Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen (1924-2010)

During the last couple of months I made two visits to the church of La Trinité in Paris that will remain in my memory for a long while. The occasion for the first was an interview with Tom Service of BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters and organist Carolyn Shuster-Fournier regarding the relationship of music and theology in the life and work of composer Olivier Messiaen, who was organist at La Trinité between 1931 and 1992 (we hope to post an extract from this BBC broadcast on www.sdgmusic.org shortly). The second was the funeral of the pianist Yvonne Loriod, who died on May 17, 2010 at the age of 86. Undoubtedly one of the greatest musical performers of the twentieth century in her own right, she was also Olivier Messiaen’s second wife, inspiring some of his finest works such as the Visions de l’Amen for two pianos and the monumental piano cycles Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus and Catalogue d’Oiseaux, as well as completing his late Concert à quatre (1992) and overseeing the posthumous publication of his mammoth seven-volume compositional treatise.

Yvonne Loriod, who met Messiaen as his student at the Paris Conservatoire in 1941, came into the composer’s life at a particuarly bleak time for him, shortly after his release from the Stalag VIIIa camp in Silesia where he had been held as a prisoner of war during the winter of 1940-41 and where his Quartet for the End of Time received its legendary first performance. This was also the period in which Messiaen’s first wife Claire Delbos began to show the first signs of mental degeneration that would ultimately lead to the total loss of her memory and her institutionalization until her death in 1959. That Messiaen survived the trauma of this experience and the stress of bringing up his son Pascal (b. 1937) was due in no small measure to emotional support and practical help during Claire’s long illness on the part of Yvonne, who also played an active role in caring for the composer’s wife. In an interview with Antoine Goléa published in 1960, Messiaen described Yvonne’s impact on him as a musician and a human being:

‘A unique, sublime pianist of genius whose existence has transformed not only the composer’s [i.e. his own] writing for the piano but also his style, his vision of the world and his ways of thinking.’ (In Antoine Goléa, Rencontres avec Olivier Messiaen (Paris: Juillard 1961), 147)

The two were married in 1961; a comment made by Madame Loriod-Messiaen in an interview with Michael White in 1999 for The Independent on Sunday on the two decades prior to their wedding, in which the joy of their fabulously productive musical and spiritual collaboration was tempered by the tragedy of Claire’s slow demise, tells its own story: ‘So we cried. We cried for 20 years until she died and [we] could marry.’

The last few years of her life, spent at a hospice outside Paris run by the Petites Soeurs des Pauvres, were extremely difficult ones of poor health and mental decline, so there was a great sense of release and solemn joy in contemplating her passage to the eternal life of which both she and her husband spoke so eloquently in word and music throughout their lives. I only met her Madame Loriod-Messiaen once, already greatly diminished by illness, at an organ recital at La Trinité on the 16th anniversary of her husband’s death, at which I had the somewhat overwhelming task of giving a pre-concert talk that was effectively a memorial eulogy, and which you can find here (in French only: http://www.zshare.net/download/777757543d86e8e3/).

I was unfortunately unable to stay until the end of the funeral, but at least had the time to hear Olivier Latry of Notre-Dame Cathedral play excerpts from Messiaen’s L’Ascension and Livre du Saint-Sacrement, as well as a moving homily (which can be read by clicking here: http://latriniteparis.com/IMG/pdf/Homelie_Messe_funerailles_YLM.pdf ) given by Père Jean-Rodolphe Kars, Catholic priest, former concert pianist and one of the foremost musical and theological authorities on Messiaen’s work. I vividly remember first meeting him at a press conference that John Nelson and I attended, launching La Trinité’s Messiaen centenary cycle of concerts throughout 2008 that ended with his Trois Petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine and the first performance of my own oratorio Et iterum venturus est written in Messiaen’s memory. The press conference itself was attended by virtually nobody on account of a public transport strike in Paris that morning, yet Père Kars made a huge impression on John and myself by his evident passion for Messiaen’s music and profound remarks on its spiritual significance.

Among the faces in the congregation at the funeral were many I recognized from the concert on December 9, 2008 on the eve of what would have been Messiaen’s 100th birthday, including Michel Béroff (Madame Loriod-Messiaen’s successor as a professor at the Paris Conservatoire, with whom I studied briefly in 1991) and his father, who had attended the première of the Trois Petites Liturgies in 1945, at which the young Yvonne Loriod had played the virtuosic solo piano part.

Père Kars ended his homily by quoting two excerpts from Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen’s commentaries on pieces from her husband’s cycle Eclairs sur l’au-delà that are highly revealing for the light they shed on her own spirituality  The first refers to the movement entitled ‘The path of the invisible’ (Le chemin de l’invisible):

‘This path must be followed all one’s life. One only arrives at the end at the moment of death […] The impression of a crowd climbing a mountain […] No rest in this piece […] The path is long, the climb is hard. Only Christ can enlighten this arid, stony way leading to Peace at the top of the luminous mountain.’

The second concerns the piece ‘Christ, light of Paradise’ (Le Christ, lumière du Paradis):

“Arrival, Happiness, Paradise, the Light which is Christ and which lightens Eternity […] This final [piece] is the whole of life’s destination [aboutissement]. The page is turned, the earth is afar off, time is abolished: a present of unending happiness. The infinite Love of Christ in the soul contemplating him.’

More information concerning Yvonne Loriod can be found at http://www.oliviermessiaen.org/Loriod.htm

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