February 14, 2021


Jean Langlais’s Cinq Méditations sur l’Apocalypse

February 14, 2021


Jean Langlais’s Cinq Méditations sur l’Apocalypse

Portion of the fifteenth century mural "Le jugement dernier" located below the 1734 Christophe Moucherel organ at the Cathedral in Albi, France.

Portion of the fifteenth century mural "Le jugement dernier" located below the 1734 Christophe Moucherel organ at the Cathedral in Albi, France.

On January 14, 1973, Jean Langlais suffered a massive heart attack that resulted in a 40-day hospitalization at Broussais Hospital in Paris, France. This near-death experience became the catalyst for what would be his most profound work for organ: Cinq Méditations sur l’Apocalypse (“Five Meditations on the Apocalypse”). While recovering in his hospital bed, he reflected on his experience by reading the Book of Revelation over and over. As if, according to his wife, Marie-Louise Langlais, "by odd premonition," Jean Langlais had written two pieces "several months before in December 1972 based on passages from the Book of Revelation," but it wasn’t until then that he began to conceive of the work as a whole. Those two pieces would become the second and fifth meditations while meditations three and four were composed from his hospital bed in March 1973. As was typical, Langlais wrote very quickly. The second meditation was composed December 26–28, 1972, the third on March 15, 1973, and the fourth on March 24–25 1973; the fifth meditation was an exception, composed over a period of almost two weeks, December 1–13, 1972. The genesis of the first meditation is slightly more distinct and will be discussed later.

The 1863 Cavaillé-Coll organ at Ste-Clotilde in Paris, France.

The Cinq Méditations are a particularly special part of Langlais’s œuvre because it is one of his few works that was not commissioned, which allowed him to write with complete freedom. With the organ of Ste-Clotilde in mind, the Cinq Méditations were written for his own spiritual nourishment as a way to deal with his close encounter with death. According to Mme Langlais, Jean believed it to be one of his best and most personal works.

The 1863 Cavaillé-Coll organ at Ste-Clotilde in Paris, France.

With Marie-Louise by his side, Langlais himself gave the premiere at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris on April 28, 1974. Langlais played the first four meditations and Marie-Louise played the fifth, La cinquieme trompette, as he had not yet learned it. A performance of the entire set lasts approximately 45 minutes, making it Langlais's longest organ work.

The Meditations

I. Celui qui a des oreilles, qu’il écoute / He who has ears, let him hear (Revelation 2:7)

The first meditation was not conceived as an organ work, and is in fact a transcription of an earlier setting of Langlais’s Psaume CXXI, Op. 17, No. 1 (available here). Composed in 1937, the Deux Psaumes were premiered on March 19, 1938, and sung by the French choir La Campanile under the direction of Joseph Noyon. The performance marked the 587th concert given by La Société Nationale de Musique at La Salle de l’École Normale de Musique in Paris. Deux Psaumes was never performed again after its premiere and remains unpublished. However, Langlais thought the music was good and recycled it as the first movement of the Cinq Méditations.

This accounts for the striking difference in texture from the following four movements and explains why it does not fit as comfortably under the hands. The two psalms, set in French, were scored for SATB choir with a tenor/soprano unison solo, and organ or piano accompaniment ad libitum. Psaume CXXI concludes with a four-part fugue, sung on an “ah” syllable, which Langlais transcribed in its entirety for the organ manuals using a registration favored by Charles Tournemire, one of his predecessors at St. Clotilde: Fonds 8’, Gambe, Voix céleste, Voix humaine, and Trémolo on the Récit; the psalm text is played on the 4’ Clairon in the pedal. The theme, played with slight alteration each time, is taken from a verse of the plainchant Te Deum in the fourth mode.

Taking the form of a four-part fugue, the number seven — a number often used as a universal symbol, representing all of space and time — features prominently in this meditation; the fugue subject begins with a leap of a major seventh followed by seven statements of the pedal theme, one for each of the seven churches of Asia that St. John is instructed to address in the Book of Revelation: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamon, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.

The first meditation is dedicated to Dr. Alain Garderet, a pupil of Langlais who, fortunately, was also a cardiologist. When the heart attack struck, Langlais was home alone and he immediately called Garderet for help. Suspecting a heart attack, Garderet called the hospital and, as a result, likely saved his teacher’s life.

Jean Langlais: Celui qui a des oreilles, qu’il écoute from Cinq Méditations sur l’Apocalypse, from a live performance by Jim Roman on the 2001 Schantz organ at St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas, USA.

II. Il était, Il est et Il vient
/ He was, He is and He will come (Revelation 1:4)

The second meditation is divided into five distinct sections. In the first, Langlais uses a sustained F for 38 bars to represent the eternity of God (“He was”) and accompanies it with a simple contrapuntal melody underneath revolving around four notes. In the second more dramatic section, Langlais writes in a march-like homophonic style with dissonant, chordal harmonies. On the Great 8’ Trompette, the left hand plays the Vexilla Regis chant from Good Friday to depict the Christ whom we crucified. The eternity F (“He is”) returns in the third section, this time held down by a key weight, over 40 bars. The melodic counterpoint heard in the first section is played again, but now accompanied by a third, additional contrapuntal line. The chordal harmonies reappear in the fourth section using the sequence Lauda Sion salvatorem for Corpus Christi, representing the Christ glorified; the section concludes with a fff passage suggesting that the Passion paved the way for Christ’s resurrection. In the fifth and final section, the eternity F (“He is to come”) appears one final time, again sustained with a key weight, over 36 bars. This time the melody, played on the 8’ Flute Harmonique, is interrupted by arpeggiated, Messiaen-like flourishes using the 16’ Quintaton, 4’ Flute, and 1 ⅗’ Tierce. These birdlike motifs are symbolic of the birds in paradise. It is no surprise that Messiaen, who praised the work as a whole, had a fondness for this meditation.

Marie-Louise Jaquet, now Marie-Louise Langlais, is honored as the dedicatee of the second meditation.

Jean Langlais: Il était, Il est et Il vient from Cinq Méditations sur l’Apocalypse, from a live performance by Jim Roman on the 2001 Schantz organ at St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas, USA.

III. Visions prophétiques
/ Prophetic visions

While the preceding movements focused primarily on the introductory material in the Book of Revelation, Langlais aims to explore the true devastation of the apocalypse in the third movement. A dramatic fantasy-tableau depicting terrifying visions of death, war, and famine as a result of the opening of the seven seals forms the subject matter of the third meditation, taking the form of a rondo.

The meditation begins with the opening of the seven seals represented by a dramatic flourish depicting the third angel’s trumpet blow followed by a rapid, descending figure symbolizing the falling of the great star. In a room with a large acoustic, Langlais gave permission to put a slight breath between the first and second measure. After this chilling introduction, a series of dramatic chords portray a roar like that of a lion, progressively increasing in pitch and dynamic. In stark contrast to the introduction on full organ, a jagged trumpet solo inspired by Revelation 1:10 — “I heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet” — is heard. The trumpet theme is then repeated again with an accompaniment of mystical chords.

Following a repeat of the opening material, Langlais paints an image of the Holy City where four living creatures each full of eyes and six wings sing in adoration of the Lamb “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Here, the plainchant Sanctus melody from the Requiem Mass can be heard in the pedal underneath rapid, obligato lines in the manuals evoking the flapping of angelic wings. The scene is then abruptly broken by three-note pedal chords representing (literally, for the organist) the stance of the angel with one foot on land and the other in the sea: “I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, and his feet were as pillars of fire. He set his right foot upon the sea, and his left on the earth” (Revelation 10:1–3).

Before one final return of the opening material, the angels continue their song by singing the plainchant Alleluia from the feast of St. John the Baptist and service of the Birth of Our Lord, now heard in the manuals. The meditation ends with a short, fiery toccata depicting violence and discord, representing the true horror of humanity.

Bob Andersen, the dedicatee of the third meditation, was a well-known American organ teacher, performer, and friend of Langlais.

Jean Langlais: Visions prophétiques from Cinq Méditations sur l’Apocalypse, from a live performance by Jim Roman on the 2001 Schantz organ at St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas, USA.

IV. Oh oui, viens Seigneur Jésus
/ Oh yes, do come, Lord Jesus Christ (Revelation 22:20)

Following the terrors experienced in Visions prophétiques, Langlais offers a quiet prayer as the fourth meditation based on the penultimate sentence of the Book of Revelation: “The one who testifies to these things says ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20) This slow meditation employs the Salicional and Bourdon, and creates an atmosphere of static being, timelessness, and quietude. The movement concludes with the solo melody ascending to the organ’s highest registers as if a prayer were floating away amidst a haze of incense.

The fourth meditation is dedicated to Pierre Cogen, one of Langlais's pupils, who served as his assistant and then succeeded him at Ste-Clotilde in 1987 when Langlais retired at the age of 80.

Marie-Louise Langlais recalls while recording the Cinq Méditations (Arion, 1975; presently out of print) that she had to do many takes of this movement because Langlais was never happy with the length of the final chords.

Jean Langlais: Visions prophétiques from Cinq Méditations sur l’Apocalypse, from a live performance by Jim Roman on the 2001 Schantz organ at St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas, USA.

V. La Cinquième trompette
/ The Fifth Trumpet (Revelation 9:1–11)

The fifth and final meditation is the longest and most programmatic of the entire work. It details more apocalyptic horrors like the bottomless pit, the fifth angel blowing his trumpet, and violent swarms of insects. As in the second meditation, Langlais again makes use of several Greek rhythms throughout such as cretic (long short long) and anapest (short short long). While theological reasoning would suggest that Langlais end the work with the proceeding meditation, for musical reasons he circles back to the apocalyptic visions one final time.

Short, quiet chords interspersed with large periods of rest reverberate as though echoing through a seemingly bottomless pit. The quick staccato chords that follow become the smoke motif (E, G-sharp, A-sharp) representing the rising spirals of smoke from the depths of the abyss. Suddenly, the Fifth Trumpet sounds as thirty-second note flourishes on the Récit's Trompette, Clairon, and Mixture, immediately followed by a descending figure as the star falls (Langlais also endorsed using a Trompette en Chamade if available). What follows is a chaotic spewing of insects and horrors that burst forth from the bottomless pit.

Eventually, fff chords evoke images of the smoke from the great furnace obscuring the sun and darkening the sky. Interjected between these chords, the smoke motif is heard again, this time built upon the interval of a ninth. Soon after, allusions to insects like grasshoppers and locusts begin to appear. The right hand begins an ostinato figure in sixteenth notes played on the 16’ Bourdon, 4’ Flute, and 1⅓’ Larigot over seventh chords in the left hand played on the Voix humaine and Voix céleste. The registration is particularly interesting here as it is almost a visual representation in the score of the insects, quite literally, beginning to circle over humanity while, beneath them, the smoke continues to rise from the bottomless pit as the smoke motif is heard, played by the 4’ Clairon in the pedal.

The swarming begins to intensify before coming to an almost uncomfortable silence. This silence is broken as a violent storm bursts forth and the locusts and grasshoppers commence their attack. The work draws to a close as the manuals play a cataclysmic flurry of thirty-second notes depicting the swarms of insects while the pedal plays jagged intervals symbolic of the repeated attacks on humans.

After one final, unearthly fanfare, the work concludes with two dissonant chords that resolve into a chromatic cluster over a low pedal C, a visceral and catastrophic representation of humanity crying out in torment — “In those days people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will flee from them” (Revelation 9:6).

The fifth and final meditation is dedicated to Donald Wilkins, a good friend of Langlais and the only American pupil to win first prize in the accompaniment class at the Conservatoire de Paris.

Jean Langlais: La Cinquième trompette from Cinq Méditations sur l’Apocalypse, from a live performance by Jim Roman on the 2001 Schantz organ at St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas, USA.


Due to Langlais's blindness it was not always easy for him to effectively proofread his scores and he often relied on the help of others. It is unsurprising that, according to Marie-Louise Langlais, many errors made their way into his published scores — Cinq Méditations sur l’Apocalypse is no exception. While there have been some lists of errata published for many of his works, even including the Cinq Méditations, they are not by any means exhaustive. I’ve worked to identify as many misprints in the score as possible, using previous lists as a starting point and with much assistance from Marie-Louise Langlais. At one point two of his students, Ann Labounsky and Kathleen Thomerson, set out to make a list of errata for his published works. Langlais initially assisted them, but eventually decided to abandon the project out of fear people would not want to buy his music when they saw all of the errors.

Mme Langlais recalls in an interview with Michael Barone (on the radio program Pipedreams episode #1119, available here) that she would sometimes ask him, “Is it a flat or natural?” and he would say, “Oh, I don’t mind. You play what you prefer.” So, while very strict with the music of others, especially Bach and Franck, he was quite tolerant when it came to his own works — something that can be both liberating and frustrating for the organist! This also makes it more difficult when trying to create a definitive score, as his students often have different corrections.

