sun 26/05/2024

First Person: Poems to Messiaen | reviews, news & interviews

First Person: Poems to Messiaen

First Person: Poems to Messiaen

Michael Symmons Roberts introduces a project to respond to Messiaen through poetry and painting; we also publish one of his poems

Pianist Cordelia Williams Sophie Wright

I am currently in the middle of a project called Messiaen 2015: Between Heaven and the Clouds, a year-long series of commissions and events around the UK, exploring Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l‘Enfant-Jésus, curated by pianist Cordelia Williams. 

So far, we’ve held a series of talks, performances and seminars with musicologists including Rowan Williams, Ben Quash (King’s College London Professor of Christianity and the Arts) and Birmingham Conservatoire Professor of Music Christopher Dingle. So far, the events have been fascinating – for us as participants and (I hope) for the audience too. Venues have included the King’s Festival in Cambridge, a study day at King’s College London, Cheltenham Festival and a symposium and performance at Westminster Abbey.

The most innovative aspect of this project is Cordelia’s decision to commission new creative work alongside the academic discussions. She has commissioned a series of new paintings by Sophie Hacker, and a new sequence of poems from me as a response to Messiaen’s Vingt Regards.  

The poems are an attempt to explore the same ground as the music

The Westminster Abbey event brought together all these elements. Ben Quash hosted a discussion about Messiaen with composer (and my long-term collaborator) James MacMillan, interwoven with performances of the Vingt Regards by Cordelia. In the third strand of the evening, I introduced and read a selection of poems on related themes – by Emily Dickinson, John Berryman and Henry Vaughan – closing with one from my own Messiaen 2015 sequence.

I have often worked with music and musicians in the past, writing libretti for composers such as James MacMillan and translations inculding Schubert’s song-cycle Die Winterreise for Mark Padmore. But this is the first time I have been commissioned to write poems simply "in response" to music. And the music in this case is extraordinary. Messiaen’s Vingt Regards is a wild, mystical modernist epic, full of intense colours and cosmic drama. (Pictured below: Michael Symmons Roberts.)

Some offers of commissions come burdened with too many preconceived ideas or constraints, but when I first met to discuss this project with Cordelia it was clear that she simply wanted me to respond to the music, whatever form that response may take. It was important to me that the poems should not "illustrate" the music, nor lean on it so the words would live a ‘half-life’ without it.  These poems needed to stand on their own feet.

I already had a great interest in Messiaen’s work, and in the circumstances of the composition of Vingt Regards – which began in occupied Paris and was completed after liberation. The poems took on something of the sense of an occupied city, and something of the flavour of French films being made at that time. And the poems are an attempt to explore the same theological or mystical ground as the music – the scandal and sheer risk of the incarnation, the liberating power of it.

Messiaen himself wrote short explanations of each of the pieces, but I found that these cut against what I was hearing and what I wanted to write, so I ended up setting them aside and making my own responses to the music.

I have now completed all 20 poems, although there still might be small changes as the months go by. At the recent Westminster Abbey performance, I found myself changing by hand a couple of words in one my poems minutes before performing it. This is not unusual for me with a new poem, but after weeks (or sometimes months) they tend to settle into a final form.

We have a number of events coming up before the end of the year. I will be reading the poems at some of these events, and at others they will be printed for people to read during Cordelia’s performances of Vingt Regards. It’s my intention that the poems should have a second life beyond the concert hall. I’m hoping to publish them in my next collection of poems in 2017.




If trees could walk like men,
beautiful boy-god, I would bear you
on my shoulders through this city,
show you every boulevard and alley,
every market stall and park.

You would tower above
the cavalcades and rallies,
peer into penthouse suites and boardrooms
witness to so many acts of cruelty and love,
safe among my needles.

Then when you nod tired
in the cold and thickening dark                          
I would stand on the riverbank,
as long slow barges mutter by,
and sing you to sleep in my many tongues:

the bat-high silvered songs
of linden, plane; slow lullabies
of quince and medlar from the gardens;
long laments of empress, foxglove
in the windless squares.

I would carry you for years,
until you grow so heavy that they
nail you up to keep you here. It is needless,
because even if my back broke,
I would never let you fall.


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