Music Monday: Hakim: Le Tombeau de Olivier Messiaen

Hallowe’en has come and gone, which means that today’s composer just had a birthday: Naji Hakim was born on that date in Beirut, Lebanon in 1955. A professional organist in addition to a composer, he first fell in love with the instrument at the age of five when he attended a Mass at his family’s Catholic church and was transfixed by the sounds he heard. Organ being not the easiest instrument to practice at home, his family insisted he study piano instead, a decision he was not particularly happy with. (When he was twelve, he snuck into his school’s chapel with his brother, broke into the organ room, hit the “tutti” stop, and went to town. The headmaster was . . . unimpressed.) He had non-musical interests as well, studying Engineering at the Ecole Supérieure d’Ingéneurs in Beirut until an outbreak of war in 1975 forced the school to close, at which point he emigrated to Paris to finish his studies.

As a student, he continued his organ studies with Jean Langlais, who encouraged him to begin improvising as well, and ultimately convinced him to enroll in the Conservatoire. After graduating, Hakim stayed in the French capital, working as an organist and writing pieces — primarily for himself and his instrument, but increasingly for others, running the gamut from intimate chamber works to large-scale concerti. In 1993, he took over the position of organist at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité from Olivier Messiaen — himself an iconic figure of the French Catholic organist composer tradition and a formative influence of mine — a position he held until 2008. (Hakim is a devoutly Catholic composer and believes that all of his music is, in some ways, a glorification of God. Even at the age of 5, he knew he wanted to play organ as part of worship services, a determination that was not weakened by the Vatican II reforms that, in his words, “led to the downfall of liturgical music”. He has strong feelings about this.) He currently a professor at the Conservatoire National de Région de Boulogne-Billancourt.

Keening and lamentation may be our first expectations for a funerary work, but in the Tombeau de Olivier Messiaen (1993), Hakim takes a different tack. Prefacing each movement with a quotation from Paul’s epistles, Hakim’s Tombeau is instead a celebration of his predecessor’s life and music, as well as their shared faith in another life to come. So the first movement, “Be my life, be my death”, begins with a joyous shout, tho one that quickly decays into an ominous dialogue between thunderous pedal lines and skittish interjections from the upper register. According to the composer, these two themes — the first a fragment of plainchant and the second drawn from a favorite Russian folk song of Messiaen’s — represent death and life, respectively. They begin to overlap and build into a lumbering dance, and by about two minutes in, a regular pulse has been established. A lithe, sinuous interlude ensues, with unusual stops and irregular rhythms giving it an otherworldly quality. This gradually slows, and the music settles into a more sombre interlude before distant chords re-start the forgotten pulse from before. There is one final pause before the music launches into a raucous, blustery dance that, with some tumultuous interjections from the plainchant fragment, drives the movement to its abrupt, if dazzling, close.

In the second movement, “I give thanks to my God”, Hakim borrows more directly from Messiaen, both in terms of technique and in terms of musical materials. The movement is structured as three long, languid statements of a Maronite melody from Lebanon — this kind of musical structure being very typical of the older organist’s own music — and weaves over it quotations from Messiaen’s Offrandes oubliées. The first pass thru puts the Lebanese melody in the pedals and the Messiaen quotation in the manuals, but by the second pass, the melody has ascended to the upper reaches — still distant and unconcerned with the troubles and turmoil of the earthly world, but now somewhat sparer and more florid. After this almost entirely unharmonized interlude, the third pass begins with a repeated short-long-long-short rhythm in the accompaniment, a gentle rocking pulse of densely textured harmonies that leave the melody to float in divine mystery far above them.

Monolithic blasts of sound launch “Christ with the Holy Spirit in the Glory of the Father”, an imposing prelude to a fitful finale. After building to a massive and unexpected major resolution, a turbulent noodling line emerges, only to be cut short by more slabs of sound. As the echoes of that cadence fade, the noodling returns, now harmonized more fully and pressing forward with increased urgency. This noodling plunges down into the depths of the pedals, leaving the hands free to reveal, with almost cataclysmic fervor, a glorious statement of another Messiaen quote, this time from the second of the Trois petite liturgies de la présence divine. A somewhat less turbulent passage follows, leading quickly to the return of the opening volleys. There is more furious noodling, and the piece comes to rest in a glorious spread across the organ’s entire range.