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The vocal score for Messiaen's saint francois d'Assise.

Olivier Messiaen. Saint Francois d'Assise (Scenes Franciscaines): Opera en 3 actes et 8 tableaux. Partition piano et chant. Reduction par Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen. Paris: Alphonse Leduc, 2007. Volume 1: Acte I: ler tableau, 2e tableau, 3e tableau. [Personnages, resume de l'action, analyse du premier tableau, 4 p.; analyse du deuxieme tableau, p. 92; analyse du troisieme tableau, p. 149-50; score, p. 1-244. ISMN 979-0-046- 29603-1; pub. no. AL 29603. [euro]12.51.]

Olivier Messiaen. Saint Francois d'Assise (Scenes Franciscaines): Opera en 3 actes et 8 tableaux. Partition piano et chant. Reduction par Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen. Paris: Alphonse Leduc, 2010. Volume 2: Acte 4e tableau, 5e tableau. [Personnages, resume de l'action, p. iv-vi, xi-xii; analyse du quatrieme tableau, p. xi-xii; analyse du cinquieme tableau, p. 93-94; score, p. 1-187. ISMN 979-0-046-29604-8; pub. no. AL 29 604. [euro]72.51.]

Olivier Messiaen. Saint Francois d'Assise (Scenes Franciscaines): Opera en 3 actes et 8 tableaux. Partition piano et chant. Reduction par Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen. Paris: Alphonse Leduc, 2011. Volume 3: Acte II: 6e tableau. [Personnages, resume de l'action, p. iv-vi; analyse du sixieme tableau, p. ix-3CH; score, p. 1-231. ISMN 979-0-046-29605-5; pub. no. AL 29 605. [euro]72.51.]

Olivier Messiaen. Saint Francois d'Assise (Scenes Franciscaines): Opera en 3 actes et 8 tableaux. Partition piano et chant. Reduction par Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen. Paris: Alphonse Leduc, 2012. Volume 4: Acte III: 7e tableau, 8e tableau. [Personnages, resume de l'action, p. v-vi; analyse du septieme tableau, p. ix-x; analyse du huitieme tableau, p. 107-8; score, p. 1-269. ISMN 979-0-046-29606-2; pub. no. AL 29 606. [euro]72.51.]

"When I was ten, he [Jehan de Gibon] also gave me a score of Pellet's et Melisande. That was something quite unlike the Estampes! A provincial teacher had placed a veritable bomb in the hands of a mere child" (Olivier Messiaen, Music and Color: Conversations with Claude Samuel, trans. E. Thomas Glasow [Portland, OR: Amadeus, 1994], 110). The gift of the vocal score for Pelleas et Melisande is among the most striking of Messiaen's favored anecdotes from his childhood. The opera was less than two decades old and, as Messiaen recalled in 1952, "at the time it was the height of daring (rather like serial music, or musique concrete, or a sonata by Pierre Boulez nowadays)" (Obituary for Jehan de Gibon in L'echo du Pays de Redon, 26 January 1952, cited by Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone, Messiaen [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005], 15). The young Messiaen fell in love with the score, repeatedly playing through it, singing all of the parts, and it became a staple of his classes at the Paris Conservatoire. Nearly a century later, a modern-day Jehan de Gibon could present the vocal score of Messiaen's own opera, Saint Finnois d'Assise, though a ten-year-old might buckle under the weight.

Saint Franois is a large work in every respect, so it is little surprise that the four volumes of its vocal score collectively tip the scales at eight-and-a-quarter pounds, each coming close to the two-and-a-quarter pounds of the vocal score of Pelleas et Melisande. Using a more conventional measure, the Saint Francois vocal score contains just short of 1,000 pages, the volumes consisting respectively of 244, 187, 231, and 269 pages of music along with the initial identical pages listing the characters and providing a brief synopsis. For comparison, the manuscript full score weighs about twenty-five pounds and contains approximately 2,500 pages, while the printed full score (Paris: Alphonse Leduc, 1988-92) runs to 1,450 pages not including the 20 or so pages in each of the eight volumes listing characters, costumes, and scenery details along with a synopsis of the opera and Messiaen's analysis of each tableau. The opera contains more than four hours of music, scored for an orchestra of 119 and a choir of 150 in addition to the seven vocal soloists. The sheer magnitude of the orchestra, including many bulky instruments, causes problems in even large opera-house pits. As such, it represents the most extreme example of the composer's desire to overwhelm the listener in every respect. The more quantifiable elements, such as duration, instrumentation, register, and volume, are all taken to .their limits,

