Steve, feel free to chime in anytime…

  20. zeno says:

    “But the Ives is more than just artistically significant, it was extremely innovative, unique, ahead of its time, etc.” (dt)

    Artistically significant works of music stand up just as well as do artistically significant, extremely innovative, unique, … works. There is no manner in which one can, aesthetically, place J.S. Bach’s Bm Mass on a lower level than Beethoven’s Symphony #9 (or J.S. Bach’s innovative Saint John and Saint Matthew Passions).

  21. david toub says:

    99 Billion Operas (served)—or was that McDonalds? (as a vegetarian, I don’t pay much attention to their latest counts).

    Zeno, I also consider the 13th and 14th to be very artistically significant. I grew up with them, in all honesty, and still have one of the first scores of the 13th smuggled into this country and published as a handwritten score. BUt the Ives is more than just artistically significant, it was extremely innovative, unique, ahead of its time, etc. All three works are great music that I’d hate to live without. But the Shostakovich and Ives are on very different levels, and if I had to respond, knowing how much I love all three works, which one is most significant, it has to be the Ives. QED.

  22. zeno says:

    “I would still consider the Ives Fourth to be more significant than any of the fifteen symphonies by Shostakovich.” (dt)

    In my subjective opinion, Shostakovich’s Symphonies #13 and 14 are as artistically significant, if not more artistically significant, than Ives’ Fourth Symphony.


    “At least no one is insisting that Glass’s symphonies (what is he up to now—#40?) are visionary or constitute the greatest symphonies of the past century” (dt)

    I thought that, last week, you said that Philip Glass was up to 99 Billion Symphonies — or was that Operas?

  23. david toub says:

    it’s all subjective, zeno, which is what makes all of this so much fun.

    See what you started, Galen? 😎

    I’m a big admirer of DS (I literally grew up with his music and that of Ives), but the fifth isn’t his best symphony IMHO. Not at all. There’s far more originality in the Fourth than any measure in the Fifth. Same with #13 and #14. Or #1,#8 for that matter. The Fifth is good, but not as great as most of his others. But definitely better than #12. #11, incidentally, is underrated.

    And even with DS being one of my all time favorite composers, I would still consider the Ives Fourth to be more significant than any of the fifteen symphonies by Shostakovich.

    At least no one is insisting that Glass’s symphonies (what is he up to now—#40?) are visionary or constitute the greatest symphonies of the past century. There’s hope for mankind, I guess 😎

  24. zeno says:

    “Of course, the best 20th-century symphony is Ives’ Fourth. Period.” (David Toub)

    Judging from the Jan Swafford review of Alex Ross’s new book, Alex might counter that Shostakovich (5, 10?), Sibelius (4,5?), or Britten (Cello Symphony) wrote the 20th c.’s “best” symphony.

    Speaking of Ives and Symphonies, I’m a bit more partial to his Symphony #5 — reconstructed though it may be.



    I recall subbing and bussing around NYC in October 1978, when the complete organ works of Messiaen were being performed around town; and the then-mayor Ed Koch presented Messiaen with the keys to the city of NYC (at the Saint John Cathedral). I thought it a quaint and touching acknowledgment of the power and beauty of classical music by the leader of that great city.

  25. david toub says:

    I just find Turangalila pretentious, more than any other piece in Messiaen’s ouevre. Visionary? Not sure I’m seeing that, but none of this is objective. There’s nothing in Turangalila in terms of Messiaen’s use of rhythm, bird song, mysticism, etc. that isn’t in the Vingt Regards, Chronochromie and many others. I like the climactic section of the first movement (the part with the maracas and the repetitive structures), and wish he had carried this further.

    I would say, however, that the Regards and the Quartet for the End of Time are both visionary. There was nothing like them when Messiaen wrote them, and really nothing much like them ever since. But it’s like those debates about which is the most significant piece for piano of the 20th century—Triadic Memories? The Well-Tuned Piano? Concord? Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano? etc. Same with symphonies—is Turangalila really more visionary than anything else, such as Carter’s Symphony of Three Orchestras? I don’t even like Carter’s music, but have to admit it’s a noteworthy addition to the symphonic repertoire. And what is it about Turangalila that makes it a visionary symphony?

  26. Steve Layton says:

    David, all the other symphonies you mention — aside from the Ives and Webern — are just symphonies. But Turangalila, like the Webern and Ives, is visionary, essentially sui generis. You can still hate it, but you have to marvel at it.

  27. Go get ’em Kyle. Yeah you Messiaen bashers are all rubes! 😉

    Turangalila is the essence of post-war Europe – jazz, mayhem, tunes, life, death. It is an awesome display of the imagination and I don’t think any other piece mentioned so far even comes within a light year of it.

    Sigh… you guys need to get out and get laid or something.

  28. david toub says:

    Kyle, I love probably 95% of the large number of Messiaen’s works I know. Regrettably Turangalila isn’t among them, although some sections are ok. I also am not a fan of most of Harawi or the Trois Petites Liturgies. Just my taste.

    I think there are many symphonies that are better for me than Turangalila:

    Copland’s symphonies
    Irving Fine’s Symphony
    Webern’s op. 21
    most of Shostakovich’s symphonies

    And then there’s Wolpe’s symphony and Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements and Symphony in C. Even Branca’s symphonic output, such as they are, or Philip Glass’s initial symphonic works (Low, #2, #3) are better than Turangalila to my ears. One could argue that Branca’s guitar symphonies aren’t of the same nature as Turangalila (since they’re not written for large symphony orchestra), but I think concertgoers several decades ago might have looked askance at an orchestral work that included an Ondes Martinot. It all depends what one means by “symphony.” Branca’s stuff is more interesting to me than Turangalila, that’s all.

