Cordelia Williams

The British pianist celebrates Olivier Messiaen through a year-long series of concerts, visual art and poetry

Cordelia Williams

Pianist Cordelia Williams has devised a year-long series of concerts, discussions and specially commissioned paintings and poems to celebrate the music of Olivier Messiaen. Centered around the composer’s Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jésus for solo piano, ‘Messiaen 2015: Between Heaven and the Clouds’ explores the theology, history and inspiration surrounding Messiaen’s work.

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When did you first come up with the idea of looking at Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jésus through different art forms?

I began talking to artists and poets about commissions based on Messiaen’s Vingt Regards more than a year ago. I asked artist Sophie Hacker to produce a suite of paintings responding to the work and there are also two poetry commissions. Michael Symmons Roberts is writing a sequence of 20 poems from a really imaginative approach: he’s writing them as short scenes for a film about the birth of Christ. The poems are set in 1944 occupied Paris, which is when Vingt Regards was written. Rowan Williams is also writing a poem, but it will be a more general response to Messian’s life and music – I have given him the freedom to respond to the project however he likes. The other side to this series is the chance to showcase the works themselves – I’ve got nine events through the year, including my full performance of the Vingt Regards at Winchester Cathedral on 7 October.

In which other venues will Messiaen 2015 be taking place?

I have an event at King's College in London on Tuesday 28 April which will give some context to Messiaen’s life and work, including what inspired him and where his work sits in the history of music. I’ve got a few wonderful Messiaen scholars and arts and theology scholars speaking, so I’m really looking forward to that. I am also taking the series to Cheltenham Festival where I’m doing a performance in Tewkesbury Abbey – there will be a selection of the movements from Vingt Regards and Michael will read his poems. Sophie’s paintings will be projected in the background: I think that’ll be very beautiful in the Abbey. There’s also one in Westminster Abbey which will include an academic colloquium about the ideas of darkness in the art – Messiaen often projected the idea of being dazzled or overwhelmed by God. And in the evening there will be a public summing up of what has been said in the colloquium, featuring composer James MacMillan.

Why did you choose to focus on Vingt Regards specifically?

It came naturally because I was learning the piece and because I found it so fascinating and rich. There are so many different layers in the music and so many different inspirations woven into the piece. I was really enjoying getting to know it and thinking about all these different aspects and that’s what gave me the idea to do a whole series. Apart from the music itself being extremely affecting, Vingt Regards is incredibly thought provoking. It has had a really strong effect on me.

What brief did you give poets Michael Symmons Roberts, Rowan Williams and artist Sophie Hacker when commissioning new works from them?

I met with each of them and talked about the piece and what my ideas were for it and welcomed a very collaborative process. Michael knew really early on that he wanted to do 20 poems (one for each movement) and I decided I wanted the two other commissions to compliment that. I agreed with Rowan that he would do a more general poem about the work and Michael would do specific ones for each movement. I had quite a few meetings with Sophie where we went through the score in a lot of detail, discussing what Messiaen is trying to symbolise. Sophie’s father was a musician so she knows music and can read scores, which is always helpful. She scribbled all over the score in lots of different colours and began planning 20 paintings before changing her mind and deciding to do three big ones. Later on I had an email from her saying she’d changed her mind again and she was going to focus on several movements and specifically look at themes. So it’s evolved over time and it’s been really exciting for me to be involved in the process and see how these artists work.

What’s your relationship with Messiaen’s music?

I played a bit of Messiaen when I was younger and it appealed to me straight away. I did theology at university and learned one of the Vingt Regards while I was there. The theological aspect and what Messiaen was saying about his own faith appealed to me straight away. After that I performed the Vision de L’Amen for two pianos with a wonderful pianist I met at Cambridge. Because he was a theologian like me, we could really discuss the story behind the piece. After that I started learning the full Vingt Regards and found it very visceral: it’s a very intense experience listening to and playing Messiaen’s music.

What do you think makes it so affecting?

The music always feels so well considered and so intricate and as though everything is exactly as it should be. It’s so precise and everything is worked out mathematically, but it doesn’t feel like that when you hear it. It totally sweeps you off your feet because its very passionate and emotional. Its all number symbolism, codes and patterns, but sound incredibly spontaneous and beautiful. I think people have really strong reactions to Messiaen, so lots of people have really taken an interest in this project, which is really rewarding.

Messiaen 2015 takes place from 31 March to 5 December 2015. Visit to find out more

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Rosie Pentreath