Notes by Olivier Messiaen, 1949:
The word "Amen" is invested with four different meanings:
1. Amen: "So be it!" denoting the creative act.
2. Amen: "I submit, I accept. Thy will be done!"
3. Amen: "The wish, the desire, that such a thing should be -- that Thou shouldst give Thyself to me and I to Thee."
4. Amen: "So it is." All is in Heaven, forever determined and fulfilled.
By including the life of creatures who through the very fact of their existence say "Amen," the composer has tried to express in Seven Musical Visions the greatly varied riches of the word, Amen.
I. Amen of Creation
Amen: "So be it!" God said: "Let there be light: and there was light. (Genesis 1.3)
The first piano performs a double rhythmic pedal in chimes using repeated non-reversible rhythms whose values increase or decrease with each repetition.
The second piano announces the work's principal theme which is that of all of the Creation, expressed by broad and solemn chords. The whole piece is a crescendo.
It opens with a complete pianissimo representing the mystery of that primordial nebula which already contains potentially not only the light and all of the bells vibrating within that light -- but, because of the light, also life.
II. Amen of the Stars and of the Ringed Planet
A wild and brutal dance. The stars, the suns, and that planet Saturn with its many-colored ring are violently spinning.
"And the stars shined in their watches and were glad: when He called them they said: Amen, here we be." (Baruch III.34)
The second piano states the theme of the planets' dance.
First Development: Beneath the whirling polymodal figures of the first piano, the five opening notes of the theme are altered both rhythmically and by abrupt skips in register.
Second Development: The head of the theme, gradually reduced, is used in direct and contrary movement.
A Third Development combines the head of the theme, now forming a rhythmic pedal in the first piano, with the same head played by the second instrument with changes of register.
The dance of the planets is then repeated in varied form. All these mingled patterns conjure up the life of the stars and the startling rainbow of Saturn's revolving ring.
III. Amen of the Agony of Jesus
Jesus suffers and weeps. "O My Father, if this cup may not pass away from Me, except I drink it, Thy will be done." (Matthew XXVI.42)
He accepts: Thy will, not Mine, be done. Amen.
Jesus, alone in the garden of olives, confronts His agony.
There are three musical motives:
1. The Father's curse on the sins of the world for which Jesus at this moment stands.
2. A cry, represented by the rhythmic and expressive group: - anacrusis - accent - and close.
3. A heart-rending groan on four notes in opposing rhythms.
The theme of Creation is then recalled, after which a great hush, broken only by a few throbs, evokes the suffering of this hour -- unutterable suffering, which finds but partial expression in the sweat of blood.
IV. Amen of Desire
There are two themes of desire.
The first is slow, ecstatic, deep with a tender yearning and a foretaste of the calm fragrance of Paradise.
In the fiercely impassioned second theme, the soul is led on by a fearful love, which though expressed in sensual terms (compare The Song of Songs), denotes here nothing casual but on a paroxysm of Love's thirst.
The piece closes with the first theme in a great calm. The two main voices appear to melt into each other and there alone remains the silent harmony in Heaven.
V. Amen of the Angels and Saints and the Song of the Birds
The song of the Saints' purity is an Amen.
The birds' vehement warbling is an Amen.
"And all the angels ... fall before the throne on their faces and worshiped God, saying Amen." (Revelation VII.2)
First comes the song of the Angels and Saints, unadorned and of great purity.
Then a central section devoted to bird song, which gives rise to a more brilliant type of writing and includes actual bird songs of nightingales, blackbirds, finches, warblers, and their turbulent and happy blend.
After this a return to the song of the Saints with a canon of non-reversible rhythms at three different levels.
And finally a short coda on the song of the birds.
VI. Amen of the Judgement
There sound three icy notes like the bells of evidence.
"Amen, verily I say unto you ... depart from me ye cursed." (Matthew XXV.41)
VII. Amen of the Fulfillment
All is consummated in Paradise where live the glorious risen amid peals of light.
"The path of the just is as the shining light that shineth more and more into the perfect day." (Proverbs IV.18)
While the second piano takes up the chordal theme of Creation and draws from it a great chorale of glory, the first piano, both in its very highest and lowest registers, surrounds it with an unceasing peal of chords and brilliant, scintillating rhythms, forming ever-closer rhythmic canons and denoting the precious stones of the Apocalypse which ring, clash, and leap, tinting and incensing the light of Life.
The "Visions de l'Amen" are dedicated to Yvonne Loriod in memory of the performances of this work which she gave, together with the composer in France, Belgium, Italy, Holland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, England, Germany, and Spain.
Following his release from a ten-month internment in a German prisoner-of-war camp in Poland, during which time he composed and first performed his “Quartet for the End of Time” (see the Canary album canary-records.bandcamp.com/album/quatuor-pour-le-fin-du-temps-the-first-recording
) and lived without solid food, Olivier Messiaen (b. Dec. 10, 1908; d. April 27, 1992) returned to Paris in the Spring of 1941. He taught harmony at the Paris Conservatoire and composed prolifically in private. It was only at the instigation of the organizers of the Concerts de la Pléiade , and after beginning to teach the young pianist Yvonne Loriod (b. Jan. 20, 1924; d. May 17, 2010) that he presented a new composition in 1943. The resulting piece, the “Visions de l’Amen,” picks up where the Quartet left off.
