Langlais: Messe Solennelle

At our Morning Eucharist 11am Sunday 13 August we have the great privilege to be accompanied by our visiting organist, Thomas Trotter (UK). The service setting will be Langlais’ imposing Messe Solennelle.

Langlais had been mentally planning the Messe Solennelle for over 15 years, then wrote it all down in the span of 11 days in November 1949. He composed the mass strictly according to the rules of the Catholic Church as they were at the time (pre-Vatican II): inspired by plainchant and the polyphony of Palestrina, and maintaining the supremacy of the Latin text. 

The Messe Solennelle was first performed on 15 October 1950 at Sainte-Clotilde, Paris, where Langlais was organist 1945-1987. The accompaniment is written for two organs: a small one and a large one, with the smaller one mostly accompanying the choir, and the grand organ alternating with the choral phrases to great dramatic effect. It is quite common for French churches to have a large organ at the back, and a small one at the front to accompany the choir. While this spatial separation may appear the stuff of musical directors’ nightmares, Sainte-Clotilde has a unique design feature which overcomes it (at least when the work is sung on its home ground): namely the choir organ is directly under the main organ at the back, on a lower gallery (not quite visible through the murk in the first photo!). Pilgrim does have two organs, but the small one is not quite French enough in character (and doesn’t have pedal!) so Thomas will be playing both parts on the large organ, changing manuals and registrations to distinguish between the two. Thus the Pilgrim set-up, with the choir and organ(s) at the back is quite close to what Langlais had in mind.  Messiaen provided a hand-written analysis of the Messe Solennelle which Langlais treasured throughout his life. Messiaen observed that:  ‘This work does not present any great difficulties in its execution, all the somewhat tricky vocal passages being doubled in the organ, and the choral entries carefully prepared.’ 

Some of our choristers may beg to differ on how easy it is to sing, but we have been working hard at it, and are very much looking forward to singing it with Thomas Trotter at the organ console! 

Source: Marie-Louise Jaquet-Langlais, 1995, Ombre et Lumière: Jean Langlais 1907-1991, Editions Combre, Paris. 

Photos: Peter Kelsall 

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