Messiaen-Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jésus

Very unusually for me, I'm struggling to sleep after a concert, Messiaen's 'Vingt Regards sur l'enfant-Jésus' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. After 2 hours in the dark with my thoughts I decided writing this might be a better use of the time, and maybe a better way of getting to sleep too. Strangely enough, the last time this happened (many years ago after a Wigmore Hall recital), the music which provoked it was also religious in nature - a selection of Liszt's 'Harmonies poétiques et religieuses', ending with 'Benediction de Dieu dans la solitude'. I remember a feeling of the deepest calm as that piece ended which in a way I don't understand left me with a profound alertness which lasted far into the night.

Today was the last in a short tour of the Messiaen, and what an experience it has been. I've loved this work ever since I first learned a few of the pieces as a student, but as I return to it over the years I find myself increasingly amazed. It takes over two hours to play (I prefer no interval, which I find greatly deepens the audience's concentration), and yet it has a tremendously satisfying sense of structure. It comprises 20 pieces which are contemplations of the child Jesus from various perspectives, including the Father, the spirit of joy, the virgin, the cross, silence, time…. The abstraction of these last two immediately give a hint of Messiaen's unusual theological bent, but his faith was deeply felt and a prime motivating force for his music. One thing very important in the piece is a certain naivety: very few composers in 1944 would have risked writing music as simple as the theme of God, an extremely slow chorale in F# major which opens the work and returns every few movements to act as a binding agent. Yet alongside this is music of staggering physical and intellectual complexity. As an example, Messiaen depicts the creation of the world (Par lui tout a été fait) by means of all kinds of fugal construction techniques. After the movement reaches a certain point, it starts running back on itself, like time reversing; it's a stimulating though ambiguous metaphor. When the palindrome is complete, the music moves into a passage which develops incrementally from the gentlest beginning to a blazing statement of the theme of God. It's an amazing shape.

I sometimes think it may be a bit juvenile, but I've always loved extremes in music - playing as loud and as quiet as possible - and the Vingt Regards is perhaps as extreme as piano music gets. It may be that it is again the contemplative moments which have left me wide awake. There are several movements of profound calm in the work, but one particularly stands out to me for its beauty and audacity: the penultimate movement, Je dors mais mon coeur veille (I sleep but my heart keeps watch). Here the theme of God is distilled into literally the chord of F# major, slowly elaborated in the upper registers of the piano. When I first looked at this movement, I couldn't imagine how it could possibly work in performance - there seemed to be far too little substance there (it takes almost 2 minutes to leave that F# major chord!). And yet, it turns out to be one of the most remarkable inspirations in the entire work; music of the most transcendental beauty.

For Messiaen, the greatest music in the world was birdsong, a symbol of divine joy. So maybe it's fitting, as I finish writing this now, that the birds are starting to sing.


Your Wednesday night concert was one of the very best I have heard in nearly 40 years of concert going. I thought I knew the work well, but I heard it in a completely new way. I was not the only one of my friends who also had difficulty sleeping afterwards, and the music is still ringing in my head more than 2 days later! Thank you!

Posted by Nick Couldry on 01 June 2013

I wish merely to echo the comments of the other 3. A fantastic concert, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Do you have any plans to expand your Alkan repertoire, given the bicentenary of his birth this year ? Thanks again

Posted by St John Brown on 01 June 2013

St John, no more Alkan in the pipeline, I'm afraid.

Posted by Steven Osborne on 03 June 2013

How moving

Posted by Anne Judith on 18 March 2014

Steven it was incredibly enlightening, enriching. Luckily I managed some sleep but will be singing those haunting chords all day.

Posted by Emma Gibbins on 30 May 2013

A remarkable concert and life experience. Utterly spellbinding, transcendent, meaningful. To hear the complete suite of 20 made so much sense of the music, and allowed us (and you!) total immersion in Messiaen's vision and compositional skill. Congratulations on an extraordinary performance.

Posted by Frances Wilson on 30 May 2013