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Monday, 29 June 2015

Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus: From occupation to liberation

Ahead of a recital, Michael Symmons Roberts explained in The Guardian at the weekend how the composition of Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus by Olivier Messiaen at the end of the second world war, and its filmic qualities, inspired his response in poetry to the work

Messiaen wrote his piano piece Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (20 Contemplations of the Infant Jesus) in 1944. It was originally a Radio Paris commission, based on some poetic tableaux by the French writer Maurice Toesca.

Symmonds Roberts writes: 'What I hadn’t realised was that Messiaen began to write the piece in Paris under German occupation in March of that year, and finished it in September after liberation. Although his commission was to write music to accompany the 12 sections of Toesca’s text, Messiaen soon abandoned that, pursuing his own poetic vision into wilder and stranger territories.

My work on the poems began to reflect aspects of this story. I was fascinated by the idea of Vingt Regards being written in a city as it crossed from occupation to liberation. Not only does the nativity story take place under Roman occupation, but “occupation” is not a bad metaphor for “annunciation”, even if it starts with a willing “yes’”. And in Christian theology, the arrival of God the creator into his own world as a helpless baby is both a huge risk and – ultimately – an act of liberation.'

Pianist Cordelia Williams is presenting ‘Between Heaven and the Clouds’, a year-long series of events setting Vingt Regards alongside words and images, including specially commissioned poetry and paintings, in order to explore these universal themes and Messiaen’s rich variety of inspiration.


Olivier Messiaen, Vingt regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus.

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