Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus was composed in Paris, March-September 1944, during the liberation of the city. The symbolic significance of the date is hard to avoid: it marked Olivier Messiaen’s own liberation from prisoner-of-war camp (where he wrote the sublime Quartet for the End of Time) and the publication of his radical treatise on composition, which was to herald the most influential composition classes in Europe for the next forty years. An explosive work written for his pupil, Yvonne Loriod (who was to become his wife), Vingt Regards is massive, almost unruly in its overflow of energy and colour, teeming with gorgeous sonorities and intellectually rigorous ideas. Each movement is quite literally a meditation on a theological aspect of his Roman Catholic beliefs, yet the contemplations are meticulously and dramatically paced: they can be serene, fierce, languid, rigidly doctrinal or even humorous. The nearest equivalent I can think of to the contradictory forces held within some movements is the work of the metaphysical poet John Donne, whose Holy Sonnets contain surprisingly forceful imagery -‘Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for,you/As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend’.

The other truly remarkable quality is Messiaen’s knowledge and love for Eastern music and philosophy. Like the American composer Lou Harrison, he challenges our Western notions of time and structure. The whole work of Vingt Regards may well represent the austere and magnificent edifice of a Gothic cathedral, but the detail and pacing of each movement owes much to Hindu rhythms and the sonority of the Balinese Gamelan.

Every time I return to the score of Vingt Regards, I am amazed that a work so ambitious and diverse can be built upon unifying building blocks that are in themselves so simple and repetitive. In that sense there is much in common with Bach’s The Art of Fugue, which is equally intellectually rigorous, built on one unadorned fugue subject in D minor. The unifying key in Vingt Regards is F sharp major, heard in hushed tones at the opening, and thunderously at the end. F sharp major, both as a straight tonic chord and with its more luxuriant added sixth, stands almost as an icon throughout the work. The four main themes that Messiaen identifies in his introductory note are:

the Theme of God – heard in all the main movements once it has been played in full in the opening movement; pitched against birdsong in no.5, transformed into a lullaby in no.15 and re-iterated majestically at the climax of no.20

the Theme of the Star and the Cross – more snake-like and sinister; introduced in no.2, it comes back in various disguises, most notably in the heavy Regard de la Croix

the Theme of Chords – a sequence of four four-part chords which ring out throughout

the Theme of Love – based around F sharp major and passionately displayed in no.6, heart-stoppingly in no. 19.

There is no one English word that could adequately translate ‘regard’. Certainly in these pieces we really see Messiaen’s view of God, his Son, the Virgin Mary, Angels and birds  – but we see far beyond the material world and begin to contemplate abstract ideas, as well as feel the passion of Messian’s beliefs, rooted in sensuality as well as theology. Sometimes ‘regard’ is translated as ‘adoration’, but even Messiaen added often quite impressionistic subtitles in an effort to explain the title; he sometimes expanded on the structure of the music and the implied iconography. There are many ways to appreciate Vingt Regards – as a technical achievement, an act of faith, an emotional rollercoaster. It is a tribute to the depth of this masterwork that its meanings are as infinite as all the global references Messiaen draws upon.

1. Regard du Père

Regard du Père, the opening movement, may have the lush harmonies of the French salon, in Messiaen’s favourite key of F sharp major, but it’s played at such a mesmerically slow pulse the effect is hypnotic and timeless. Messiaen will go on to develop this Theme of God with astonishing complexity. Here you encounter the first of many seemingly contradictory styles; the warmth and depth of the repeated chords reminds me of an almost Lisztian soundworld, while gently re-iterated C sharps in the right hand gives us the first glimpse of the gamelan.

2. Regard de l’étoile

3. L’échange

The next two pieces, Regard de l’étoile and L’échange, are shorter and sharper in contrast. After the sensuality of the opening movement, they’re more cerebral, and certainly fiercer. The first sets out the theme of the Star and the Cross, starkly played four octaves apart and in a strict Greek metrical rhythm. The Exchange is even more unyielding, with a technique Messiaen calls ‘asymmetric enlargement’; from a small riff of descending thirds and ascending octaves, the music develops over a long crescendo, the intervals expanding in each direction, as humankind grows. There’s a bar of silence towards the end, which I always hear as a silent echo of the thunderous octaves.

