Because Olivier Messiaen's Et exspecto resurrection mortuorum is about the End of the World, it's scary to listen to at this fragile time. But maybe this is, after all, the time to listen to what it really means. There is a deliberate Japanese connection, since Messiaen visited and loved Japan. He is emphasizing universal spiritual values which apply to all, Christian or not.
Note the orchestration. No strings! The Quartet for the End of Time can be heard as a prototype. Twenty years later, and after nuclear war became a reality, Messiaen goes for maximium power. Massed percussion forms the bedrock of Et exspecto, for it represents the earth itself, ripped asunder by the Apocalypse. Specifically Messiaen uses six giant Asian gongs, more powerful than tam tams. Gongs call the faithful to order. Ritual progression is very much part of this music's structure, so gongs mark stages in its raga-like plateaux. Metallic percussion, too, rather than timpani, for dissonance. Pitched cowbells, and a gigantic set of tubular bells which ring out like an organ, the composer's personal instrument. Against the percussion,woodwinds create birdsong or the sound of wings in flight. Brasses range from small D trumpet to Wagnerian tuba. What would the Final Judgement be without trumpets? Messiaen wants strident, not resonant.This work is, after all, about waking the dead.
The ritual character of Et exspecto is underlined by quotations from different parts of the Bible. It's a Via Crucis which unfolds in stages. First: "From the deepest abyss I cry, Lord hear me!", which is what Jesus is supposed to have called out in his time of agony. Massive dark chords like tectonic plates, shifting inexorably. The brass like the rumbling of some deep fissure, which explodes into wild, screaming chords and ends in a single, piercing shriek. Hearing this after Sendai is painful. Then silence, extremely important as it marks an invisible, inaudible transit.
In the second section, a moment of calm reassurance, for Christ has risen from the dead. Diaphanous textures, which grow into quirky, jerky angles. The movement of birds, intuitively darting in crazy angles so they can't be caught. As Messiaen the ornithologist would have understood. Birds are fragile, but they evolved from dinosaurs, and survived. Even greater stillness marks the beginning of the third section, but now the tubular bells toll, calling like the bells in a church. The woodwinds describe an even more powerful bird theme - a bird from the Amazon jungle, apparently, which has existed outside civilization. Messiaen is referring to creation itself, connecting the Beginning and End of Time. In Christian belief, an Angel blows a trumpet and graves open. Hence the darkening "earthquake fissure" theme.
Wild, jerky figures associated with the "birds" start the fourth section, which soon the percussion explodes. When these gongs crash, it feels like blinding light, a shocking, flashing thunderbolt in sound. At this moment, I can't help but think of the cataclysmic light of a nuclear explosion. Ironically, it's the Resurrection, start of a new era.
The final movement almost defies description. Powerful ostinato, gongs and blocked percussion, repeated over and over, driving the point in so there's no mistaking its force. Gradually the music turns, like a juggernaut. The image of an eternal wheel, perhaps propelling the music ever forward. Messiaen uses the quotation "And I heard the voice of an immense crowd". It's an immense crowd becauase all who have died in the past have been raised from death and suffering. (That's assuming God doesn't discriminate between faiths). That's why the whole orchestra marches forth in unison. Gradually the pace builds up to an overwhelming climax. It's not a march in conventional symphonic terms but owes its structure, perhaps, to Japanese gagaku, which inspired Messiaen's ground-breaking Sept Haïkaï, written in 1962, soon after Messaien returned from Japan, and two years before Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum.
In Sept Haïkaï, the image is a “floating gate”, the torii at the Miyajima shrine in
Every time we listen to a piece of music, we're influenced by what's in our lives at the time. All performances are different and most have some insight to offer. I don't think at the moment I could have coped with Myung-Whun Chung's geological version at the Proms in 2008, it's just too graphic. There's a very good Simon Rattle performance available on BBC Radio 3 at the moment, recorded at his recent concert at the Barbican with the LSO. With the Berliner Philharmoniker in Berlin recently he did a marvellously vigorous Mahler 3, which really brought out the mountains and what they mean,, so he could perhaps do Et Exspecto with a similar granitey monumentalism. But I'm glad that he took a more esoteric approach this time, which connects better to the spiritual meaning of the piece. For sure, the spiritual message meant much more to Messaien than the graphics. The all-time best recording remains Pierre Boulez - unsurpassed for its balance of grace and intensity.
For Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum means "In expectation of the resurrection of the dead". It's not meant to be oppressive or gloomy. It was commissioned as a memorial to the French war dead, but Messiaen was having no truck with militarism or even national glory. Instead he comes up with something so unique and so universal he wanted it performed in the Alps,. So if the Christian form of this piece bothers you, remember that for Messaien, God resided in Nature, and mountains were Nature's cathedrals. So Rattle's Et Exspecto comes at just the right moment, when we need to think about the unprecedented series of disasters facing the people of Japan. While foreigners scramble to leave, a million ordinary Japanese are still out there in the open, without food, water or shelter. They've already lost everything and can't escape.