Olivier Messiaen’s “Poèmes pour Mi”
Notes by TŌN percussionist Taylor Lents
Poems for Messiaen’s Wife
Olivier Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi is a spiritually effusive and rapturous song cycle exploring Messiaen’s relationship with love in various forms and the tensions that come with it. One of two works dedicated to his first wife, violinist and composer Claire Delbos, whom he affectionately referred to as “Mi,” Poèmes consists of nine songs divided into two separate books of four and five songs respectively, all of which are settings of poems written by Messiaen himself. A late student of Messiaen, Robert Sherlaw Johnson, interprets the opening book of songs as expressing the individual’s spiritual journey preceding marriage, while the second book depicts the mysteries of the marital union.
Reverence for the Divine and Natural
Messiaen was born in Avignon, France and raised in Grenoble, a town situated at the foot of the French Alps. A self-described “dreamy child,” he found fascination with his exquisite natural surroundings and the supernatural via the fairy tales he would read. He always regarded himself as a deeply spiritual individual, professing to have been “born with faith,” and held to the belief that his music was a spiritual offering, a testimony to his deep love and loyalty to his faith. Poèmes pour Mi is surely an early demonstration of that declaration in its reverence for a divine love and the natural world.
As one might expect of Messiaen’s work, Poèmes employs many layers of complex rhythms, harmonies, colors, and sonorities characteristic of his compositional style, challenging both the performer and the listener to step into a breadth of sonic landscapes, from the surrealist, as in “Paysage” (“Landscape”), to that which examines a warning from the individual’s deepest inner psyche, as in “Épouvante” (“Terror”). The first song of the cycle, “Action de grâces” (“Thanksgiving”) appropriately serves as a prayer of thanksgiving to the divine, Messiaen’s beloved partner Claire, and the natural landscape. In “La maison” (“The House”), the house serves as a poetic reminder that we will all someday be called to leave the house (our bodies). Opening the second book, “L’Épouse” (“The Wife”) offers a more hopeful message with its focus on a joyous celebration of marriage and numeric symbolic references to the Holy Trinity. Building on that message of hope, “Ta voix” (“Your Voice”) depicts an image of heaven and the promise of eternal happiness, acting as a much lighter parallel to the musical and poetic images depicted in “Épouvante.” “Les deux guerriers” (“The Two Warriors”) describes husband and wife as “two warriors” united and marching their way toward the gates of heaven. Like “Paysage,” “Le collier” (“The Necklace”) shifts the focus away from the divine to the secular using surrealist poetry shifting between depictions of nature and the “necklace,” symbolizing the spouse’s arms lovingly wrapped around the neck of their beloved. In a final breath, Messiaen ends the song cycle with “Prière exaucée” (“Prayer Answered”), declaring that through love and faith, a soul has been healed and joy has returned.