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Diptyque - Essai sur le vie terrestre et l' éterni
 Composed by Messiaen, Olivier
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Diptyque - Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)

The multi-coloured visions of Olivier Messiaen occupy a unique place in the history of 20th century music. Turning his back on the western classical tradition, and on the complex techniques of structure and development that went with it, Messiaen created a completely new kind of music, a "music of eternity" in which the passing of time often seems to be magically suspended. Taking its inspiration from the ancient music of India and Greece, from Gregorian Chant, from birdsong, from mountains and stained-glass windows, his hypnotic, meditative style was ideally suited to the transmission of his essential message - which he described simply as "the expression of the truths of the Catholic Faith". In spite of increasing worldwide fame and many other commitments, Messiaen remained a practising church organist (at La Trinité in Paris) all his life, and many of his most important works were written for this instrument.

The early development of Messiaen’s very personal style can be clearly heard in his first published works - and nowhere more clearly than in the Diptyque for organ which he wrote in 1930, when he was still a young student of 21. The title means simply a piece in two parts, and here the two parts seem to come from different worlds, although they are both based on the same musical theme. The first section is quite traditional in style, with dense chromatic harmonies and moto perpetuo rhythms, all very much in the manner of Messiaen’s organ professor Marcel Dupré (to whom the work is dedicated). But the second section is pure Messiaen - ecstatic, timeless and serene.

As always with Messiaen, this musical contrast illustrates a deeper spiritual message. The Diptyque is subtitled "Essai sur la vie terrestre et l’éternité bienheureuse" (Essay on earthly life and eternal happiness); the restless opening section depicts "life on earth, with its futile agitation", while the timeless meditation of the final page evokes the endless bliss of Eternal Life and "the calm of the heavenly unchanging light of joy and repose." Although he was so young when he first composed it, Messiaen loved this final page - so much so that he used it again ten years later, rearranging it for violin and piano as the final movement of his Quartet for the End of Time.

David Gammie

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