Mailinterview with Naji Hakim – Messiaen’s successor at La Trinité, Paris Interview and translation: Flemming Chr. Hansen

Mailinterview with Naji Hakim – Messiaen’s successor at La Trinité, Paris

Interview and translation: Flemming Chr. Hansen 


Mailinterview med Naji Hakim – Messiaens efterfølger i La Trinité, Paris

Interview og oversættelse: Flemming Chr. Hansen 

in Organistbladet, nr. 5  2008,




F.C.H. From your point of view, has the organ some kind of special position among the other instruments in the art music - for example because of the character of the instrument or because of the organists and their education?


N.H. Today's western musical world benefits from a living tradition of several centuries of organbuilding, organ répertoire and functionality, having evolved in the specific context of church and consequently distinctly from all other instruments. The great diversity of sizes and styles of the organs varies considerably with historical periods, countries, builders, and with the actual needs of churches. If we except the small instruments dedicated to playing continuo parts in baroque ensembles, generally the organ is used as a solo instrument or as an accompaniement to singing in church. Its utilisation in connection with other instruments and/or orchestra has been so far rather exceptional, mainly due to its essential and mysterious function in church. The largeness of the organs easily rivals the orchestra. César  Franck said about his organ in Sainte Clotilde : „Mon orgue? – Cest un orchestre!" "My organ? It is an orchestra!" Olivier Messiaen has never mixed the organ to other instruments, considering that it doesn't need any complement for expressiveness or fullness. Even if many organs were introduced in concert halls, their utilisation remains limited by the existing répertoire and the practice.




F.C.H. What are your thoughts then, when writing for the organ with other instruments - for example in connection with your new Organ concerto no. 4? Do you consider it a kind of "luxury" to have other instruments involved - in other words, could this music have been written for organ alone?


N.H. When writing music for a solo instrument, I think of a playful conversation between three : myself, the performer and the listener. The memory and heartbeats of all three are part of a same game. Expanded to several instruments, the playful principle remains the same. Technically speaking my aim is to exploit the resources of each instrument as well as the "essential" presence of each musician to serve the rhetorics. To answer more directly to your question about my concerto : No, it is not a "luxury" to involve other players, but a joyful "conversation" between several musicians, following a definite orchestration and bringing through their instruments, their own expressive, percussive, colourful and dynamic reliefs. Even if Mozart considers the organ as the "king of the instruments", it is evident that it cannot rival the expressivity and contrasted accents of any single orchestral instrument. In the very case of my Concerto Nr 4 "Det strømmende og uudslukkelige...", as well as for my other concertos, a transcription for organ alone would be absurd, (concertare : it. to converse).




F.C.H. In this particular work you quote several Danish hymn tunes –”Sorrig og glæde” and some of the Pentecost hymns, that you arranged for my choir last year. Does these quotations make it a religious work, a work of faith, or do you consider the tunes merely as melodic material in a more objective way?


"Toute oeuvre qui n'est pas pour la gloire de Dieu est inutile" Charles Tournemire

"Que tout ce qui respire loue le Seigneur" Psaume 150

"Musik er Liv" Carl Nielsen


N.H. Several years ago I found in Teilhard de Chardin's work "Hymne de l'Univers", a strong theology focused on "the spiritual strength of the matter" (la puissance spirituelle de la matière). This embraces and transcends Tournemire's statement and King David's cry quoted above. I find in it the very core of all my life and in particular of my compositions. The title of my concerto Nr 4, "Det strømmende og uudslukkelige..." (The Streaming And Unextinguishable..) refers to the Holy Spirit as a streaming and unextinguishable source of eternal Life. Even if the composition follows the structure of the classical concerto, the spiritual dimension is present all the way through the three movements.  The opening movement, Strømmende  (Streaming), is based on two themes from my other works : Det strømmende... canon for two voices (2005), on a text by Pastor Hanne Margrethe Tougaard and Capriccio for violin and organ (2004). The conclusive verse of Pastor Tougaard’s text « Guds Ånd er Liv » (Spirit of God is Life) is the point de départ of the whole concerto. The theme of the Capriccio is an appeal to the ”Beloved”, to the image of God among us. The form combines the principles of variation and sonata, in contrasted textures and moods (energetic, singing, expressive, lively, humoristic). The second movement, based on Sorrig og glæde (Sorrow and gladness), figurates the opposition between life on earth and eternal Life in Heaven. The different variations of this movement (expressive, ornamental, contrapuntal), draw a general ascending evolution, whether tonal or in the tempo. The concerto gets to its climax in the conclusive movement, Uudslukkelig (Unextinguishable). It is conceived as a plurithematic rondo-sonata, based on Danish hymns, most of them in honour of the Holy Spirit.  These include : Du, som går ud fra den levende Gud; Gud Helligånd, o kom!; Kom Gud Helligånd, kom brat; I al sin glans nu stråler solen; Se, nu stiger solen. The two themes of the opening movement are recalled in the coda. And to echo Pastor Tougaard's cheer « Guds Ånd er Liv » and expand Carl Nielsens belief "Musik er liv", this concerto glows that Dancing and Joyful Music, Dancing and Joyful Life are the very Spirit of God.




