I'm just starting to learn to play the piano and read music and have no intention of trying to learn this piece at least for a long time, but out of curiosity I had to take a look.

Here's a snippet of the very first part of the first part of "Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jésus" by Olivier Messiaen, from a transcription on musescore.com:

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I'm looking at the first five-note chord for the left hand on the lowest of the three staves, circled in red. Can somebody

  1. Confirm if I'm reading the notes right? I think this piece is in F#, and I read it as (starting on the lowest note, and ignoring the grace note preceeding the chord): A# B# E A A#

  2. Explain how on earth anybody can play that with one hand?

Watching both Ashley Hribar and Steven Osborne play these first chords in performances on youtube I can't see any obvious sign of either crazy contortions or rolling of the hand to play the notes non-simultaneously!

Is this transcription wrong? Am I reading it wrong? Are these pianists space aliens with extra fingers?

I suspect the transcription because it's so crazy, and I'm not sure it sounds right either (hard to tell because I can only hit all the notes one chord at a time!).

  • 1
    Ignoring the grace note is where your analysis falls flat, if you will. – phoog Oct 26 '20 at 2:47

The transcription is correct. Below is a screenshot from a YouTube video that includes the score.

To play the chord, play the grace note (A#) with your pinky, and hold it with the pedal. The remainder of the chord B#-E-A-A# can be played 5-3-2-1 (or 5-4-2-1). Someone with big enough hands could play the entire thing, including the grace note, 5-4-3-2-1.

Screen capture of Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus (1944), 1. "Regard du Père", measure 1. Regard du Père m1

  • 3
    By the way. As so often in Messiaen, the notes are all from an octatonic scale: A# B# C# D# E F# G A. It's a lovely piece isn't it? Good idea not to try and learn it if you're just starting! Well done for reading the notes correctly. – Old Brixtonian Oct 26 '20 at 1:30
  • 3
    Re the "big enough hands" point, I learnt to play as a kid, but since then I've only dabbled for 20+ years and never really got any better. One of "my" pieces is the Moonlight Sonata, and that features an octave-plus-one stretch. I don't have spider fingers, but I can do that. I was very amused to find that my mum, who taught piano for 30 years and in retirement "tours" her area to play the organ for church services, has to fake that stretch because her hands were never big enough, and she can only just do a full octave. Don't let small hands hold you back, people. :) – Graham Oct 26 '20 at 10:52
  • I just tried this, and I can still only see how one could possibly do it with 5-4-1-2 (i.e 2 hitting the A# and thumb on the A) and painful contortions! So I think I still don't understand – Croad Langshan Oct 26 '20 at 20:32
  • @CroadLangshan My suggestion is 5-on-B#, 3-on-E, 2-on-A, 1-on-A#. Does that work for you? If no, where in your fingers/hand/arm do you feel the most strain? – Aaron Oct 26 '20 at 21:16
  • If my left hand 5/3/2 are on those keys, then my thumb is nowhere near A# :-) – Croad Langshan Oct 26 '20 at 21:21

You could also play both the A and A# at the top of the chord with your thumb if you get the position just right (thumb at the front left corner of the A#)

  • Thanks, I discovered this too experimenting after reading @Aaron's answer, it's the only way I can do it as far as I can tell – Croad Langshan Oct 26 '20 at 22:22

You could also play the A# (or maybe actually it's more comfortable playing the A - or maybe not but it's easier to get the intended voicing right that way) with your right hand.

In general, the distribution between the staves indicates how you are supposed to think about the chords, not how you are supposed to actually play them.

  • Interesting -- I can do that, but then I can't get anywhere near the upper A and A# that my right hand is notated as playing :-| – Croad Langshan Oct 27 '20 at 23:43

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