Pianist Steven Osborne will perform Messiaen's Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus October 31 in Gazing at the Divine, part of this year's White Light Festival. In advance of the performance, he shared his thoughts on the piece and how his approach to it has changed over time.
I've always been attracted to extremes, and in terms of piano music, it doesn't get much more extreme than Messiaen's Vingt regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus. First, there's simply the length: at over two hours, it's one of the longest self-contained works ever written for piano. Then there's the vast emotional range, from gentleness and contemplation to exaltation, awe, fury, and more. This range is reflected in a stunning combination of musical styles, from a simple melody in F# major, which recurs throughout the piece (the "Theme of God"), to some of the most mindbogglingly complex fugal writing that two hands could possibly encompass.
For me, this range is at the heart of Messiaen's importance as a composer. While he had sympathy for the self-conscious complexity that attracted many composers in the middle of the 20th century—indeed, his Mode de valeurs et d'intensités pointed the way towards total serialism—what sets him apart is his apparent innocence and humility, his willingness to write unguardedly loving, almost sentimental, music, and his prioritizing of direct emotional impact at a time when it was becoming more fashionable to hide behind irony or compositional techniques. He was rather ridiculed at the time for his "naivety," but time has shown what a potent force this combination of complexity and simplicity is.
This sequence of meditations . . . has an extraordinary cumulative power.
The Vingt regards is an enormously involving piece to play. In banal terms, it gives me ample opportunity to indulge my almost childish pleasure in playing both extremely quietly and crashingly loud. But much more than that, this sequence of meditations on the person of Jesus and on aspects of Messiaen's Catholic faith has an extraordinary cumulative power. When I started playing the complete work, almost 20 years ago, I would take a break in the middle, but in time I realized that the hearty applause that follows the very impressive tenth piece caused everyone to relax, and dissipated the collective concentration. Now I much prefer to play the whole without intermission, which I feel creates a deeper sense of engagement with the work in its entirety, for both myself and the listener. I rather feel applause is anathema to the piece anyway—it's not about spectacle or the performer, but is an attempt to communicate the deepest truths about existence as Messiaen saw it. It's more like a Bach Passion in a liturgical setting than a virtuoso tour de force. Years ago I performed it in a French festival that somehow forgot to advertise the concert, and the audience (in a large church) numbered four. Playing the piece in that context seemed strangely fitting.
About the Author
Steven Osborne is one of Britain's most treasured musicians, whose insightful and idiomatic interpretations of diverse repertoire show an immense musical depth. His recitals of carefully crafted programs are publicly and critically acclaimed without exception. Read more of Osborne's insights on music at www.stevenosborne.co.uk/blog.