Nonetheless, as is clear to anyone who has seen it, the remarkable proportions are not the most significant way in which Saint Francois differs from other operas. A stage work by Messiaen was always going to be idiosyncratic, but it was clear from the first production in 1983 that the composer had rethought opera just as profoundly as Debussy. It is not just the Wagnerian length or that it requires .an enormous orchestra and chorus, befitting its status as the magnum opus of a composer not averse to largesse. Saint Francois is unusual because the drama is of an interior, spiritual nature, with no hint of the affairs, intrigues, and murders that normally characterize the genre. instead Messiaen presents "eight Franciscan scenes," each of which is like a fresco brought to life, combining to produce a profound and dazzling work of faith that has come to be recognized by believers and unbelievers alike as one of the iconic operas of the twentieth century.

The eight scenes (tableaux) are just that, episodes from a life, as emphasized by Messiaen's subtitle of Scenes Franciscaines. They are grouped into three acts:

Act I

1. La croix

2. Les laudes

3. Le baiser au lepreux

Act II

4. L'ange voyageur

5. L'ange Musicien

6. Le preche aux oiseaux


7. Les stigmates

8. La moil et nouvelle vie

They are not intended to provide an exhaustive history of Saint Francis, and Messiaen frequently ignores temporal chronology in favor of the spiritual narrative; time gives way to the eternal. Like the medieval lives of Saint Francis on which much of the libretto is based, the composer emphasizes the miraculous and the divine, omitting the all too terrestrial youth of Francis and the conflicts with his father. For fear of farcical stagings. Messiaen also left out episodes such as the wolf of Gubbio. Instead, he explores the relationship. albeit in exceptional and idealized form, between the human and the divine. The progress of this interaction provides the dramatic thread of the opera. Francis moves from espousing theory in the first scene, to the difficult reality of confronting his fear of lepers in the third, and from being given a foretaste of the music of paradise in the fourth scene to becoming a second Paschal sacrifice through the receipt of the stigmata in the seventh. The latter gives us some glimpse of what a Passion setting by Messiaen might have sounded like, had he not felt himself unworthy of such an undertaking. Finally, Messiaen follows the death of

Francis with a triumphantly joyous resurrection chorale.

Aside from the momentous impact of the Pelleas et Melisande gift, operatic vocal scores were important to Messiaen from his earliest years of exploring music. He would ask for them for Christmas and birthdays, singing and playing through them, Debussy's opera joining a repertoire that already included Gluck (Alceste and Orphee), Mozart (Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflote), Berlioz (La damnation de Faust), anti Wagner (Die Walkure and Siegfried). Given this, and the control that Messiaen usually exerted over his music, it may seem surprising that it was [tot him, but his wife, Yvonne Loriod, who prepared the vocal score for Saint Francois. She was, of course, an extraordinary pianist of fearsome virtuosity, but tile tortured genesis of the opera also contributed to her being entrusted with this vital task.