F.C.H. Just to get it clear: the idea of writing pure art music for the organ - as opposed to religious music - is not an option for you?


N.H. In a recent conversation with my daughter Katia, I mentioned that the two most important things in life are Religion and Art. She retorted : "Isn't it the same thing?" I was really embarrassed to answer. If the vocation of a work of art is to elevate the soul from the finite to the infinite, then it is religious by essence ( lat. "religare", to link). Art is religious and Religion is the goal of Art. To me "pure art" through any medium is a superficial stratum over an innate "religious" gesture. Naturally it is evident to distinguish for example between church music and ballet music. But how easy is it to decide whether the Prelude in Eb minor from the Well Tempered Klavier I by J.-S. Bach is less or more religious than his choral prelude "O Mensch bewein" from the Orgelbuchlein? As far as organ music in church is concerned, the only question is to decide whether or not the music is adapted to the actual function in the service or liturgy. The choice is partly subjective.




F.C.H. Do you agree with Tournemire in his statement, and if so: how does it affect your view on music by composers like Bartok, Stravinsky, Stockhausen, Boulez, who has no real intentions of glorifying God in their music? (maybe even further back: a symphony by Schubert, a string quartet by Beethoven)


N.H. I don't really agree with the sectarian expression in Tournemire's statement, because I don't consider the question from the same angle, i.e. to the glory of God. I consider that all the creation is by essence to the glory of God, the real question is whether men (as for example Schubert, Beethoven,  Bartok, Stravinsky, Stockhausen, Boulez) are conscious or not of this truth.  





F.C.H. I would like to turn to the next subject for our mail conversation: the use of the organ in the service. But to continue from your last answer: even when you consider all art as being to the glory of God, are there music that you would not play for a service in the church?


"The true liturgy is cosmic and not reduced to the group"

Pope Benedictus XVI 


N.H. I would in principle pitch on an inclusive repertoire - and by tactfulness to other musicians, I wouldn't mention what I would exclude. Rather than to consider what I would "move aside" I would rather put in relief what I would "bring closer".   What can one say about "pasodobles or tangos" played during the offertory (as I have several times heard in Ujué (village in Navarra - Spain) or basque tzortzikos danced in homage to the holy sacrament, or the music of Padre Davide da Bergamo, reminding of circus music, or barrel organs?  All is a question of authenticity and conviction of the artist, composer or performer.  Love and gratitude being the very sense of liturgy,  the real matter is to  offer the best to God, to God among us. This makes me think also of Olivier Messiaen's own music in the liturgy. As the compositions and/or improvisatory style of the young Messiaen were not appreciated by all the congregation, the curé of La Trinité of that time (after intervention of Marcel Dupré to the archbishop) had to add one more Sunday mass to let Messiaen play/improvise in whatever style he wanted. That "Messiaen-mass" was soon called "La messe des fous"... There is a great deal of subjectivity and a so wide range of different cultures and backgrounds, besides the evolution of each individual or group, that no finite answer is possible.  As a liturgical organist, I found out, through the years that my most authentic musical offering emanates from improvisation.





F.C.H. What about music for congregational singing? Should everything be allowed as long as it bears a minimum of authenticity?


