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Composed: 1944

Length: c. 37 minutes

Orchestration: percussion (Chinese cymbals, maracas, tam-tam, vibraphone), celesta, solo ondes martenot, solo piano, women’s choir, and strings

About this Piece

“What does a rose-window in a cathedral do? It teaches through imagery, through symbolism, through all the characters that inhabit it—but what most catches the eye are its thousand spots of color which ultimately dissolve into a single, pure shade, so that someone looking on says only, ‘That window is blue,’ or ‘That window is violet.’”

The quote above is from the seventh volume of Olivier Messiaen’s Treatise on Rhythm, Color, and Ornithology. Messiaen is describing his approach to writing Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine. He wanted the listener to get lost in the brilliant colors of the music, not unlike his own experience with synesthesia—Messiaen saw colors whenever he listened to music. The score to Trois petites liturgies is speckled with color indications that hint at the colors he experienced.

Over the course of his career, Messiaen wrote a startlingly original body of music that drew from his interests in birdsong, rhythms derived from an ancient Hindu treatise, numerical symbols, and his strongly felt affinity between sound and color. His music was also influenced by his unique approach to Roman Catholicism, which blended an absolute belief in miracles with an almost mathematical approach to revealing them through music—something Messiaen refers to as “the charm of impossibilities.” He writes, “It is a glistening music we seek, giving to the aural sense voluptuously refined pleasures.”

Messiaen began working on Trois petites liturgies in November 1943 while Paris was occupied by German forces. After Germany invaded France in 1940, Messiaen briefly served in the French armed forces but was captured at Verdun and held as a prisoner of war. After he was released in 1941, Messiaen returned to Paris. Trois petites liturgies (completed in March 1944) was the first major work he composed following his release. The piece was written for the pianist Yvonne Loriod, who would later become his second wife in 1961. The text was written by Messiaen as he composed, often drawing from his favorite sacred texts. The words are set forth by a choir of women’s voices. Accompanying them is an unusual ensemble of percussion, piano, string orchestra, and ondes martenot, an early electronic instrument that creates an ethereal sound.

The composition offers a striking array of tonalities and textures that range from sensuous, rich singing in the choir to rhythmic shouting and percussion. Messiaen uses the piano and vibraphone together in a miniature ensemble that he compares to the Balinese gamelan. The string writing provides a lush, otherworldly atmosphere that envelops and draws the other elements together.

Paul Schiavo provided the following listening guide in his notes for a recent performance:

Messiaen called the first movement an “interior conversation” and explained that it is meant to evoke “the God that is present in us.” The opening and close of this movement juxtapose serene melodic lines with birdsongs transmitted primarily by the piano. A contrasting central passage brings a faster pace and greater rhythmic complexity in both the vocal and instrumental parts. A single violin and, later, ondes martenot play lines intimating ecstatic dance, while piano, percussion, and the string ensemble each contribute vigorous figures of their own. All these combine with the vocal line to create an exhilarating polyphony of diverse elements.

The same notion animates the second movement. But in contrast to the dizzying welter of musical detail this movement presents, its formal structure is a simple rondo design: a brief melodic idea alternating with episodes of more variegated music. The end conveys religious rapture through sheer sonority, bright and overwhelming.

The final “liturgy,” like the first, unfolds in a broad A–B–A pattern, but with tempos and characters reversed: Here the outer panels are fast and rhythmic, while the central episode brings slow, sustained music and celestial sonorities. The reprise of the initial section culminates in another of Messiaen’s shattering climaxes, but the composer appends a coda passage that brings the work to a tranquil close. —Program note by Andrew Stiefel, originally published in the Seattle Symphony program book