Among the many 2020 events curtailed, canceled, or postponed were those commemorating the anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. On May 8, 1945, Germany’s unconditional surrender was met with celebrations that have since been repeated annually on Victory in Europe (VE) Day. Because of the pandemic, special events planned for this year’s seventy-fifth VE Day had to be scaled down. 1945 commemorations were yet another of this year’s losses.
Before the year ends, it seems worth recalling a much smaller yet related seventy-fifth anniversary. A little more than two weeks before the first VE Day, on April 21, 1945, Olivier Messiaen’s Three Small Liturgies of the Divine Presence (Trois petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine) had premiered. In the decades since then it has become difficult to hear this rarely performed work, but new online resources are changing this. Several performances are available on YouTube, including one recorded earlier this year (just prior to the pandemic) with Kent Nagano conducting the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and women’s chorus. You can also listen to a recording synchronized with the published musical score. Finally, archived online performance notes from the Princeton Symphony Orchestra (2002) put an English translation within easy reach. At age seventy-five, the Three Small Liturgies has never been so readily accessible.
Messiaen himself wrote the text for the piece, an ecstatic extended meditation on divine immanence. The first liturgy, “Antiphon of the Interior Conversation (God present in us),” evokes an intimate conversation between the individual and the person of Jesus. The women’s chorus sings, “My Jesus, my silence, remain in me. / My Jesus, my kingdom of silence, speak in me. / My Jesus, night of rainbow and silence, / Pray in me.” This profoundly personal exchange looks back four years earlier to Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (1941), which premiered during his captivity in a German prisoner-of-war camp. Messiaen anchored the work with two evocative meditations, sensually passionate to the point of heartbreak: “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus” (the fifth movement) and “Praise to the Immortality of Jesus” (the eighth and concluding movement).