4. Regard de la Vierge

5. Regard du Fils sur le Fils

The fourth movement, Regard de la Vierge, is the first of many tender lullabies in the whole work and inevitably such tenderness is linked to the Virgin Mary. This contemplation has a charming off-kilter rhythm, almost a  calypso. The preceding movements have all represented the Divine, and here there’s a very simple and beautiful human element being introduced; Messiaen marks in the music ‘tendre et naif’ and imbues it with ‘la pureté’. The scherzo-like middle section brings a sharp spikiness, evoking dance rhythms, xylophones and birdsong.

Regard du Fils sur le Fils develops that birdsong considerably, with the delicate and spirited singing of a blackbird and a garden warbler. But the piece starts, and finishes, with a remarkable rhythmical canon, placed over the Theme of God. The canon subject is based on three Hindu rhythms, and staggered between the hands by altering the metrical relationship; this produces the effect of stasis, yet the harmonic language of the original F sharp major theme somehow irresistibly pulls the music forward.  At this point, in a complete performance of Vingt Regards, the music is begins to deepen and broaden out; already themes are re-emerging, transformed, but the textures, despite the multi-layering, are still transparent.

6. Par Lui tout a été fait

If you ask any pianist what are the truly nightmare movements to play in Vingt Regards, chances are they’ll tell you nos.6 and 10. This isn’t just because they’re long movements, which they are, or because they make unreasonable virtusoic demands on the player, which they do, but because they cram in such a lot of information at high voltage. “By Him all things were made” touches on in some detail Messiaen’s interest in numerology, being the sixth movement and describing the six days of creation. Put simply, in this movement Messiaen has written an enormous fugue, with countersubjects and triple canons; in his notes on the piece he mentions Bach’s Art of Fugue and the fugue from Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata. Nothing can prepare you for the audacity of constructing a dense fugue that after nine pages begins to unravel backwards, like a colossal piece of engineering. A stretto on the fugue subject leads to the theme of God, ‘victorieux et agité’, alongside the Theme of Love. The mammoth coda section is an ecstatic shout on the theme of God, so repetitive with the odd kink it seems to foreshadow the work of Steve Reich (pretty surprising). Every single note of this movement is derived from either the fugue subject or one of the four themes – the final flourish is a splashed Theme of Chords. As a piece of compositional technique, this movement, rarely played out of context, repays serious study;  to play, it represents one of the Everests of the cycle.

7. Regard de la Croix

8. Regard des hauteurs

9. Regard du Temps

A trio of shorter, more direct movements follow to vary the dramatic pacing. Regard de la Croix quotes the theme heard back in the second movement, but treats it almost as a slow blues, with heavy, grief-stricken chords. In wonderful contrast come the cheeky birds in “Gaze of the Heights”, who dance round each other, sing, play, quarrel and fly off. Regard du Temps, which expresses mysticism and timelessness, has a wonderfully relaxed chorus woven into a triple canon, beautifully voiced and spread wide over the piano.

10. Regard de l’Esprit de joie

Regard de l’Esprit de joie is the equivalent movement to Turangalîla Symphony’s fifth movement – loud, bright, and maddeningly difficult to play: a clash of Western jazziness with Hindu dance rhythms. It opens with a passage Messiaen calls ‘thème de danse orientale at plain-chantesque’ which gives you a good idea of what to expect. The middle section attracted me many years ago because it seemed to slip into pure boogie-woogie in the left hand. A new theme, the Theme of Joy, is developed. Despite the now-familiar ‘agrandissements asymetriques’ technique the movement is more irrepressibly joyful and gaudy than the notorious no 6 –   more Blackpool Towers than Durham Cathedral. It ends with a flourish of birdsong, after which many pianists take the opportunity to lie down.

11. Première communion de la Vierge

After the crazy rumbustuousness of L’Esprit de joie, the sublime Première communion de la Vierge takes us back into an inner world of contemplation and tenderness.  Of course, the opening chords in the left hand are the Theme of God transposed into B flat major; but above are delicately effective swirls of hemi-demi-semiquavers Messiaen charmingly calls stalactites. Although the music does find more forcefulness in a dance-like section, it winds down again with a pedal-point passage said to represent the beating of Baby Jesus’ heart. I find this movement infinitely moving and intense.

12. La Parole toute-puissante

13. Noël

What follows is designed to shatter the calm you may be feeling. The all-powerful Word is an extraordinarily punchy little movement, with a tam-tam ostinato that accompanies a monody constructed around three ancient Greek rhythms. There’s a simple and terrible aspect to the Word, which will be built upon later in the eighteenth movement. Christmas is surprisingly noisy too. A gorgeous middle section representing the Holy Family is framed by a carillon, clangerous xylophone figures and a tam-tam. There’s an effectively brutal end to this movement, where a reprise of the middle section is ruthlessly cut off by the tam-tam figure.