Like the Quartet, it is derived from obsessions with the cosmos, with Christianity, and with bird song. Like the Quartet, it utilizes innovative rhythmic techniques that imply an underlying stillness of time, an eternity that holds true even as the listener perceives a sequential passage through time. And, like the Quartet, it is made to be performed under circumstances of scarcity, utilizing the sympathetic performers at hand. In the case of the Quartet, it was the three other competent musicians at Stalag VIII-A. In the case of the Visions, it was the extraordinary talent of his Loriod with whom Messiaen would collaborate for the rest of his life.
Loriod was a child prodigy who began to learn piano from her father at age six. She began formal sessions with her godmother Madame Sivade at age 11. By the age of 12 she had committed to memory all of Beethoven's piano sonata and all of Mozart's piano concertos. By 14, she was performing Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, and the entire keyboard works of Chopin and Schumann. She studied at the Paris Conservatoire under Lazare-Lévy (b. Jan. 18, 1882; d. Sept. 20, 1964), who was dismissed from his position as a Jew under the Nazi occupation and narrowly evaded arrest by going into hiding. (His son Phillipe, a resistance fighter was captured, sent to a concentration camp, tortured, and murdered.) Loriod continued her studies at the Conservatoire with Marcel Ciampi, Darius Milhaud, and Olivier Messiaen shortly after his release from the POW camp in 1941. One of a group of eight disciples of Messiaen during that period, including Pierre Boulez, she said, "We were known as the "fleches" [arrows], because like all young people, we imagined we were going to revolutionize the world ansdwere were shooting these arrows in every sense..."
The first performance of the Visions and the "Trois petites liturgies de la Presence Divine" were given in 1943 and 1945 respectively while Paris was still under occupation of France as part of a concert series named the Concerts de Pleidade produced by a small group of intellectuals who whose aim was to continue musical creativity under the regime. Messiaen received no commissions from the Vichy government and was excluded from a January 1942 concert of of composers recently released from prison camps sponsored by the Societe des Concerts Conservatore. The Concerts de Pleidade also ignored Messiaen's request to perform the quartet.
Following the War, Messiaen and Loriod performed the Visions many times throughout Europe while his first wife and the mother of his child, the violinist Claire Delbos, was permanently institutionalized as the result of cerebral atrophy which resulted in total amnesia. The work was recorded in early 1949, shortly before Messiaen’s first visit to the United States that Summer to teach composition at Tanglewood. (Loriod was then 25 years old; Messiaen was 42 and living at 13 Villa du Danube in the Mouzaïa district at the northeast of Paris.)
By the time of his visit to the U.S. Messiaen had a significant reputation in the U.S. His organ works had been performed widely, and his 1944 piano suite “Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jesus” had been performed by Alexander Borovsky at Carnegie Hall in November 1948. So, when the American premier of the “Quartet for the End of Time” was given at Tanglewood on July 24, 1949, music critic Jay C. Rosenfeld wrote:
“Olivier Messiaen strained the musical credulity of the immense audience of which not even half could be accommodated within the little chamber music hall at Tanglewood. […] Mr. Messiaen was in the hall and was obliged to stand and acknowledge the cordial reactions of the audience. The performance consumed nearly a full hour, and it can be reported truthfully that the audience was held absorbed continuously. An intangible spirit of paramount devotion pervaded his writing in spite of pages which, on analysis, seemed to defy classification. This was not only a personal reaction but also that of many others in the audience, and one, therefore, not to be dismissed without significance.”
The following year, around June 1950, the recording of “Visions de l’Amen” was released in the U.S. as part of a series of avant-garde classical works by Ross Russell’s Dial Records label. Dial had, up to that point, specialized in ultra-hip modern jazz, releasing important 78rpm discs by, among others, Art Tatum, Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie, and, most notably, Charlie Parker. After about three years in business, Russell realized he could swap masters from his jazz catalog in exchange for masters of recordings by modern European composers. He augmented the masters he received with tapes of a few other American modernists and release a series of nine 12” LPs, en masse in the middle of 1950. Over half of the brief catalog were comprised of works by the primary composers of the Second Vienna School - Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern - as well as Bela Bartok, Alan Hovhaness, and, subsequently, John Cage. All of the composers represented precisely the kind of “far out” classical music that the hipster bebop jazz musicians, if not their audience, were interested in. The Messiaen LP was among them. (Notably, the 12” LP format had only been introduced by Columbia Records only two years earlier, and the RCA-Victor label had just announced that it would release music on 12” LP discs in January 1950.)
Messiaen and Loriod re-recorded the “Visions” in 1957. There has not been a restoration of the 1949 recordings since its initial release.