After initial reluctance, Messiaen finally committed to writing Saint Francois in 1975. The commission, from the then general manager of the Paris Opera, Rolf Liebermann, was for a production in 1980.. At first, progress was rapid, Messiaen departing from his usual practice and composing all-Year-round. By October 1977, he was ready to play through the short score for Liebermann. This point, however, is when the problems began. Messiaen raised anxieties about completing the orchestration by 1980, but was persuaded to stick to the original plan. Shortly after this meeting, it was reported on the radio that Messiaen was writing an opera on Saint Francis of Assisi: the information could only have come from Liebermann. For a composer who was almost pathologically secretive about work in progress, this was a grave transgression. Before they were performed, the secrecy surrounding Messiaen's compositions was as strict as that of the confessional. Having an unwelcome spotlight shone upon the opera while still in embryonic farm only added to the pressure to finish Saint Francois for the increasingly improbable date of 1980. The inevitable delay of the premiere failed to prevent growing anxiety for Messiaen about completing the work. He came to believe that it would be his final work, and that he would die before it was finished, succumbing to a depression in 1981. Thanks largely to Loriod. he rallied and the first production was in November 1983. It was as early as 1978, following Liebermann's faux pas and attendant publicity, that Loriod was drafted to work on the vocal score and, as his worries grew. Messiaen took a further unprecedented step and asked her to prepare the fair copy of the full score for the opera's fifth scene, "L'ange musicien." An indication of how difficult these steps were comes from the fact that, once the first production was out of the way, Messaien made his own fair corn of the scene.

In the years alter the premiere of Saint Francois, Messiaen despaired of his magnum opus ever receiving a second full production. He witnessed a semistaged performance at the Royal Festival Hall in London on his eightieth birthday, but it was with the Peter Sellars production in Salzburg and Paris a few months after Messiaen's death in 1992 that the work began to enter the repertoire. The final volume of the full score appeared the same summer. As befits a work of such prestige, the full scores are some of the most beautifully prepared of modern times. The eight large volumes, one per scene, are printed on ivory paper with a rare care and clarity; a last hurrah of the engraver's art before computer typesetting began to encroach. Moreover, unlike some composers, Messiaen was punctilious about publication of his music, insisting on a minimum of three months to proofread each volume of the Saint Francois scores. Given that there have been numerous productions and performances since Messiaen's death, it is unclear why it has taken a further twenty years for the vocal score to appear. The delay has meant that neither Messiaen nor Loriod, who was ill for several years before her death in 2010, was able to oversee its production. It is less surprising than it might have been, therefore, that some minor mistakes have crept in. For instance, of the four chords that open the second scene, "Les laudes," the fourth is tied over a barline. However, one of the accidentals changes from a natural to a sharp sign, creating a shifting voice where none should occur, and what is clearly a redundant doubling of a note already heard in the chord. Here, as elsewhere, the error is absent from the full score and the manuscript of the vocal score. It would be foolhardy to claim that any text is free from error, but the signs are that proofreading in these scores falls a little short of the exceptionally high standard set by Messiaen and Loriod.

Not that there is anything slapdash; these four volumes are elegant and smart. As befits their status they have a marginally less lavish, slightly more workaday feel than the palpably precious full scores. Ironically, this means that the spines need considerable working over to make them practical stores; whether fiat on a table or on the music stand of a piano, they offer stern resistance to staying open. Hardened repetiteurs may not blanche, but, given the cost of these scores, the need to ruin the spines in order to make them usable is frustrating.

