I went today to an organ recital at St Ouen in Rouen, where there is just about the finest Cavaillé-Coll organ ever built. The recital was played by Thomas Lacôte, titular organist of the Holy Trinity church in Paris where he succeeds Olivier Messiaen. He played music by Bach and Messiaen on the themes of life and death. The piece I found most moving was Messiaen’s Combat de la Mort et de la Vie from the organ cycle Les Corps Glorieux composed in 1939.
Though this piece describes the Paschal Mystery, the death and Resurrection of Christ, the year 1939 is significant. The aggressive toccata over a bass motive represents an extreme degree of anguish. The composer must have known about the looming war in the newspapers and on the wireless, and indeed I heard this emotion and my extreme empathy kicked in. The life part is quiet and meditative. Here is a recording of Messiaen himself playing the Combat de la Mort et de la Vie.
After a few chorale preludes of Bach, M. Lacôte played Les Ténèbres and La Résurrection du Christ from his last organ work (1984), Le Livre du Saint-Sacrement. Like the earlier piece Les Corps Glorieux, we find an extreme contrast between the darkness and the light of the Resurrection, a towering upward movement ending in a massive resolution into a major chord.
Messiaen is sometimes difficult to listen to, but his music is not atonal, but follows a system of harmony that is proper to this composer. He was a profoundly devout and even mystical Christian, as was Bach. Quite an experience!