Music for Corpus Christi — June 11, 2023

Le banquet céleste – Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)

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« Celui qui mange ma chair et boit mon sang demeure en moi et moi en lui » —Évangile selon Saint Jean, VI, 56
‘He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in Him’ —Gospel according to St John 6 : 56

Olivier Messiaen’s Le Banquet Céleste was first written as part of an unpublished orchestral work, “Le Banquet Eucharistique,” and was later transcribed for organ. The music invites us to meditate on the most holy body and blood of Christ.  Messiaen noted that it apropos to play at Mass, and especially appropriate on the feast of Corpus Christi.

The first sounds we hear come from the Céleste pipes of the organ. It is as if the music is always going on, and we are only just now becoming aware of it. The slow, sustained sounds have a mystical and æthereal quality, and invite us to enter another world.

The first theme symbolises the love of God who made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. The music gradually gets louder, just as if we are getting closer to the source of the sound. A second theme emerges which sounds like drops of water, representing Christ’s blood that was shed for us for the remission of sins. This melodic part has an arch-like shape, starting out low, rising higher, and then returning to a lower point.

As the music gradually gets softer toward the end, it is as if we are moving away from the source of the sound.  The piece ends softly on a long sustained chord, for which the composer indicates both ‘longue’ and ’très profond’ — evoking a sense of peace and calmness.

May we who today have experienced the mystery of Corpus Christi live in such a way that, however dimly, others may see Christ in us.

PJ Janson