Although they are not exactly cheap, set alongside the vast cost of .the eight volumes of full score, the vocal score is a more affordable way or getting to know the music of this extraordinary work. In the manuscript of the vocal score, each scene is in a separate volume. For the printed score the first and third acts have sensibly been collated into a volume each, but the lengthy second act is split, the birdsong extravaganza of its final tableau, "Le preche aux oiseaux," having a volume to itself'. Aside from help with carrying the vocal score, a ten-year-old prodigy wishing to play through this Saint Francois would need a good friend and a second piano, for even Loriod's pianism could not contain the work within ten fingers or a single instrument. The result is a decidedly unusual vocal score, and one that poses a number of practical difficulties for anyone wishing to use it beyond getting it to stay open. While there are places where two pianos are specifically indicated, or a third hand, for much of the time it is left ambiguous. For instance, the numerous birdsong passages that are scored for xylophone, xylorimba, and marimba supported by tubular bells are bracketed together on three or four staves, thereby suggesting a single player. These extensive episodes feature the instruments playing in what Messiaen calls inexact doubling, with the same rhythm and contours, but each pitched (usually) a seventh or ninth from the others, the intervals not even remaining constant. Such passages are feasible for a single pianist if they possess Loriod's abilities, but it is doubtful a repetiteur inclined to include the full texture of three awkwardly spaced birdsong lines along with the slower moving tubular bell part will struggle through alone while a fellow pianist sits idle. In reality, even with two pianists, much of the detail in these scores will be omitted when used in rehearsal. As Messiaen's greatest devotee, Loriod believed everything in his music mattered. While she could countenance reducing the harmony, she evidently found it difficult to overlook details in even the most complex textures. There are places where even six, never mind four hands could not cover everything. The pianos have anywhere up to seven staves, and there are sometimes still other parts in addition to he vocal lines. In Loriod's defense, it should be remembered that, especially by the time he composed Saint Francois, some of Messiaen's gestures were conceived in timbral or coloristic terms. In other words, some of the music resists reduction. Moreover, the musical information that is provided is undoubtedly useful in conveying what can be heard when the full forces assemble. The fuller texture is especially important, of course, for the singers, who might otherwise be completely discombobulated when first confronted with the vast orchestra going haywire. However, some indication of the path to be taken by the repetiteurs in such passages, indicating the essence of the texture, might also have been welcome.

Having said all of that, to dwell upon such passages would be misleading for a number of reasons. First, this is most definitely a reduction and, for much or the score, the flow of the music is straightforward. Second, there are places, such as the final measures of the fifth scene, "L'ange musicien," where Loriod provides an alternative "easier" way of presenting a passage for the pianist that differs from what might be regarded as, visually, the more faithful layout Of the music. Then there is the fact that much of the music is relatively simple (though not simplistic) in nature, many textures being sparse, often just a single line. Finally, for those using the vocal score to prepare for performance, the more complicated textures only rarely coincide with when the voices are heard.

The latter point explains why, in terms of visual emphasis, the vocal score gives a more evenhanded impression of how the different types of material unfold in musical time. Purely orchestral passages frequently make interjections between the phrases of the vocal lines, which are often lightly scored (if at all). In the full score the sung portions often appear to be dwarfed by the orchestral comments, whereas the relationship is often more even in the vocal score. In this respect, the vocal score should make seeing the forest for the trees (or the birds) significantly easier. In other words, the structure ot each tableau becomes more readily visible than in the full score, providing a clear step-by-step map of the opera, which is of undoubted benefit for those using it to traverse the opera's myriad details.

Messiaen's typically French approach to composition and orchestration can also be deduced in many places in the vocal score for, as elsewhere in his music, the harmony often fits comfortably under two hands. Having said that, a word of caution should be given to the unwary. For all that Messiaen composed at the piano, and separated the tasks of composition and orchestration, the truth was actually more complicated than that neat division suggests. On the one hand, as already mentioned, some gestures were conceived in timbral or coloristic terms. On the other, Messiaen would use the orchestration to emphasize certain sonorities, and the latter nuances are sometimes lost when reduced to the piano. A simple instance comes with the gestures in the first scene, "La croix," that punctuate the preamble to Saint Francis revealing what perfect joy might be. When the chords first appear, they are clusters that move in contrary motion sliding chromatically inwards. Gradually the harmony opens out, but the first clue that they are more than just fists of notes comes from the way the upper line is highlighted by trumpet, marking it as an embryonic foretaste of the more exuberant theme of joy. This kind of subtlety is prevalent in Messiaen's use of the orchestra, and it is inevitable that, on the piano, such timbral emphasis is lost; it is another way in which this music resists reduction.

Despite the various caveats, quibbles, and concerns, it is important to stress that the four volumes of this score are an invaluable resource that will be of interest to all but those who have an a priori hostility to Messiaen. For those who already know the opera, they provide a way of engaging more directly with its materials. For those new to this extraordinary work, they provide a path to unlocking its riches. In short, they would make a wondrous gift to any musician regardless of age.


Birmingham Conservatoire
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Author:Dingle, Christopher
Article Type:Opera review
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Dec 1, 2013
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