N.H. Authenticity doesn't mean anarchy. Authenticity should follow hierarchy and be balanced with humility, consideration of the historical patrimony and recognition of the professional musicians and their gifts. In this respect, opening verses from Exodus 31 are self-explanatory : And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, See, I have called by name Bezaleel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: And I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, To devise cunning works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, And in cutting of stones, to set them, and in carving of timber, to work in all manner of workmanship.




F.C.H. If you were an organist in a Danish church, what would your basic thoughts be, concerning "gebrauchsmusik"?


"Torniamo al antico e sara un progresso"

Giusseppe Verdi.


N.H. When Johann Sebastian Bach was appointed at St Thomas in Leipzig he went on working on the many choral melodies he found in the library rather than inventing new ones. This was and still is an excellent example of humility in considering the potentialities of the historical patrimony as a point de départ of a work of art. With regard to the Danish church, I have a deep belief in the incommensurable compositional material one could draw out of "den danske salmekilde", both for the clarity and elegance of the inspired melodic lines and for the poetical and theological contents of the texts. "Alle mine kilder skal være hos dig."




F.C.H. I know you hold the Danish hymns very dear - it is also reflected in your recent works, "Sakskøbing Præludier", "Påskeblomst", "Alle mine kilder skal være hos dig" etc. Do the catholic church in France have a heritage, that means the same to you? Gregorian melodies for example?



N.H. I am aware of the innumerable gifts of the Grace, such as the musical and poetical melodic flowers all over the world with their hidden honey. My craft is in a sense comparable to the craft of the florist or the bee gathering flowers or nectar. Not only gregorian, but also maronite, basque, breton melodies are part of my catholic patrimony and sources of inspiration. Some of my works as Vexilla Regis prodeunt, Pange lingua, Te Deum, Salve Regina, are gregorian paraphrases, genre inherited from Tournemire and Langlais.  I have used also some basque and britton melodies in the Sinfonia in honore Sancti Ioannis Bautistae for organ, the orchestral symphony, Les Noces de l'Agneau, the Suite Rhapsodique for horn and organ or the  Messe Solennelle for choir and organ. My maronite/lebanese background have inspired me in the following works : Aalaiki'ssalaam, Le Tombeau d'Olivier Messiaen for organ,  Suite Rhapsodique for horn and organ, Gloria for choir and organ. "Jeg elsker den brogede verden"




F.C.H. What are your hopes and fears for the music in the churches in France? And in Denmark?



N.H. Within the French Catholic cultural landscape, musical art inspired by Christianity has deserted the liturgy and taken refuge in concerts or in recordings. Many in positions of liturgical responsibility, with no musical education have come to believe in a tabula rasa, denying any lineage whatsoever. Christian professional singers and maîtres de chapelle have been sidelined, replaced by committed members of the laity whose goodwill is their sole musical baggage. As for the new repertoire, we nowadays see - a consequence of the cultural void - an invasion of hymns with bad musical and prosodic substance that would inspire a sense of aversion in any real musician. No more Gregorian melody, no more polyphony, no more inspired folk-song, no more harmony, or modulation - a real desert for the artist and for the Christian aesthete. Organists often attend liturgies in unrelieved and total impotence. When they are not expected to accompany hymns, one expects them to give simple background music, like that in supermarkets; classical, very soft and especially very short so as to allow the congregation to chat at the exit of the Mass without being disturbed. 


No fear! "Frygt ikke, for jeg er med dig, fortvivl ikke, for jeg er din Gud." Es, 41, 10a


No fear, but desolation and hope.


My hopes quoted from my Communiqué for the 2000/2001 Congress of the Consociatio Internationalis Musicae Sacrae, consist in the following :

•  The inclusion of music as a part of cultural and artistic training courses in the seminaries.

•  The formal restoration of cathedral or professional parish church choirs, under the direction of choirmasters

•  The systematic control of all sung liturgical repertoire in parishes by commissions consisting of professional musicians and approved by the Episcopal conferences.

Whether in France, Danmark or anywhere else in the world, my hope on a larger scape, is that the adults of today realise their responsibility in transmitting to the younger generation the cultural fire inherited from preceding centuries to constitue the best and most elevating offering of mankind to the above all.