14. Regard des Anges

The third of these noisy movements is Regard des Anges. This is a powerfully repetitive piece of music, where a strophe (a rhythmical canon in three parts) is enlarged upon four times. We hear the fluttering of angels wings, and a depiction of the athletic angels from Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, who blow brass instruments with the sonority of trombones or Tibetan trumpets. Messiaen regards angels in the same way as he reveres birds (who also make an appearance in this movement); higher, purer beings, nearer to God both metaphysically and literally. Throughout Vingt Regards birds can be hilarious, gentle, sleepy, melodic and triumphant; the angels by contrast are definitely Old Testament. But the final page holds, for me, the best image of these rather fierce angels: when told of God’s plan to unite himself with the human race, ‘la stupeur des anges s’agrandit’ over twenty-three bars of an ever-augmenting octave sequence. Their jaws quite literally hit the floor.

15. Le Baiser de l’Enfant-Jésus

“The Kiss of the Child Jesus” is the best-known of Vingt Regards, and most often played as a substantial solo piece. It’s stunningly beautiful and lyrical, treating the Theme of God as a slow-motion berceuse, adding birds, dances, tone clusters, and all the passion of a high romantic Ballade. After the  opening section the music becomes playful in ‘le jardin’; slowly the arms of the child Jesus extend in love, before the climactic kiss. The highly-charged passion of this music reflects on Messiaen’s involvement with the Tristan myth throughout the 40’s (present in his choral work Trois Petits Liturgies and Turangalîla Symphony), the bringing-together of spirituality and sensuality: of Roman Catholic iconography and Eastern eroticism. The movement ends with distant cuckoo calls, and a cadence straight out of a jazzy love song.

16. Regard des propheètes, des bergers et des Mages

17. Regard du Silence

As at the end of Première Communion de la Vierge, Messiaen decides to break the atmosphere with short and aggressive movement. The “Adoration of the prophets, shepherds and Wise Men” starts with a march-like figure, going into a nasal, Middle Eastern monody: what a shame the piano can’t play quarter-tones. The movement has great wit and vigour.

Regard du Silence, on the other hand, returns us to the world of the first and fifth movements, in a more sophisticated and yearning way. As at the opening of the fifth movement, there is an intricate rhythmic canon, marked ‘ppp – impalpable’. The delicate arpeggios in this movement are directly linked to Debussy’s Preludes, combined with Messiaen’s modal harmonies. The movement drifts off into infinity.

18. Regard de l’Onction Terrible

Apocryphal and angry, the “Gaze of the Awesome Anointing” is in some ways the hardest movement to pull off in the cycle. As a piece of music, it could only work in context of the whole work; it brings together Balinese music (the technique of simultaneously accelerating and decelerating) and a scene from the Biblical book of Revelation, depicted on a stunning 14th century tapestry of the Apocalypse at Angers cathedral. The Word of God is shown as Christ on horseback, brandishing a sword amongst thunderbolts, at war with the world; musically the movement is based largely around a brass chorale. The ‘awesome anointing’ referred to is inspired by Psalm 45: ‘Gird thy sword upon thy thigh, O most mighty, with thy glory and thy majesty. And in thy majesty ride prosperously because of truth and meekness and righteousness; and thy right hand shall teach thee terrible things…’

19. Je dors, mais mon coeur veille

“I sleep, but my heart keeps watch” is the penultimate movement of the cycle. Silence is used throughout this piece, and silence has the last word. Based on the Theme of Love, the music progresses to a very long F sharp major added sixth chord in this piece; marked ‘ppp – extatique’, I always feel this is the very heart of Vingt Regards. The movement needs very little explanation except to quote Messiaen: ‘The Angel drew his bow across the viol, producing so sweet a sound that, if he had continued to play, all who heard him would have died of joy…’

20. Regard de l’ Église d’Amour

The massive final movement brings together all the themes, angels, birds, bells, gongs and tam-tams that we’ve heard in the previous two hours. It really sums up the grandeur, solemnity and vast scope of Messiaen’s ambition; starting with three sections which repetitively exploit the ‘agrandissement technique’, with the marking ‘confusing, menacing’, we cross a bridge passage of carillons and bells which sounds extraordinarily like a snatch of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov (an opera that Messiaen always asked his students to study) before reaching a tumultuous re-working of Theme of God at the end — unhurried, majestic and moving. 

Joanna MacGregor