From our Repertoire: Messiaen’s

From our Repertoire: Messiaen’s "Poèmes pour Mi"

The Poèmes pour Mi, for soprano and piano or orchestra, is one of two cycles Messiaen wrote for his first wife, the violinist and composer Claire Delbos whom he nicknamed “Mi”. It also opens a series of works exploring love in its various forms that emerged between 1936-1948. As with most of his vocal music, Messiaen himself wrote the text, adapting passages from the New Testament to surrealist poetry.

The cycle, reflecting the composer’s Catholic devotion, is both rapturous and pious as it explores the tension between personal and divine will. The late Messiaen student Robert Sherlaw Johnson interprets the opening book of songs, culminating in the hellish “Épouvante,” as expressing the spiritual journey preceding marriage, while the final four songs depict the mysteries of the conjugal union. 

From the opening “Action de grâces,” plainchant and strategically placed melismas sung above intricate modal harmonies take the listener on a mystical journey that opens and closes with evocations of the Communion (“pain vivant”) and God’s grace. With Christ’s resurrection in the final “Prière exaucée”—whose text is derived from both the book of Exodus and the Gospel—the speaker’s soul is healed, a moment sung in dramatic unison with the flutes and clarinets which may illustrate the ability of the spouse to reconcile his earthly and spiritual duties.

Another climatic moment emerges in the eighth song “Le collier,” about a necklace symbolizing the spouse’s two arms around the neck of his beloved. After a radiant G#-minor chord superimposed over a B-major ninth, the eerie string harmonies that follow - for the first time share no modal connection, as the musicologist Siglind Bruhn has revealed, leaving the outcome ambiguous.

The preceding “Les deux guerriers,” with its stabbing attacks in the strings and playful winds, emerges as, perhaps, a commentary on neo-classicism, the dominant school in Paris at the time. It isn’t long, however, before piety returns with an ecstatic melisma echoed by the rest of the orchestra (“We groan—ah! Hear me, God!”) and ending with a tritone.
Although the two warriors, bride and groom, reach the gates of the holy city, the next round of earthly struggle is never far. As fate would have it, by the time the complete Poèmes were performed in their orchestral version, in 1949, Delbos was suffering from debilitating mental disorder. She passed away ten years later, leaving behind a son, Pascal.

-Rebecca Schmid

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to publications such as the New York Times, Financial Times and Musical America Worldwide. More on: