Jennifer Lucy Bate, celebrated organist and Olivier Messiaen’s most trusted interpreter of his complex oeuvres for the instrument, has died at the age of 75.

Although Jennifer’s stellar international career was sufficient to carve her a place in performance history, it is her affinity for Messiaen’s difficult music that makes her a stand-out and elevates her to the top of the pedestal.

Olivier Messiaen and she met when the composer visited the Bate household in 1975, mainly on account of her father, H.A. Bate, organist at St James’ Church, Muswell Hill, North London. The 31-year-old Jennifer was invited to travel to London to play for him. Messiaen told her, “But, that is exactly how I play my own work. You understand how to bring out the inner sounds”. Their fruitful collaboration endured until the composer’s death in 1992.

Messiaen. He takes a bit of getting used to. Forget the phrasing and structure of conventional classical music – even as remoulded for the 20th century by the likes of Stravinsky, Prokofiev, even Hindemith. They re-forged materials already familiar to 19th century classical composers. Messiaen simply abandoned them. His music is constructed at a quantum level, packed with strange, vibrating notes that form, skitter and regroup into astonishing soundscapes. And silences. Listen to Jennifer Bate’s recordings and it immediately becomes clear how much silences count in Messiaen’s work. And how she artfully deploys them.

On first contact with Messiaen’s organ works I was bemused; thought they must appeal only to highly sensitive musical palates – certainly not mine. That’s a polite way of saying I was convinced he was unhinged. Here was a man obsessed with religious themes, birdsong, musical rhythms to be found beyond Europe; ancient Greek, Japanese, Balinese, Javanese Gamelan, and Hindu. Śārńgadeva, a Hindu composer, had compiled the deçî-tâlas – a list of 120 rhythmic units. Wow! Messiaen drew on them freely.

Scores veer randomly and unexpectedly up and down the dynamic range, from ppp – uber-pianissimo – to nf – nuclear-forte.

OK, made that one up. It’s a dynamic marking I have added to the lexicon. The conventional fff simply doesn’t hack it when Messiaen blows his listener out of the seat or pew with a sudden outburst of sound, calling on every rank, pedal, stop and pipe in the organ to deliver his hammer blow assaults on the senses.

Jennifer Bate’s genius was to understand what the composer’s mind’s eye saw. Messiaen is known to have been a synesthete. He saw colour in music. What does that mean? Example. Synaesthesia is a driving force in the well-known Walt Disney film, Fantasia, a pioneering production that gains in reputation as the years roll by.

Think Leopold Stokowski, standing in silhouette on his podium, baton dropping, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue striking up and a dazzling kaleidoscope of colour shimmering across the screen. That’s Synaesthesia. It dazzled Messiaen’s mind as he composed every chord and running passage. Paradoxically, audiences have to listen to his work through Messiaen’s eye. That is what makes it a special, and often searing experience.

We glibly talk of music as having “colour” – minor keys are black or grey; major keys, especially E Major, are bright, perhaps yellow or red. Messiaen, interpreted by Jennifer Bate, lures us into a much more complex sound colour world. One inspired by the stained glass Rose windows of the Saint Chapelle, Paris, which Messiaen encountered at the age of 10. The Gothic structure of Saint Chapelle, bathed in Rose window light, draws worshippers heavenwards. Messiaen’s soaring sound wall supercharges the journey. Every sense is engaged.

Listeners have to pay attention to get anything out of Messiaen performances. Tuning in casually is a complete waste of time. But, complexity and over analysis should be avoided. Do I need to know “the diagrammatic textual relationships between monody and polyphony” in Le Corps Glorieux, the sort of thing that has music nerds frothing with excitement? Passion-killer.

The Messiaen/Bate collaboration lasted from 1975, until the composer’s death in 1992. All Jennifer’s scores of his works were annotated by Messiaen, making her his privileged interpreter, bearing unique authority. Like many super talented musicians, she wore her skill lightly, was unfussy and reached well beyond Messiaen in her authoritative interpretations.

The Bate discography is comprehensive. From all the gems I single out Messiaen: The Organ Works of 2014, released by Treasure Island Music, recorded on the grandes orgues of  St. Pierre, Beauvais and L’Eglise de la Sainte Trinité, Paris. The sound is lustrous, the pauses between phrases and works uncut, or super-skilfully edited, so full of depth. They become part of the music.

My best shot at describing what this CD is like is this. Think of a Chagall painting, full of colour, bristling with shining figures, ascending and descending, angels with trumpets, supplicants rooted to the earth. Then, think you are listening to it. That’s Messiaen. And Jennifer Bate is his prophet.

Jennifer’s repertoire ranged well beyond Messiaen. Her recordings of the complete organ works of Felix Mendelssohn, on the Sonn, label are definitive. She enjoyed an international career, in particular performing in northern Italy, where she gave over 150 recitals.  A 2012 concert inaugurating the restored organ in Chiesa S. Sabina, in Trigoso, is well worth a look.

In interview she was completely unstuffy. Here she is being interviewed by Miriam O’Reilly on BBC Radio 3 in 2009.

Her interest in the warp and weft of the lives of composers explains her depth of insight and her passion for connecting with the public. When a puzzled Ms O’Reilly points out that she is a slight figure, Jennifer responds; “That is all an illusion”. Self-deprecatingly she explains that it is the organ doing the work and she is merely orchestrating its performance. She introduced cameras into the organ loft so the audience could see her dervish talents at first hand.

Still waters run deep. In 1968, when she was 24, Jennifer married legendary Temple Church organist, Sir George Thalban-Ball, 48 years her senior. The marriage was annulled after four years. She was credited with nursing him through a difficult illness. Publicly, she would explain, “I married him because I was in love with his musicianship”.

And, that was it. Drawbridge down. As she came from a school which respected and observed discretion, that is all we shall likely ever know. Still, as Jennifer was clearly not unaware of the controversy the marriage would cause, it can only be assumed she approached it with the same open conviction that drives her performances.

When Messiaen’s orchestral work, Des Canyons aux Étoiles, was performed at the 2019 Proms, the BBC’s Tom Service introduced it as, an “interstellar journey” – reaching out in the tradition of Haydn’s clarion choral shout, “Let there be Light” in The Creation, the trumpet call to the ether of Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question, and György Ligeti’s Atmosphère in the film, 2001, A Space Odyssey.

All said and done, the mission of composers is to take us beyond ourselves, sometimes towards the stars. But without committed and artful interpretation, mission failure is certain. That is why Jennifer Bate will continue to be so important. Her performances – especially of Messiaen – take us into her known, our unknown. I think we can count ourselves privileged to be able to share her inspirational world of sound.