Les Offrandes Oubliees (Forgotten Offerings)

Olivier Messiaen

Olivier Messiaen was a devout Catholic, and through his music he intended to reveal the truths of his faith and mystical convictions. “The foremost idea I wanted to express in music, the one that is the most important because it stands above everything else, is the existence of the truths of the Catholic faith.  I have the good luck to be a Catholic: I was born a believer, and so it happens that the scriptures have always made a deep impression on me.  A number of my works are therefore intended to illuminate the theological truths of the Catholic belief.  This is the first aspect of my work, the noblest, probably the most useful, the most valid, and the only one perhaps that I shall not regret at the hour of my death.  God being present in all things, music dealing with the theological subject can and must be extremely varied. I have therefore, tried to produce a music that touches all things without ceasing to touch God.”

Les Offrandes oubliées and his Nativite du Seigneur garnered acclaim and prominence for his work. At the top of the published score of Les Offrandes oubliées, he explained his vision and intent; “arms outstretched, afflicted unto death, you shed your blood on the cross. We have forgotten, sweet Jesus, how you love us. Driven onward by madness and forked tongues in breathless, uncontrolled and headlong flight, we have fallen into sin like a bottomless pit. It is here to be found, the unsullied table, the source of charitibility, the feast of the poor, the well of holy sympathy, which is to us the very bread of life and love. We have forgotten, sweet Jesus, how you love us.”

Perhaps referencing the Trinity, Les Offrandes oubliées is in three parts, played without pause.

The movements are prefaced by these markings:

The first section: dolorous, profoundly sad. The second section: ferocious, desperate, and breathless—with great pity and love. The third section: Communion.

Messiaen provided the following notes:

Les Offrandes oubliées, written in 1930 [for two pianos], was first performed on February 19, 1931 at the Théatre des Champs Elysées in Paris under the direction of Walter Straram. I had just turned 22. It was my first work played by an orchestra [the two piano version was orchestrated in 1931] and my first contact with the public at large.

The work is in three parts:

The Cross: lamentation of the strings, the sorrowful ‘neumes’ of which divide the melody into groups of uneven duration, cut by long mauve and grey wailings. {This section features a poignant melody sung in unions by violins and long held notes in the brass. Neumes were part of early musical notation, used in Gregorian plainchant, indicating pitch, and by the thirteenth century, also duration. They look like small, solid black squares. Sometimes they have appendages of hanging lines, indicating how the tone is to be interpreted, such as with a trill. Sometimes they are linked or grouped together in a notation called liquescent which means a sliding of the pitch.)

The Sin: presented here as a kind of ‘race to the abyss’ in an almost ‘mechanized’ speed. You will notice the strong flexional ending accents, whistling of the harmonics in glissando, the incisive calls of the trumpets. (Flexional indicates a separation from the root of a word into the last syllable. In Latin grammar this indicated an accent on the end of the word. Messiaen included this stress pattern in his music).

“The Eucharist: long and slow phrase of the violins, which rises over a blanket of pianissimo chords, with reds, gold, blues (like a faraway stained glass window), in the light of muted solo chords. The sin is the forgetting of God. The Cross and the Eucharist are the Divine Offerings. ‘This is my Body, given for you—this is my Blood, spilled for you.’ “

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2015

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