About this work
Although it may well be better known in its version for organ, Olivier Messiaen's L'Ascension of 1932-1933 is the most famous of his early orchestral scores (early in this case meaning pre-Turangalîla-symphonie). Messiaen had in 1931 been appointed organist at L'Église de la Trinité, and by 1935 an organ version of L'Ascension had been finished; in truth, the work's conception seems to lie midway between the two media: one passage may seem wholly orchestral in design and execution (even in the organ version), while another may have trickled from Messiaen's fingers as he sat at his beloved La Trinité organ. That is not to say that the orchestral version of the work is anything but masterfully and magnificently scored, only to say that, try though he might, at that point in his life Messiaen could not wholly disassociate his music from the organ-bench upon which so much of it was first played. One major difference between the two versions must be noted: the third movement of the organ version is a completely different piece of music than the third movement of the orchestral version.
In the orchestral version, the four meditations, each of which testifies to the depth of Messiaen's Catholic faith, are: 1. "Majesté du Christ demandant sa gloire à son Père," 2. "Alléluias sereins d'une âme qui désire le ciel," 3. "Alléluia sur la trompette, alléluia sur la cymbale," and 4. "Prière du Christ montant vers son Père." Each movement has attached to it a sacred quotation. The first movement is marked Très lent et majestueux (Very slow and majestic), and is scored entirely for the wind instruments, who speak out boldly and clearly. No. 2 begins in like fashion (though now Bien modéré, clair), but soon allows entry to the strings; when the opening music of the movement is reprised after a very flexibly-written middle portion, the winds are reinforced in dramatic fashion by the full contingent of strings, triple-forte. The third movement hustles and bustles along, Vif et joyeux (Fast and joyfully), beginning with a trumpet fanfare and then bursting into a veritable perpetuum mobile into which the cymbal figures prominently (as one would expect from the title). The solemn, slow final meditation is a complete contrast.