    Of course, the best 20th-century symphony is Ives’ Fourth. Period.

  29. Kyle Gann says:

    I’m astonished. I don’t think the century produced a noticeably better composer than Messiaen, nor a better symphony than Turangalila. And while his late works can be awfully austere, Livre de Saint Sacrement is for me one of the most fascinating of them.

  30. david toub says:

    I agree, Steve. If he had written only the Etudes, he’d still be pretty significant in my book. Neumes Rhythmiques (the third Etude) in particular, although Mode de valeurs et d’intensities gets all the notoriety.

  31. david toub says:

    The ending of OE isn’t bad, I agree, but the best ending of any piece, ever, is that of Shostakovich’s 14th symphony.

    And yes, Messiaen I suspect had no sense of humor whatsoever, although I always found the opening measures of OE to be somewhat humorous (???jestful). Or am I reaching?

  32. Steve Layton says:

    Messiaen’s about as high up my pantheon as they get; I spent one quarter in college where my only “class” for the whole time was a survey of his complete oeuvre (to “La Transfiguration” anyway…) as well as his techniques. Yet even *I* have a problem with the later organ works. Still, as a compendium, you can’t get much more complete: the modes, chant, birds, sharngadeva rhythms, colors, the even the “communicable language” idea are in there. That last is probably what sends these pieces into that seemingly formless counterpoint (assigning pitches to letters to be able to “spell out” actual words & text in the music). The pre-1940 organ stuff is marvelous, though.

  33. Rodney Lister says:

    I think that the biggest problem with Messiaen is that he had absolutely no sense of humor, and therefore, no sense of proportion (in at least one sense of the term). I remember being at a performance one of Et Expecto Resurrexionem Mortuorem, where, in the movement with the (eternally) returning refrain for a bunch of gongs, the players were either in direct or directly inverse size to the size of the gongs. It’s been a while, so I don’t remember which, but what I do remember is that by the second time it came round everybody was rolling in the aisles–almost literally. Somebody with a sense of humor would have anticipated that.

    I’ve actually come to like Turanglila, somehow. And Chronochromi. Oiseaux Exotique has the most wonderful ending of almost any piece (the rest of it isn’t bad, either.). But I agree that sometimes when I’m hearing it I feel rather as though I’m being forced to listen to Vogon poetry.

  34. david toub says:

    I also noted that it was relatively shorter than usual for your posts, Galen, which really suggests you didn’t like the piece!

    But give some of his other works a try anyway, just to see what happens. I don’t know the particular work that you heard performed in concert, and have no way of knowing if I might have had the same impression had I been in attendance. Avoid Turangalila at all costs, though.

    And you’re entitled to your opinion of anyone’s music, in any case.

    So where were those WMDs exactly?

  35. I’m probably just an incurable heathen, but I don’t like Quartet for the End of Time except for the movement with the solo cello, which is phenomenal. I went to the concert socially, and also because my dislike of Messiaen is based on just a few works and I figured I should give him another chance.

    And I actually think this is a pretty favorable review of the concert itself, and hope Mr. Jacobs feels the same if he’s out there. As I said, the performance was really terriffic (and well attended, too, which was great to see) — I just hated the repertoire, which is my own problem, not the performer’s. For Messiaen fans this would have been a pretty significant event, and thus worthy of mention.

    Plus, it gives me a chance to burnish my credentials as a provocateur 🙂

  36. david toub says:

    You’re correct—I forgot that the pianist passed away. I didn’t think thatPaul Jacobs did organ music.

    His Nonesuch LP with etudes by Messiaen, Bartok and Stravinsky really is an incredible record, though.

  37. Herb Levy says:

    There are two Paul Jacobs’ & one Olivier Messiaen.

    The pianist and the older of the two organists are both dead.

  38. david toub says:

    In terms of performing Messiaen, Paul Jacobs is right up there. I have more than one performance of Messiaen’s piano Etudes on my iPod, and while they’re both good, Jacobs’ interpretation (which I took the time to digitize from my old LP, because it’s that good) is incredible. I have Michel Beroff doing the Vingt Regards, and it’s great, but still miss the Peter Serkin version I had on LP. I can see how Messiaen could really suffer with a less than inspired performance, but isn’t that true of most music, even Scarlatti?

  39. Jay Batzner says:

    Sometimes hearing a good performance can make you think differently about music you would otherwise dislike.

    And knowing what we don’t like is just as valuable (if not more so) than knowing what we like.

  40. John says:

    Hell man, why write a review much less go to a concert if you hate the gentleman’s music?

  41. david toub says:

    I’ll admit, Galen, that Messiaen is an acquired taste, and not all of his works are to my liking, either. He’s often overindulgent, seemingly taken with himself, lacking in self-criticism, and I take great pains to overlook the birdsong and Catholic programs underlying his notes and try to listen to his music as pure music.

    On that level, however, a lot of his works succeed. The Quartet for the End of Time is a masterpiece, and I don’t use that word lightly. Same with his Vingt Regards, Visions de l’Amen, Canteyodjaya, the Quatre etudes de rhythme, Chronochromie, Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum, Couleurs de la Cite Celeste, Oiseaux Exotiques, Preludes, and his La Nativitie de Seugneur (pardon my mispellings; it’s still early in the day). As a fellow postminimalist, you should definitely check out Apparition De L’Eglise Eternelle, which is an incredibly focused work for organ.

    That said, I hate most of Turangalila and think he drank too much kool-aid while writing it.

    But when he’s good, he’s really good. I’d strongly recommend the Quartet, Etudes, Vingt Regards, Canteyodjaya and Apparition De L’Eglise Eternelle. Messiaen’s music had an enormous impact on me growing up, and I still love listening to it. Except for Turangalila; I don’t know what he was thinking when he wrote that.