The list that follows represents, to the best of my efforts, the most comprehensive summary to date of errata contained within the two printed editions of the Cinq Méditations sur l’Apocalypse. The majority of the information is compiled from my conversations with Mme Langlais, with additional email correspondence with Ann Labounsky.

Complete List of Errata

Page numbers refer to both the Bornemann and Leduc editions. Bar numbers refer to the given page number and not the work as a whole. RH refers to the top manual staff, LH refers to the lower manual staff.

I. Celui qui a des oreilles, qu’il écoute

p. 1, Registration is lacking a manual designation. The entire movement should be played on the Récit.
p. 2, bar 2: Add crescendo to reach the f in bar 3.
p. 2, bar 15: Pedal, third beat: should be F-sharp, not F-natural.
p. 3, bar 1: LH, fourth beat, bass voice: G-sharp is missing a quarter-note stem.
p. 3, bar 2: RH, sixth note of soprano line: should be A-sharp, not natural as indicated.* This is indicated as an A-sharp in the Psaume CXXI score, but most recordings, including Mme Langlais and Ann Labounsky play an A-natural.
p. 3, bar 14: p should be in the manuals, not pedal.

II. Il était, Il est et Il vient

p. 4, bar 2: The F should remain on the Récit for this section. Ignore the Pos. (Ch.) indication.
p. 4: Add breaks in the left hand melody between bars 6–7 and 15–16.
p. 5, bar 6: LH: the C should be C-double-sharp.
p. 5, bar 16: Tempo indication should be quarter note = 112.
p. 5, bar 20: LH, fourth beat: the E should be one octave higher.
p. 5, bar 21: Pedal, third beat: the note should be A, not G-sharp.
p. 5, bar 22: RH, third beat: both As in second chord should be A-sharp.
p. 6, bar 15: RH, third beat: the bottom note of the second chord should be D-flat.
p. 6, bar 15: Right hand, first beat, second chord: middle note should be A-natural. Also applies to third beat.
p. 7, bar 10: RH, second beat: G octave should be eighth notes not quarter. The following B-flat octave is played on the third beat.
p. 7, bar 10: Ignore R/Pos indication.
p. 8: Tempo same as beginning, quarter note = 92.
p. 9, bar 7: LH: the E is missing a courtesy natural (in the preceding measure, it was flat).
p. 10: Registration: Lack of 8’ foundations in Récit is intentional.*
p. 10, bar 14: Add Pos/Ped here.
p. 10, bar 16: RH, first beat: the chord should be D-flat and F-natural, not D-sharp and F-natural.
p. 10, bar 16: LH, chord should not be tied over to measure 17 to enable move to G.O.
p. 10, bar 17: LH, A-flat should be tied to another A-flat, not G.
p. 10, bar 20–21: LH: the chord should be tied over the barline into bar 21.
p. 11, bar 2: RH, first chord: should be D-natural, G-natural, and B-flat, same as in bar 3.
p. 12, bar 8–9: RH, fourth beat: alto G-sharp should be tied into bar 9.
p. 12, bar 10–11: The alto B-flats should be tied in both hands.
p. 15, bar 11: Marie-Louise Langlais says final A-sharp in measure is redundant; Ann Labounsky says it should be an A natural; both play A-sharp in their recordings.

III. Visions prophétiques

p. 17, bar 8–9: These bars are slightly different between the original Bornemann edition and the Leduc reprint; the Bornemann is correct.

p. 17, bar 14: LH: the chord should be G-sharp, D-sharp, and E-natural; the sharp is on the wrong note.

p. 17, bar 15, 16, 19: Both hands should be played together, not one after the other. Leduc is correct. Bars 15–19 should be played thus:

p. 18, bar 9: At the Più lento, the metronome marking can be faster, but this solo has to remain very expressive.
p. 19, bar 10: RH: the last chord is F-natural, B-flat, and D-flat; not D-natural as printed.
p. 20, bar 9: The tempo at Più vivo should be quarter note = 126, not 116.
p. 20, bar 17 and 18: LH, second beat: should be D-sharp-A-sharp-D-sharp, not C-sharp-G-sharp and C-sharp.
p. 21, bars 2–5: LH: the G whole note is tied for these four measures.
p. 22, bar 5: RH: the 2 last notes have to be switched: A then D-sharp instead of D-sharp, then A.
p. 22, bar 6: LH: the third eighth is D-sharp not D natural.
p. 22, bar 16: LH, first beat: the C-sharp has to be a whole note, not a quarter.
p. 23, bar 7: LH chord is voiced incorrectly; from the bottom up it should be B-flat, C, E-flat, and G.
p. 23, bar 9: LH chord is G-sharp-A-sharp-B-natural-D-sharp; the sharp is on the wrong note.

