Miracle on 46th Street
"Sight, touch and taste cannot convince us; hearing alone ensures my faith." - St. Thomas Aquinas (from Part XII of Livre du Saint Sacrament)
I honestly did not think it would be possible for a 30-year old to pull off a credible performance of Olivier Messiaen's complete Livre du Saint Sacrament (1984), an extremely challenging and complex work which typically clocks in at around two hours. I was clearly proven wrong tonight by Paul Jacobs, Chair of the Organ Department at Juilliard, who played the work with the brilliance and insight of someone twice his age. Even more remarkably, Jacobs played the entire hour and forty-five minute work from memory.
Jacobs, in fact, already has a long history with this music: in 2002, he played a series of marathon concerts of Messiaen's complete organ works - a nine-hour ordeal - when he was only 25. (He repeated the feat at this same church in 2004.) At 23, he played an unprecedented 18-hour marathon of the complete organ works of Bach (also from memory), making Konstantin Lifschitz' performance of Bach's complete Well-Tempered Clavier - a mere seven hours - seem like a trifle. Organists are known to be something of a brilliant, eccentric lot, but Jacobs takes things to a new level.
Before the concert, Jacobs spoke with scholar Luke Berryman about Livre du Saint Sacrament and it's context within Messiaen's oeuvre. "It is a summation of his artistic, spiritual and emotional lifelong discoveries," he said. "This is not just spiritual music, it is music of a religious nature." Consequently, Jacobs requested that the audience refrain from applauding at the end, to instead let the music "just wash over us."
According to Jacobs, St. Mary the Virgin's 1932 Aeolian-Skinner organ is very similar in size and scope to the one Messiaen himself played as organist at the Eglise de le Trinite in Paris. The notes in the high register bounced high off the neo-gothic stone walls, while the bass literally felt like it was coming from beneath the floor.
Livre du Saint Sacrament is separated into 18 parts, each inscribed with liturgical and theological text chosen by Messiaen, mostly having to do with the Catholic tenet of transubstantiation, where bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. Much of the text is ecstatic in nature, reflecting the "terrifying joy" of Messiaen's own deeply religious faith.
"I offer Thee all the outbursts of love and joy, the ecstasies, raptures, revelations, and heavenly visions of all the saintly souls." - Imitation of Christ (from Part XVIII)
The music was, at turns, delicate, passionate, mysterious, and disturbing. After the first hour, a gentle rain started to fall outside, lending a peaceful calm to the proceedings. Jacobs took it all in stride, bobbing and weaving in the organ loft as in a trance. By the end of the second hour, I had completely fallen under the music's spell, to the point where my head swung involuntarily on several occasions. (Fortunately, they kept the lights on, or I might have completely lost my grip on reality.)
When the music finally ended, Jacobs literally collapsed on the console, emerging only after a full minute. He rose and walked off while the audience filed out in silence.
I am not aware of any future concerts by Jacobs, but for those who missed last night's event, Messiaen's La Nativite du Seigneur will be offered December 20 in its annual performance at St Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue. John Scott, Director of Music and former organist for St. Paul's Cathedral in London, will perform.