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Length: c. 22 minutes

About this Piece

No. 10, Regard de l’Esprit de joie

No. 15, Le baiser de l’Enfant-Jésus

In 1940, Olivier Messiaen was serving in the French army as a hospital nurse when he was captured by Nazi troops and imprisoned for nine months. Messiaen later said: “When I arrived at the camp, I was stripped of all my clothes, like all the prisoners. But naked as I was, I clung fiercely to a little bag of miniature scores that served as consolation when I suffered. The Germans considered me to be completely harmless, and since they still loved music, not only did they allow me to keep my scores, but an officer also gave me pencils, erasers, and some music paper.”

As a prisoner of war, Messiaen composed his influential Quartet for the End of Time, a piece inspired by the New Testament Book of Revelation. Much of Messiaen’s music was deeply rooted in his Catholic faith and reflective upon Christ.

This was especially true for Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus, or “Twenty Contemplations on the Infant Jesus” in English. Four years after his imprisonment, Messiaen composed the Vingt Regards in Paris during the city’s liberation from Nazi occupation. Though World War II was not quite over, Messiaen saw the light at the end of the tunnel, and his music reflected that.

The Vingt Regards were intended to complement 12 poems about the Nativity scene by Maurice Toesca. But the poems grew to 20 contemplations and two hours’ worth of music, earning it a reputation as one of the most demanding and impressive works in the entire piano repertoire.

Through its four themes—God, the Star and the Cross, Chords, and Mystical Love—the Vingt Regards fluctuate from hypnotic to nightmarish, covering a range of expressions. The Theme of God can be heard in the dissonant ecstasy of No. 10, “Contemplation of the joyful Spirit,” as well as in the twinkling lullaby of No. 15, “The kiss of the Infant Jesus.”

Messiaen’s genius lies in these complex details, and like a spiritual scientist of rhythm and harmony, he concocts a floating sensation of profound and ultimate peace. —Piper Starnes