IV. Oh oui, viens Seigneur Jésus

p. 24, bar 17: Pedal chord should be F-sharp and C-sharp, not F-natural and C-natural.
p. 25, bar 6: RH: the last note should not be staccato.
p. 26, bar 2: RH, the last chord should be A-sharp, D-sharp, and F-sharp.
p. 26, bar 3: LH, the chord should be F-sharp, G-sharp, A, C-sharp.
p. 26, bar 10: RH, the first note should be A-flat, not A-natural.

V. La Cinquième trompette

p. 27: “Fifth” is misspelled in the English subtitle.
p. 27, bar 17: RH: the alto F should be tied to bar 18.
p. 27, bar 18: RH: the bottom voice should stay on F (tied from bar 17) and not move down to E.
p. 28, bar 4: Pedal D-sharp missing a staccato marking.
p. 30, bar 18: flute 4’ + Pos/Ped off
p. 31, bar 9: Pedal should be a C-sharp, not C natural.
p. 31, bar 10: Pedal, registration missing: + Flûte 4’, + Pos/Ped.
p. 31, bar 16: LH, the B should be B-flat.
p. 33, bars 11–12 : These two bars should continue to be played one octave higher, as in bars 7–10.
p. 33, bar 16: LH: last chord should be E-flat, A- flat, and C-natural.
p. 34, bars 1–4 and bars 17–20: If the tutti is too powerful, play LH on another manual and RH on the Great.
p. 34, bar 9: LH: first chord should be F, B-flat, and D-natural. The flat is on the wrong line.
p. 34, bar 10: RH: first chord should be G-natural and C-sharp, not G-natural.
p. 34, bars 14–16: Add stops on each of these chords, building to Full Organ at bar 17.
p. 34, bar 15: RH chord should be dotted, same as LH.
p. 34, bar 21: Registration should be the same as bar 5.
p. 36, bar 1: LH: the chord should be E-A-C-sharp, not F-A-C-sharp. E is tied from the previous bar.
p. 37, bar 1: RH, the seventh sixteenth note should be D-sharp, not F-sharp.
p. 40, bar 12: Registration missing 8’ foundations is correct.*
p. 41, bars 8–9: RH, play one octave up.
p. 41, bar 9: RH: F and C-sharp should be staccato, like the previous bar.
p. 42, bar 11: The sixth note should be B-flat, not B-natural, like the following bar. Same thing for p. 43, bar 10 and p. 46, bar 10.
p. 44, bar 12: The sixth and seventh notes should be D and C-sharp, not E and D.
p. 45, bar 1: The second and third notes should be D and C-sharp, not E and D; same for the eighteenth and nineteenth notes.
p. 47, bar 1: Third group of thirty-second notes missing a “5.”
p. 47, bar 15: LH, the chord should be F, A-flat, B, and E. There is an unnecessary flat symbol before the A-flat.

*Mme Langlais says Jean Langlais believed when having the 8’ Reeds it is better not to use the 8’ Foundations.


Author's Acknowledgements

I am deeply indebted to Marie-Louise Langlais, who has been an endless source of knowledge and without whom this article would not have been written. Her intimate knowledge of the music, having performed and recorded the work under Jean Langlais's supervision, has proven invaluable.


Jim Roman is the Associate Organist at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas and serves on the faculty of the Bridges Academy of Fine Arts, teaching organ and piano. An active member of the musical community, Jim also serves as the Dean of the Houston Chapter of the American Guild of Organists. In 2020, he received his Certificate in Music Performance from the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music as a student of Daryl Robinson. Winner of the 2013 Joan Lippincott Organ Competition for Excellence in Organ Performance, Jim earned his Bachelor of Music and Master of Music in Organ Performance and Sacred Music from Westminster Choir College where he studied with Ken Cowan and Alan Morrison. Additionally, he has studied privately with Grethe Krogh in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Vox Humana.